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Category Archives: Telling Our Stories

The Prodigal Daughter Returns…Again

It was a busy summer. Busy but good. I decided about halfway through that I wouldn’t get back to blogging until September. And this post has been sitting in my draft folder since then. For the first time I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Let me back up a bit. Sometime in the middle of the summer, about the time I declared my blogging sabbatical, my father received a random email from a white woman in upstate New York via an account that he had long forgotten and was no longer actively using. This woman was the granddaughter of his grandmother’s employer. Yes, my great-grandma Mattie, a woman I had never heard of before, was a domestic worker.

But this time, I wasn’t the one telling the story. And that bothered me more than I knew. Hence, the whole post in the draft folder thing.

You see, my father wasn’t close to his father’s family. His familial world  began and ended with his mother, an Italian immigrant, and his father, a black GI. And so, my paternal side of the family is small. Two aunts and an uncle. Four cousins who come in boy-girl pairs. And a whole host of people whose names I don’t know and assumed I would never meet.

Mom’s side is different. She has eight siblings. And they have kids. And they’re kids have kids. And the elders…boy do they have stories. Every last reminiscent blog post or essay or talk I have given about my family comes from a combination of archival research, historical knowledge, and these first- or secondhand stories from mom. It’s a joy to make them my own.

But Mattie. This didn’t feel like a story passed down. These weren’t fond memories of extended family members. It was Mattie through a stranger’s eyes. Pictures of her holding children who weren’t her own. Her Lemon Pie recipe that had been annotated and altered by her employer. Faces of children and friends I don’t recognize.

And there isn’t a single person in my family I can call to make sense of it. To ask if they knew what Mattie liked to do outside of work. Who her friends were. Where she went to church.

But I do have an email belonging to a woman in upstate New York who I have never met.

It’s funny because even now most folks never think about domestic workers’ families. So, I find it an incredible act of humanity that this woman, sifting through her late grandmother’s scrapbooks and memoirs, thought that perhaps Mattie had a family somewhere who might not know this about her life. Who might not know that she was famous for her Lemon Pie. And she was right.

But I don’t know how to ask a stranger for stories about my family. It’s not a Saturday morning phone call with my mother. Even in archives, thanks to the magic of headphones and music, I can transform a library table into my mother’s kitchen table and sift through old photos like they are my own personal family album.

I’ve never had to ask permission. And so, another piece of writing in the draft folder. It begins:

My name is Shana. I am Charles Russell’s daughter. My father mentioned that it was okay for me to reach out to you regarding my great-grandmother Mattie. I was wondering…

I haven’t been able to finish it. But putting my feelings down here somehow feels like a step forward. Soon I will pull the trigger on that one. Once I can continue to recover from being stuck in the emotional mud. In the mean time, this marks the end of my blogging sabbatical. Gotta get back to making stories my own, rescued from the cutting room floor.


“White People Have So Much Dirty Laundry”: Mother’s Day Edition

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For those of you who don’t know, when I am not postdoc-ing I spend my time with a lot of poets, musicians, and artists. They are my family. I think we underestimate the important political work that these folks do. Novelists, playwrights, poets, and musicians have given me quite the education. Sometimes more than historians.

As a labor scholar, it’s important to me to recognize these folks as workers too. Author Pearl Cleague says:

You have to do it. You have to get up, think about it, go to your desk, write things down. I think you have to work in the same way that you would work at anything else. My friend Toni Cade Bambara, who was a wonderful author who has passed away now, said that she didn’t like to call herself an artist because then it made you start acting precious like you were so above everybody else, that she thought that we should call ourselves cultural workers because we were no better than people who worked in factories, no better than people who taught school, no better than people who were nurses and doctors and all of that. We were cultural workers. And I thought that was wonderful because that actually is part of what you have to do is to resign yourself to, if you don’t automatically like it, the fact of the hard work that is required to do creative work.

Today’s blog is dedicated to the stories we tell about our mothers, inspired by my new favorite indie poet Paul Tran. But before I start fan-girling I want to honor Paul Tran’s cultural work. There is rarely compensation for this kind of intellectual and creative labor. And that is an injustice.

That being said let’s get on to it. A good friend of mine couldn’t wait to share Paul Tran’s work with me upon her return from competing in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSIs) this year. Knowing how important the labor of women of color is to my work, she came to my house, sat me down, and made me watch this poem.



There are over two hundred pages in my dissertation. But Paul Tran managed to articulate trauma, violence, white supremacy, imperialism, migration, labor, and gender in under three minutes. I listened to this poem and hung on to Paul Tran’s every last word.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

That’s exactly what being a black historian feels like. Black as in black history. Black as in me.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

And the women of color who I write about. The women in my family. And Paul Tran’s family I imagine. These women refuse to be made invisible.

White people have so much dirty laundry.
But the women who wash their clothes and clean the dirty faces of their children aren’t it.
Paul Tran’s poem demonstrates through something as seemingly mundane as dry cleaning that sometimes women workers of color are living breathing embodiments of American imperialism’s dirty laundry. Sometimes I feel like Paul Tran and I are hanging that dirty laundry out to dry.
As I listened for the first time I realized that I know very little about Vietnamese history from this perspective. What if the grandfather of that army man who brings his uniform to your dry cleaners every week was the same man who dropped napalm on your Vietnamese community? What does it feel like to seek refuge in the country run by the same people who invented something as destructive as napalm?
At the Maid in the USA conference that inspired this blog, my friend K. shared with me that the women in her family experienced excruciating pain everyday from bending over the hands and feet of their clients at the nail salon. (By the way Paul Tran’s “#1 Beauty Nail Salon” captures this brilliantly.) I never knew this history of Vietnamese women. Thank goodness for Paul Tran and K. for sharing their mothers’ stories.
There is so much richness in the stories of everyday women. Women like Paul Tran’s mother. And mine. I wish I could tell my mother’s story with as much power and brilliance as Paul Tran does. But I admire Paul Tran as a fellow queer kid who still manages to find inspiration from the stories my mother tells me.
People might not remember the dissertation or academic book I will publish about domestic worker organizing. But I will remember Paul Tran’s words. And I will watch this poem again and again and hear something new. That, my friends, is the power of storytelling.
“This war isn’t over because she’s still gonna make you pay.”
The conclusion of Paul Tran’s poem imagines a world where the story isn’t over yet. And the quiet hero, his mother, the woman who washes white peoples dirty laundry, will get her revenge. It sort of reminds me of the work of Amira Baraka. And it’s something that cultural work can do that traditional scholars can’t. Scholarship tells you the world as it is. Art shows you the world as it could be. A world in which the Vietnamese woman who works at the dry cleaners can exact her revenge on those who decimated her community and murdered her family. A world where history gets recuperated, rewritten, and reimagined to honor the strength of the everyday women in our lives.
Here’s to Paul Tran for recovering the stories of our mothers from the cutting room floor of history, and hanging white supremacy’s dirty laundry on the line for all to see.

Queer Folks are Caregivers Too

There is an implicit assumption that domestic work is intimately connected to marriage, monogamy, and heterosexuality. But I know a number of queer folks that also work in the field. And sometimes they do so for other queer people who are raising children. Yet, this dynamic does not change the racialized, gendered, and classed dimensions of domestic labor. As usual, I have thoughts.

Nearly half of the staff at the National Domestic Workers Alliance identify as LGBTQ. They created a caucus. And a zine. Because this movement for domestic worker rights often cuts across dimensions of difference. And as I have said before: domestic worker activists are incredible organizers.

What’s amazing about the zine is the way that a community is created for queer domestic workers around the love that other women have for their children who also identify as lgbtq. Part of the organizing that domestic workers do involves being able to tell their own stories. The whole story. And connect with each other as whole people. Organizing takes stamina. It is this kind of honest and open community that allows folks to lift each other up and support each other through what is a long and difficult journey.

While some immigrant rights groups and migrant labor activists have done a great job advocating for their queer and trans brothers and sisters, the question of LGBTQ employers is still one that troubles me. Lesbian and gay couples who employ LGBTQ care workers often replicate the language of like one of the family or appropriate the queer vernacular chosen family when they make choices regarding who to employ to care for their children.

There is something I think should be cleared up here. Your mother takes care of your children because she loves them. You friends babysit for a night because they love you. No one agrees to take care of your children five days a week, 8+ hours a day simply because they love you or your kids. Yes they may care for you and develop a close relationship with your children. But they also need to be paid fairly. And adequate time off. And some sort of plan for workplace injury and accessible healthcare.

Just because your home is an affirming place for a queer person does not make it an affirming space for that person to work.

I say all of this to say that domestic work does not always affirm our archaic idea about what families look like. All kinds of families employ care workers. They do not always bolster heterosexual family models. But the denial of basic labor rights to domestic laborers does bolster capitalism. So friends…help me leave this one on the cutting room floor by using our resources to be better employers and even better allies to domestic workers. (Hint: the right hand menu of this blog is a good start. *wink wink*)

Domestic Workers in the American Imagination…and in mine.

Today I’ve been working on a literary lesson plan on black minstrel tropes. Lesson planning always has me in my feelings. Particularly when it comes to images. Grappling with what people see in their minds when they think of black women…it’s maddening. And that all starts with mammy.

But when I think of mammy, I think of this:

betye saar

This is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” by artist Betye Saar. And it’s the shotgun that resonates with me the most. Every time I see mammy’s apron, I imagine she has one hidden underneath.

The reality is something much more mundane. Like women waiting on a Bronx street corner for a white employer to come along and offer them a day’s work.

slave market

Or a black maid adding the finishing touches to a cake.

dw icing a cake

But this is not the image America comes up with in her mind. She thinks of someone like Mammy Jane, who never had kids of her own but gave her life to the white children in her care.

mammy jane

“My old black mammy.” Who never had a name. But she was mine.

my old black mammy

She remembers Aunt Jemima…sans shotgun. And she remembers her fondly.

aunt jemima advert

I wish she would forget. I wish she would replace her old mammy with the dignified faces of the women who occupy my imagination. The ones who stash money in coffee cans to see their children’s smiling faces on Christmas morning. The women who wash and iron until their hands are tired to make sure that their families eat. The ones who are heavy handed with the pepper to keep the Mrs. out of the kitchen. The women who carry shotguns hidden in their aprons. This is all wishful thinking of course…I mentioned that I was in my feelings right? Ah well. I suppose my fantasies of revolution will remain on the cutting room floor…for now anyway.



Profiles in Black History: Georgia Gilmore

“The maids, the cooks, they were the ones that really and truly kept the bus running…And after the maids and the cooks stopped riding the bus, well, the bus didn’t have any need to run”

-Georgia Gilmore, on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The best part of black history for me is learning about ordinary women who did extraordinary things. Georgia Gilmore was one such woman.

Georgia Gilmore

At the time of the boycott she was the mother of six, and worked as a maid, a cook, and a nurse. When the boycott started she founded what was known as The Club from Nowhere, a group of domestic workers who made and sold sandwiches, cakes, and pies to raise money for the movement. They donated more money to the Montgomery Improvement Association week after week than anyone else. And only Ms. Gilmore knew the masterminds behind the collective’s success.

The name of the collective was meant to shield members from scrutiny from employers. But it couldn’t save Ms. Gilmore. She was eventually fired for her involvement in the movement.

So she turned her kitchen into a restaurant and meeting place. Because…black women.

I spend a lot of time thinking about mundane spaces like kitchen tables and their pivotal role in movement building. Places like barber shops, and front porches, public transportation, and beauty salons. These were the only places where domestic workers could congregate. Otherwise they worked in isolation.

My own politics were developed from these kinds of spaces. In my grandmother’s living room, as she crocheted. Over meals at bars with those who have lived much longer than me. At the breakfast bar in my parent’s house, which allowed me to be close but not in the way. Here I learned about my own black identity from women with far less formal education than I have, but more wisdom than I could ever imagine.

A local pastor in Montgomery remembered Ms. Gilmore as a woman who had no formal education but she had something he called mother wit. Mother wit can design a movement that will change history. They would never teach black children that in school. If they did the world would look different.

People in Montgomery still remember Ms. Gilmore. Most of all, they remember her cooking. I suppose that’s the thing that made her exceptional among black women. Her steadfastness, her strength, her refusal to take oppression sitting down, that was par for the course. It’s the one thing every woman in my family has in common. Perhaps that’s how it ended up on history’s cutting room floor.

Black Women Are Amazing…That is all.

For the last several weeks, as a part of this fancy postdoc, I have been thinking a lot about philanthropy. Ultimately, as the university enters a series of partnerships with institutions and organizations in various places all over the African continent, my job is to make sure these partnerships look like partnerships, and not like philanthropy.

While we are supposed to think of philanthropy as this noble undertaking, it is, in many ways, a sick self-congratulatory cultural practice whereby rich people throw money at a crisis to serve themselves instead of supporting long-term and sustainable solutions to much bigger (but not unsolvable) problems.

As I was beginning to think this through, a friend ofOseolaMcCarty_web mine sent me a video of a sermon. The preacher was telling his congregants the story of Oceola McCarty, a domestic worker who is in the philanthropy hall of fame. After I got over the pure comedy of there being a philanthropy hall of fame (really?), I became fixated on this woman. My inner researcher needed to know everything about her. And what I discovered is nothing short of incredible.

Ms. Oceola was born in 1908 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Yes I am going to call her Ms. Oceola throughout this blog. She just feels like a Ms. Oceola because I am from the South and cannot call her McCarty like a detached journalist.) She was conceived when her mother was raped after visiting a sick relative, and was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who was a domestic worker.

Ms. Oceola began working when she was in elementary school, washing and ironing. She stashed the money in her doll buggy and never spent it. When she was in the sixth grade her aunt was hospitalized and became unable to walk. Ms. Oceola dropped out of school to care for her and began working full time as a washerwoman, which she did until she was 86 years old.

What fascinates me most about Ms. Oceola is the way that she talks about work. “We worked and it was all good work,” she explained in a short documentary about her life. Ms. Oceola never used a washing machine. She would light a fire under her tin wash pot. Soak, wash, boil, rub, wrench, and rub clothes on a washboard. Then starch them and hang them on the line. She washed all day and then ironed in the evening until almost midnight.

Did I mention that Ms. Oceola was five feet tall and one hundred pounds soaking wet? My mother once explained to me how harsh hand washing clothes could be. To get them clean you basically rubbed your hands and knuckles raw. Yet, work, to Ms. Oceola, was something beautiful and not oppressive.

A friend described her work ethic in this way:

Work became the great good of her life…She found beauty in its movement and pride in its provisions. She was happy to have it and gave herself over to it with abandon.

I can’t help but think about the fact that barely two generations before, black people in Mississippi were enslaved. Work was something they did out of compulsion and without compensation.

Ms. Oceola found a certain freedom in working. Or, to think of it another way, she exercised her freedom by working. The meaning was in the labor itself. It was more than a means of earning wages. In fact, Ms. Oceola never really enjoyed the fruits of her labor. And by that I mean, the woman never spent a penny.

She never owned a car. She had her own grocery cart that she used to walk to the store to get groceries. She considered television an unnecessary extravagance. Hell she considered a newspaper an unnecessary extravagance.

So the money grew. And as she grew older she began to realize that she couldn’t take it with her. Without any children or siblings to serve as beneficiaries, she ended up giving ten percent to her church, ten percent each to three relatives, and the remaining sixty percent to the University of Southern Mississippi, which was just a couple of blocks from her home.

Oh, and that sixty percent amounted to $150,000.

Yes you read that right. A washerwoman managed to save more than $150,000 and then just gave it all away.

As she was showing the documentary filmmaker the wash pot in which she made all that money, she explained that years ago USM was a white school. And now that it’s not she wanted to make sure that black children could go there without having to work the way that she did.

The first recipient of Ms. Oceola’s scholarship: an honors student from Hattiesburg whose grandmother had worked as a seamstress. The young girl’s grandmother was expecting a rich old benefactor and was surprised to find a black woman who had worked the way that she did.

Admittedly if I had received that scholarship you could not tell me nothing. NOTHING. No, I am not the result of affirmative action or a diversity scholarship. Not at all. That woman who was good enough to wash your dirty drawls but not good enough for your segregated university? Yeah she made sure I could be here. Oh, I would tell everyone.

But I digress.

I am grateful to the memory of Ms. Oceola for taking my mind off of philanthropy for a bit. Instead, I thought about black women’s labor. Although the amount of Ms. Oceola’s philanthropic gift to USM is what constitutes her legacy according to the internet, I can’t help but think about the fact that her work (really her worth) didn’t amount to wages.

She found meaning in her labor. And then redefined a lifetime’s worth of wages as that which allowed others to do what she could not do because she spent her life working.

To be honest I don’t have anything more profound to say about Ms. Oceola. Gosh black women are amazing. And never belong on the cutting room floor. That is all.