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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.


On Teachable Moments

I feel like I hear the term “teachable moment” more often than I’d like to lately. And it makes me cringe. But I suppose it shouldn’t since I am a teacher and “teachable moments” are my bread and butter.

But I’m also a black teacher. Who teaches about black things. And a woman. Who teaches about women’s things. So I find myself in these awkward moments where someone says something ridiculous or offensive or annoying or misguided and everyone simply waits in silence and looks at me in anticipation of a teachable moment.

In the classroom I love these moments. I love that one student who isn’t afraid to put it out there. The one who says the things that makes everyone uncomfortable yet curious. This is often a starting point to a great conversation. It hinges upon the classroom as a community and the engagement of everyone involved rather they are talking, listening, nodding, or asking questions. It’s a moment that I feel empowered to participate in and facilitate. And most importantly, I get to see it through until the end. I can make that one moment last a whole semester if I want to.

HOWEVER, there are, of course, those other moments. Those moments when you are expected to teach people who did not come to learn. These are the moments I hate. For instance:

  1. The white coworker who makes you her go to person for talking about all things black. You know the type. The one who empathized with the Civil Rights Movement™ while growing up in a town that was not in the South. The one who will more than likely vote for Bernie Sanders. This person will ask you how you feel about Cornell West, or Beyonce, or “on fleek” at the water cooler. You will complain to your other token black working friends. One of them will inevitably say that this is a teachable moment. And you will want to stomp your feet and scream: “I DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO HER ABOUT ANYTHING! I AM NOT HER BLACK FRIEND!” Just me? Oh. Okay. The point is there is no right way to tell this person that you are black and that it is uncomfortable and unnecessary for them to corner you with their curiosities about black politics or pop culture. This is because they never said I am asking you this because you are black, even though you know this to be true because you are the only black person in the office and not coincidentally the only person they talk to about anything not related to work.* And these momentary conversations always have to do with the latest trending topic on black twitter. And if I choose to make this a teachable moment I run the risk of being subject to white guilt, white tears, or accusations of being racially sensitive. Ain’t nobody got time! I have actual work to do that somebody pays me for.
  2. The black friend of a friend who says anti-black things. I often call my doctorate the people’s phd because my chosen family took this journey with me and they all know that a black history fact check is only a phone call away. But inevitably (and by that I mean more often than I would like) we end up kicking it at someone’s house or at the bar or over a meal and somebody blacks starts in on the new black talking points. What about black on black crime…race doesn’t exist…I’m not black I’m human…protesters are angry/too radical/annoying/pointless, etc. And then everyone looks at me. First for my eye roll, which I embrace, followed by awkward silence. Later, I get the interrogation. “I thought you were gonna school her.” or “How are we gonna get free if we don’t educate our people.” Something something conscious. Something something woke. It’s a teachable moment. NO FRIEND IT ISN’T. That person didn’t come to learn. They say those things because they read too many Facebook posts and not enough books.  Like me they came to eat/drink/kiki. Let me do those things in peace. And if they think these things about people in the black community for having a politic then the teachable moment will reveal how they really feel about me. Let’s not ruin anyone’s good time.
  3. The person who wants to learn, but doesn’t want to read. This person thinks of me as some sort of black history spiritual guru. They want me to tell them everything I know. Because I sound more like Drunk History on a good day than their dry and uninteresting professor. “I like talking to you, Shana, because you make history fun and interesting.” Sometimes I worry that people in my life think I was born with some sort of black power genetic mutation which implanted all this information in my head to share with them. I am also not sure how to explain how much work it takes to make me appear that way. Eleven years of higher ed. A lifetime worth of reading. Talking to my elders. Listening to my elders. An endless curiosity and a determination to find answers to every question. I realize that not everyone has the time or the privilege of putting their life on hold to go to school. And not everyone wants to be the next superstar scholar of black thought. But I cannot tell you how many times I have offered people books, from my own bookshelf, and they tell me that reading is boring. Or ask me to just tell them what it says. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that these same folks express a desire to be activists and world changers. However, if I take this as a teachable moment, then I have to break it to them that all of their (s)heroes read. Malcolm X read like five newspapers every morning. When my mother couldn’t afford books as a young person she read discarded newspapers and magazines on public transportation. Then I run the risk of being accused of some sort of ism or ruining everyone’s good time. So I’d rather not.

I say all of this as a PSA: please stop telling folks like me that everything needs to turn into a teachable moment. It doesn’t. For my students and other young folks I never get tired of teaching. It’s both my job and my passion. For that I am lucky. But grown folks? Grown folks gotta put some work in. If you want me to teach tell your people to want to learn. And sometimes I want to be a human being and just be mad and throw shade like everyone else. And with that I will leave this lengthy rant on the cutting room floor.


*I wish I could make this up friends. As I was writing this said coworker turned a conversation about Philip Roth into one about Amiri Baraka, her participation in a white Black Panther Party support group, and then suggested that we should all wear hijabs (which she called gojabs) in solidarity with Muslim women. All in the time it took her k-cup to finish brewing. I cannot make this up people.

Moments in Black History: The Moynihan Report

Inspired by this article in the most recent issue of Dissent Magazine, I decided to share my thoughts about the Moynihan Report. The report, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was released by the Office of Policy Planning and Research in March of 1965. It read like racial propaganda, and billed itself as an exposé on the tangle of pathology in the black community.

“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

What a title. And the national action really meant widespread criticism. And mass incarceration. It made poverty a social problem rather than a consequence of capitalism. And the origin of this problem? Black women.

Nearly a quarter of Negro women living in cities who have ever married are divorced, separated, or are living apart from their husbands…Nearly one quarter of Negro births are now illegitimate…Almost one fourth of Negro families are headed by females.

The majority of these women worked as domestics. Even now domestic workers are often the primary wage-earners in their families. In Moynihan’s view we should be asking what these women did to run off their husbands. My only questions is always…how the hell do we expect anyone to support a family on the meager wages offered to those workers who allow all other laborers to work. Including those few unicorn-like magical nuclear families. How one can both depend on and shame a person at the same time I will never understand. But alas…white supremacy.

But what bothers me most about the Moynihan report is this idea that black women are inherently overbearing and emasculating. You know like Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

hattie mcdaniel

She is also having too many children too early and is entirely dependent on welfare. [See expression on Mammy’s face above for my commentary here.]

And like Mammy, this is all fiction. Recently, the Center for Contemporary Families completed a study that demonstrated that single-parent homes are not predictions of increase in juvenile crime or inequality. In my experience, black families are hardly ever nuclear. The simplistic configuration of mother and father and children just doesn’t compute. Not to mention, I know a significant number of black folk who were raised primarily by single mothers. No one seems to be blaming her for their poverty. Or thinking of her as anything less than superhuman in the way that she managed to feed, nurture, teach, and discipline oftentimes without rest, food, or nurturing for herself.

I teach the full Moynihan Report in my Black Women in the US class. These conversations never fail to disturb me. At a university made up largely of people of color, people who have certainly been impacted by the violence of this narrative, I was shocked the first time I facilitated this discussion. My students agreed. There was something wrong with our community and it was our job to fix it. Women do take advantage of the welfare system, they said. Women were having too many children without knowing who their fathers were. And black fathers were abandoning their families in large numbers and ending up in prison.

I took this, of course, as a teachable moment and dedicated as much time as I needed to unpack these things with my students. But it still stung. Those welfare-dependent women, those irresponsible fathers, those niggas in jail not able to take care of their families…they are related to me. They have names. And I love them deeply. And I struggled with the need to defend them, to acknowledge my own lucky life blessings, and to make my students understand that as much as they respect me I am the product of the cancers they see in our community. I’m pretty sure I told them as much. And I have told students the same thing over and over again. But I leave my sadness, my defensiveness, my anger, my frustration, my disappointment, and my desperation at the door. Only to resurrect them here, in a stream of consciousness post about the Moynihan Report, from 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.


Bonus Post!

I’ve been doing pretty well on this weekly post thing. No excuses so far about not writing enough or being distracted. Don’t judge me for patting myself on the back three weeks into the new year. I’m proud of myself!

Anyway, I think I mentioned before that I am working on this awesome project called Newest Americans, in which some of my favorite colleagues from Rutgers meditate on our city. Newark, a city of transplants.

The newest issue is all about the history of University Heights. And my contribution comes from several conversations with my friend Greg about his Aunt Theo, who is, of course, a domestic worker. Read it here. And while you’re at it check out the rest of the issue. We’re really proud of it.

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.