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Black Women’s Work Songs


The other day I came across a song from 1928 by Hattie Burleson called “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues.” In it the singer laments about the low pay, long hours, and lack of privacy associated with being a domestic worker.



I have been absolutely obsessed with music since I was a kid. Music has a way of explaining things better than multisyllabic academic words. So I thought I would share some of my favorite songs about black women working.


1. Bill Withers, Grandma’s Hands


There is something deceptively simple about this song. I love it because my mother used to sing it to me. It was how I first learned about her grandmother, Josephine, who worked as a domestic worker. There is something beautiful about the fact that the same hands that ached from scrubbing also nurtured.


2. Oscar Brown, Jr., Brown Baby


Funny story: My first year of college I read Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and she mentioned this song somewhere in the narrative completely at random. I heard the song in my head, but not in a man’s voice. I heard it in my mother’s voice. So I called her and asked her if she knew the song. And she told me she used to sing it to me as a newborn as she rocked me to sleep. It was really eerie. But sort of speaks to the significance of music to my life and my mother’s.

Although it’s not really a work song per se, I finally watched the Black Panther PBS Documentary (more on this in a later blog). I noticed those passing moments when women casually mentioned that they were working while *very* pregnant or with very young children. One woman actually said she was in labor while serving breakfast. So this song speaks to the centrality of motherhood to the revolutionary work that black women do. Imagine working for wages that you will never see. They will be paid to your children. That’s how I think about this.


3. Nina Simone, Pirate Jenny


So this song was originally written for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Essentially, Jenny is a maid in a lowly German hotel who plots her revenge for the horrible treatment she receives by killing everyone. Ms. Simone transports Jenny to South Carolina. And suddenly it’s a completely different story. I imagine *this* Jenny as a combination between Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. Not to mention Nina Simone’s haunting voice transforms this into Greek epic levels of triumph snd tragedy.


4. Lucille Bogan, They Ain’t Walkin’


Although the vast majority of this blog is about domestic work, I am equally compelled by the history of black women and sexual labor. There are dozens of blues songs from the early twentieth century about the oldest profession. The key to understanding this song is to know that in 1930 tricks were what we call Johns now. So the basic premise is that it’s the Depression and ain’t nobody got no money to be spending on ladies of the evening. This woman has a corner store and a meat market, but she also has mouths to feed and bills to pay. But that supplemental income she makes from streetwalking sure ain’t what it used to be. You could read a hundred books about the Depression (believe me I have). None of them will explain the feeling of poverty the way this song does. Yet, it makes sex work so matter of fact. That’s my favorite part.


5. Phoebe Snow, Easy Street


I love this song for the way it starts:

I was feeling lost and kind of ill. So I wrote to God on my last dollar bill.

There is a certain mythology about black women as superhuman. This song isn’t that. I feel like we all have moments when we wish we could just be on “Easy Street.” I imagine that the historical figures that I revere so much all have these moments. I listen to Phoebe Snow as a reminder.


6. Bessie Smith, Washerwoman’s Blues


Released the same year as Sadie’s Servant Room Blues, this song is more of a cultural commentary on domestic work. The reference to Gold Dust Twins, a brand of washing powder is particularly telling.




You want me to clean up after you and then you wanna mock me in the process? If that ain’t the blues I don’t know what is.

Well there you have it folks. A soundtrack, if you will, to accompany what goes on the cutting room floor.


In Which I Speak Frankly About Sex Work

The most interesting aspect of my research, and the one detail I want to explore more, is the proximity between sexual labor and domestic work. Most analyses of this proximity are simplistic at best. The dangers of sexual assault at the hands of employers are commonly expressed in black women’s accounts of domestic work.

From a theoretical perspective, I wonder to what extent sexual labor is reproductive labor. And what role does it play in bolstering white supremacy? Like domestic work, it’s cultural impact extends beyond the kind of oppression associated with domestic labor as wage labor. But like domestic work as wage work, sexual labor gets exchanged in the kind of market that represents the fulcrum of black women’s oppression.

For example.

Think Progress recently published an investigation concerning women in Baltimore who were forced to trade sex for basic repairs at Gilmor Homes, the same housing complex where Freddie Gray lived before he was murdered. Nineteen women accused employees of the Baltimore housing authority of widespread sexual abuse.

Coverage of the affidavit (filed in September) focuses on the vulnerability of the women, the tragedy of poverty I suppose. Descriptions of the life-threatening living conditions of Gilmor Homes. Mold, lack of heat, rodent infestations, etc. Even the complaint filed exclaims, “These affronts are about power and control over the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the young, and the disabled.”

There is something about this language that bothers me. Let me (try and) explain. During the Depression domestic and sex workers exchanged their labor for wages in the public square. We all know about what street corners mean to sexual laborers. But domestic workers also waited on corners, called “slave markets,” for a white woman to come and offer them a days work. Both groups of women were described as being forced to the point of desperation. And even though sex workers made slightly more money, they were shamed while domestic workers were pitied. The public conversation about domestic work was more focused on the proximity of the exchange of labor for wages to prostitution, than the conditions of domestic work itself, including nonconsensual sexual harassment from employers.

So let’s go back to this Think Progress headline: “Women in Baltimore Public Housing Were Forced to Trade Sex for Basic Repairs.” Nothing about women in public housing being forced to live in inhumane conditions. We can look the other way when people are forced to live in conditions not fit for any human being. But to reduce them to “common prostitutes?” Heaven forbid! Now we care. When we can no longer look the other way.

And what of sex workers in this equation? Shamed. Criminalized. But not treated as workers or deserving of rights. Symbols of women’s degradation. Even when the work is work that they chose to do.

In all cases, questions of consent are complicated at best. It’s not a question of whether women are forced into sexual labor because of poverty or agency. Sometimes it’s both/and. Or neither. And what happened in Baltimore isn’t really about sex work at all. But these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor. And sometimes they don’t make sense. Even to me.


Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

On paper I am Shana A. Russell. I’m an academic. Well, I like to think that I’m more than an academic. The kind of academic that is full of both facts and feelings. The facts are all in the dissertation. The feelings are buried somewhere here on this blog. I think.

In theory, I have been writing since I was twelve. It started with poems and short stories. I wanted to write in a way that words made me feel. I don’t know that I cared what was being written about. But how it was being written. Rather it was Shakespeare or Hurston, I studied the order the words were in. What they meant. Their multiple meanings. Sentence structure. Punctuation. It was art to me.

In college I learned that there was an art to writing about things that have already been written. Discovering words in dusty books in basement libraries. I learned there was a whole world of things I knew nothing about. And somewhere in my mind I thought that everyone would want to know too.

I treated my college papers like great masterpieces that had yet to be written. My mother thought as much. My professors thought they were ambitious at best. Overdone at their worst. So they rightly sent me to grad school.

Now that this whole PhD thing is over, no one is making me write anymore. But I do anyway. Here. Because I want to remind myself that I’m not just an academic. I don’t want to write theory. I want to write the kind of words that made me feel the way I felt when I first started reading.

But this time it matters what I write about. This time I realize that I’m pretty good at telling stories. And the best stories are about ordinary people.

In actuality my love of stories started with Josephine Emma-Bell Weldon. She was my maternal great-grandmother. Everyone called her nanny. She was a preacher’s wife. She took care of just about everyone in my family. And she was a domestic worker.

I never met her. But my mother said once that Nanny would have known how to love me better than she did sometimes.

As a break from researching I spent hours on the phone with my mother asking her questions about Nanny. What she did. What her work was like. Who she worked for. What she did for fun. It’s a bedtime story that isn’t quite finished yet. One that I hope never ends.

When people ask me about my research I should tell them that I study literature and women and blackness and class. Sometimes I give them this cocktail speech. But most of the time I tell them about Nanny. And other women like her. Aunts and grandmothers of friends or strangers I met at bars. The everyday women of the  Montgomery Bus Boycott who were interviewed in newspapers. All black women who worked as domestic workers and whose names no one knows.

I tell their stories. And people smile. And laugh. They are surprised and intrigued. Occasionally relieved. Relieved to know that the women they revere, the ones that make them who they are, were not passive victims of history.

I wondered if I could write those feelings down. Facts reserved for scholarly writing. Feelings here. Both things that make me who I am as an academic and a writer. So, allow me to (re)introduce myself: I am Shana A. Russell and these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.


2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.

On Shame

Now that the dissertation is over, the university has #blessed me with a postdoc. A big part of my job is researching and conceptualizing this new initiative concerning the university’s partnerships with organizations and institutions in Africa. As far as this new job is from my actual interest, it seems that I just can’t get away from the issues concerning domestic work. And for this I must admit I am truly grateful.

Just last week I was attending a high level debate at the UN on unemployment and youth development on the continent. (It’s a fancy postdoc…I must admit). The importance of domestic worker rights was, to my pleasant surprise, mentioned more than once. It was a moment when the global reach of this current movement became very real to me. From the park bench to the ILO to the United Nations. Never underestimate the impact of working class women. They do not play games.

Anyway, in addition to attending UN debates (still sort of in shock about this being my life), we were also visited by the CEO of one of our South African NGO partners. Their organization is sort of like the South African equivalent of the United Way. Except, to my surprise, they have some pretty radical politics.

I sat with this gentleman, Lorenzo, one afternoon, while he was taking a bit of a breather from fancy coroprate university meetings and enjoying a very New York lunch (a bagel with lox and capers, one of my favorites). I wanted to pick his brain about the state of education in Capetown. I learned a lot about that subject during our conversation, but it’s what I learned about Lorenzo that I remember most.

Lorenzo spent his entire childhood in foster care. At age eleven, while still in primary school, he began working as an assistant to the janitor everyday after school. Although I am interrogating this thought process now, my initial reaction (in my head, anyway) was that young people should be able to learn and not have to work at such a young age. But before I could finish that thought, Lorenzo began telling me how thrilling an experience that was. How much pride it gave him to be a part of what allowed the school to run on a day to day basis. He helped the school survive. And, more importantly, he supported family.

It was a moment of self-discovery in his life, Lorenzo explained. He found something deep inside himself that transformed him from a victim of circumstance into a provider. And this transformation is what allowed him to shed the sense of shame he felt.

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in conversations about domestic work. Representations of domestic workers in popular culture are so painful and pervasive that their impact spills over into questions of the labor itself. It’s something that domestic worker activists are very aware of. Every time I am in the presence of activists, they always introduce themselves by name and then express how proud they are to do the work they do. The dignity of domestic work as a form of labor that allows all other workers to work is consistent across the globe.

When I asked my mother about shame she was perplexed. “Why would you be ashamed of someone for working?” she argued. In fact, my mother and Lorenzo, who came of age at the same time on opposite sides of the world, said many of the same things. My mother told me that the work she did as a young teenager exposed her to another side of the city where they had beautiful things. She was proud to work and help support her family. The lessons she learned as a young domestic worker followed her throughout the rest of her life.

Lorenzo and my mother’s words make me think of work differently now. Student poverty certainly made me a part of the working class, but I guess I, too, took pride in the work I was doing. It is idleness that produces shame. Which makes me think that this constructed sense of shame associated with domestic work is something we should think of as a part of the system of oppression that prevents domestic workers from advocating for the rights they deserve rather than a hurdle to domestic worker organizing.

I have ardently resisted the temptation of being a theorist during this academic journey. So, my thoughts on shame shall remain here, on the cutting room floor.

Who Tells Our Stories?

While there are many cringe-worthy moments in The Help (and I do mean many), the one that bothers me the most is when central character Aibileen says to her fellow domestic worker and friend Minny: “We ain’t… we ain’t doing civil rights here. We just telling stories like they really happen.” There is no such thing as “just telling stories” for black women. Storytelling is always a political act.

I started thinking about this a couple weeks ago while speaking on a panel in conjunction with the Jacob Lawrence exhibit that recently closed at MOMA. The event, which was sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, brought together scholars and domestic worker activists to talk about the contemporary domestic worker rights movement as a continuation of an intergenerational  legacy of domestic worker organizing.

The event began with a guided tour of the One Way Ticket exhibit, a celebration of Jacob Lawrence’s series of 60 paintings documenting the Great Migration, which he completed in 1941. Like most histories of the migration, the series focused on black men leaving their families and heading north in search of work. Women, in this story told by a black man who never traveled south, were those left behind.

And so, I thought, who tells our stories?

In Jacobwasherwoman Lawrence’s narrative, “The female workers were the last to arrive North.” This is the caption to #57 in the series. The only panel that shows a black woman in the absence of family. It is no accident that she is a domestic worker.

In reality, young, single, black women took the storied migration in large numbers. Enough to warrant what Hazel Carby calls a “moral panic.” Entire institutions, organizations, and government committees were created to protect these naive, unmarried women from the influence of vice and the pull of the urban underground.

But again, it depends on who you ask. Like I said, “Who tells our stories?”

Did I mention that the docent giving us our private tour was a white woman? Which I guess shouldn’t matter. Until she started telling her version of the Scottsboro boys incident in a way that made it sound a lot like an unfortunate accident. My version would have sounded something like, “Those white women managed to sentence black boys to death with their lies.” But I guess that’s why I don’t work at MOMA.

Which just goes to show, “Who tells our stories?”

In her defense, our tour guide did a wonderful job keeping cool in the face of my incessant questioning. My apologies to any museum tour guide who has ever been tasked with giving a guided tour to a historian.

After the tour we headed back to a fancy meeting room for the panel, which included myself, Premilla Nadasen, a history professor at Barnard (whose amazing book, Household Workers Unite! is one that you should definitely read…no seriously), Allison Thompson Julien, from NDWA, and Ligia Guallpa, from the Workers Justice Project. And, as always, an engaged and vocal audience of domestic workers and activists.

Early on in the conversation, Allison mentioned this idea of taking the conversations that happen among domestic workers in places like parks, “beyond the park bench.” These stories, she argued, paved the way for legislation. They help domestic workers build community.

I watched, during the question and answer portion, as worker after worker started telling her own story. As they called each other sister and began building right where we were. In this room on the basement floor of MOMA. With corporate chairs and a table in the back with art projects for those who brought children with them.

One woman, who worked in the field for over two decades, wanted to know what kind of wage she should ask for in light of this new legislation. Another wanted to know how domestic workers could organize as well as employers do. “How can we be as creative in our organizing as they are in their oppression of workers?” Another worker used the space to express pride in her profession and the importance of dignity and pride to domestic worker organizing.

As the panel completed, many women came up to me and thanked me for my small contribution, before sharing even more of these stories with me one on one. In these spaces with scholars and activists, I take pleasure in moving out of the way and watching the collective narrative take place.

But Premilla and I are a part of this story too. I introduced myself, as I always do, as the daughter of four generations of domestic workers. And she similarly shared the history of domestic work in her family. We did this not to add some sort of legitimacy to our work. But to express that this story is our story too. And if we really think about the impact that domestic workers have on every aspect of American life, it’s everyone’s story. And yet, depending on the storyteller, it somehow ends up on the cutting room floor.

Yet on this particular day, it didn’t. And it was something truly powerful and beautiful and right.

Congratulations Connecticut!

Connecticut has taken the first step in guaranteeing rights for domestic workers. This week the Connecticut Domestic Worker Bill was passed by the House of Representatives and is on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. Connecticut will now join New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii in providing labor protections to domestic workers across the state.

What is particularly interesting about this bill is that in addition to basic labor protections the bill includes provisions for addressing sexual assault and discrimination.

I am continuously humbled by the work of domestic worker activists, who are working state by state to guarantee rights for this important workforce. Their stamina is ridiculous. I know that they will not stop until domestic workers all over the country are protected. And I will stand with them until this happens.