900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope: A Photography Series by Xyza Cruz Bacani

[Insert excuses for irregular blogging here]

There is an idea floating around among people who study domestic work that *we* are uncovering the reality of a hidden form of labor. As a historian, that’s a little difficult for me. You see, in New York City during the Depression there was this little thing known as the Bronx Slave Market. At the market, on the corner of 167th and Jerome, black women, in their uniforms with bag lunches in tow, would congregate, and wait for white women (and occasionally white men) to come and offer them a pittance of a wage for a days work.

While the actual work happened in private homes, the marketplace for this labor happened in public. The economic (and racial…and gendered) exploitation of these women was readily on display. It was unmistakeable. Which leads me to believe that sometimes we call the things we refuse to see “hidden” as a way of protecting ourselves.

Today, the exploitative and oppressive conditions of domestic work around the world are much easier to keep secret, thanks, in part, to underground networks of forced migration and the internet…a different kind of marketplace that allows for more efficient exchange of bodies for capital.

And out of this kind of invisibility, there emerges a community of folks (investigative journalists, academics, non-profits, politicians, etc.) who seek to lift the veil on the “secret underground world of domestic labor” and the abuse against the women who do it. This is not meant to dismiss the harsh reality and the heinous violence that domestic laborers endure. It is, however, meant to demean those who are determined to speak for household laborers (or any worker really), as opposed to speaking to (or even through as artists sometimes do), the women who actually do the work. And, as I hope this blog has demonstrated, women who are more than capable (and much better at) speaking for themselves.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: the visual series 900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope, a project by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani documenting the women of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Shelter in Hong Kong, a refuge for domestic workers, particularly victims of abuse from employers. The shelter provides housing, meals, counseling, legal guidance, and, most importantly, community.

What matter to me is that Bacani is also a domestic worker. The commentary she provides for each photograph uses language that reiterates the fact that she is helping us to visualize a community of which she is a part. Her photos are both a representation of the subjects of each picture, but also a sort of self-fashioning of her own identity as a worker and an activist.

Many of the subjects of Bacani’s photographs are Filipina and Indonesian women. I have talked about these migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong in a previous post. In many ways this series is the counter-discourse to that analysis of the representation of domestic work in Hong Kong. But Bacani brings so much more to the narrative than I could ever capture in words through pictures.

I first came across the series in an article I stumbled upon on twitter. The author of this article (and others like it) was interested in one woman in particular, Shirley, who suffered third degree burns to much of her body after her employer burned her with a boiling pot of soup. The article posited the series as documenting “modern slavery” and abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and talks extensively about Shirley’s case.

Why is it so hard for us to simultaneously affirm the impact of oppression and the multitude of ways that we cope and resist? This is something that Bacani does beautifully. The moments she captures create such a robust narrative.

One photograph depicts a Muslim woman praying on a makeshift prayer mat. The underlying text explains that Bethune is an interfaith community. Another subject, Vanjo, is lesbian. Her photograph is an opportunity for Bacani to address the inclusivity of Bethune House as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity.

Other photographs in the series show the women cooking together, sharing meals, giving each other comfort during what is called a “sharing session,” singing Christmas songs, taking care of children, and even participating in a labor day protest.

I don’t know…maybe I’m being naive or idealistic. But when I think of the women in my family, representing four generations of domestic workers, I don’t want the exploitation of their labor or an image of them as victims to stand alone.

Shirley

Though there are several photographs of Shirley depicting the burns on her body, this one is my favorite. It’s a photo of Shirley as she prepares for the case against her employer. There’s something so compelling about it. And for me, it illustrates that the Hidden Hope that Bacani describes in the title of her series is not an abstract hope. It is one that the women of Bethune House create for themselves and work towards daily.

Images of domestic workers have fascinated me for some time now. Maybe one day I will write more about it. In the mean time (and I say this with so much gratitude to Bacani for the work that she does and with the knowledge that I will come back to it soon), it remains here…on the cutting room floor.

Ruining National Pancake Day

ihopToday marks the tenth anniversary of IHOP’s National Pancake Day. Head to just about any IHOP today and enjoy free buttermilk pancakes as the company solicits donations for the Children’s Miracle Network! Did I mention free pancakes?

While this is a noble undertaking, historical context does have a way of ruining our joy now doesn’t it? Even free pancakes.

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a National Pancake Festival that was sponsored by Quaker Oats, the owners of the Aunt Jemima franchise. Similar concept but with even more fan fair. Representatives from the company would go to places like children’s hospitals and Kiwanis clubs to make pancakes for everyone and raise money for charity. There was even a Pancake Princess! And races at Disneyland! It was a nationwide celebration of deliciousness for a good cause!

Have I ruined it yet?…No?

Well, it seems I left out one important detail. The center of these celebrations was Aunt Jemima herself, who made appearances all over the country.

Wilson at KiwanisHere is Aunt Jemima (real name: Edith Wilson) at the Kiwanis Club where she, I am sure, gleefully served pancakes and sang songs with the Pancake Princess, who, in every photo that I’ve seen, is always a blonde white woman.

Looking at archival photos, I cannot put into words how incredibly unsettling it is seeing the happy, doting Aunt Jemima, the only black person among a sea of white faces. Even on a day of giving and service, an apron and a handkerchief manage to cement in our imaginations this belief that black women are born and bred to serve.

And in case that is not disturbing enough for you, those races at Disneyland I mentioned? Yeah. People raced while dressed as Aunt Jemima.

pancake races

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The above image is, in fact, a group of white housewives dressed as Aunt Jemima running through the streets of the happiest place on earth.

Sigh.

I hope that you can still enjoy your free pancakes. I mean that sincerely despite my usual tone of sarcasm. Just remember the labor it takes to make this happen. Some overworked and underpaid cook at IHOP will make thousands of pancakes today. And your server has, no doubt, been standing on her feet for hours without so much as a break between tables.

So, give to charity if you feel so inclined. But, more importantly, remember to tip well and recognize that free pancakes happen at someone’s expense. Rather its Aunt Jemima or your local IHOP employee.

And now that it has been sufficiently ruined, I leave National Pancake Day here on the cutting room floor. At least until next year.

A Scholar of Domestic Workers Walks Into a Bar

Last night, as a writing break, I headed to my favorite watering hole for a beer. While there, an old friend came in and introduced me to his significant other. The usual first meeting conversation ensued. Proud friend tells boyfriend that I am working on a PhD. Boyfriend asks what its about. Cue cocktail party dissertation description.

A middle-aged man nearby overhears the conversation and seems interested. He begins asking me lots of questions about my work. He seems weirdly confrontational. Asking questions like “Where are you going with this?” and “What is your argument about exploitation exactly?”

I kept asking for clarification. Because domestic workers not having the labor rights afforded to all other workers seems pretty self explanatory to me as it relates to exploitation.

I should also say that this was a black man. He asked what I thought about domestic workers since they look like him and me. I said that was the motivation behind the dissertation to begin with. This is my history as a black woman.

Then the unimaginable happened.

He pulls out a debit card for a business. His business. A home healthcare business.

It was a dramatic move on his part. He seemed disappointed that I was unfazed. But this elicited more questions than answers. I asked him if most of his employees were women? To which he responded, “I am the one asking the questions here! I am just an ignorant black man.”

At this point I started feeling angry and patronized. I hate feeling patronized. I was being put in a position to justify my work, in a sense to justify domestic worker activism in general. In academic spaces this is to  be expected. It is the responsibility of a scholar. But in this situation I couldn’t help but think: no sir, you should be the one on the defensive here.

I asked whether or not he paid his workers minimum wage. (Which, as a reminder, he is NOT required to do by law). He said they were happy with whatever he paid them. Took that as a no.

I couldn’t help but notice the gendered dynamic of the conversation. His sarcasm as he exclaimed that he was just an ignorant black man. The lack of recognition of my scholarly credibility all while refusing to accept accountability as one who employs domestic workers.

I left feeling frustrated, angry, and defeated in a way. I think this is a byproduct of the emotions of writing a dissertation that one feels so passionately about. You become really attached to the subject matter. You might even write a blog about it even though you spend countless hours a day writing anyway.

At the same time the ideas can be ambiguous. I’m writing about history. Its over. The subjects of every chapter, except for the incomparable Esther Cooper Jackson, are dead. Its all interpretation. Until these vague ideas about misogyny and class oppression take corporeal form. And then smack you in the face with their indifference to their own role in the exploitation of women workers.

This morning I woke up and realized that I had no idea how much stamina and strength is required to advocate for domestic worker rights. Everyday the women who work in this movement face this kind of somehow justified refusal of basic labor rights and a violent indifference by employers and legislators. I do not know how they do it. But I’m glad they do.

Since it is probably uncouth to include the expletives I want to use to describe this situation in my dissertation I am happily leaving this right here on the cutting room floor.

Obligatory Black History Month Post

I have always felt somewhat indifferent about Black History Month. As a child, raised by black parents who were politically radical, I learned about black history everyday. So the cliche black history facts were never new for me.

As an adult I attended a black college and am now a scholar of black history. Not to mention I am writing a dissertation. Black history is my job. Every minute of everyday. (At least until the dissertation is done.)

I really don’t want to disparage BHM though. It has a long and important history (more on that in a second.) It’s important for young people. For instance, a friend of mine is a physics teacher at a diverse Florida charter school. As one of a disappointing few black teachers, his students asked him to incorporate black history into the month’s lessons. Yes its a problematic situation. But if children are asking to learn about things (asking…as in not complaining) and it takes a token month out of the year to inspire them to inquire about black history…well, what can you do. Gotta take what we can get.

But, what you might not know is that the founder of BHM (formerly Negro History Week), Carter G. Woodson, once wrote a powerful essay about domestic workers, entitled “The Negro Washerwoman,” where he celebrated them as the cornerstones of the black community.

I first came across the essay a couple of years ago. It was sent to me by a good friend, who I now owe my life. I have returned to the essay so many times. It is a shining light in a history that so often forgets the domestic worker and doesn’t understand her significance.

Woodson describes my purpose in writing this dissertation so eloquently:

And why should the Negro washerwoman be thus considered? Because she gave her life as a sacrifice for others. Whether as a slave or a free woman of color of the antebellum period or as a worker in the ranks of an emancipated people, her life without exception was on of unrelenting toil for those whom she loved. In the history of no people has her example been paralleled, in no other figure in the Negro group can be found a type of measuring up to the level of this philanthropic spirit in unselfish service.

What he said.

“The Negro Washerwoman” was published in 1930 in The Journal of Negro History. Woodson, as the father of the study of black history, placed domestic workers at the center of our communal American lineage. Here I am, 85 years later, attempting to do the same. It can be a daunting task. But it is so worth it.

So this year, as a way to observe BHM, I am remembering its founder and his commitment to giving the story of black women’s labor the reverence it deserves. For me, the washerwoman will never be left on the cutting room floor.

Domestic Workers Organize in the Arab World

Its a global movement my friends! Domestic workers in Lebanon are in the beginning stages of unionizing, making them the first domestic workers union in the Arab world. This is really exciting news, though the road ahead for these women will certainly not be easy.

As is true in the US, the vast majority of domestic workers in Lebanon are migrant women, predominantly from South East Asia and Africa. There are already 200 women committed to the movement, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

What is particularly inspiring is that existing labor unions in the country have already lent their support to this new union. Seeing domestic workers as essential to the larger movement for workers’ rights only strengthens the movement for the working class. And let me tell you if you ever encounter domestic worker activists from anywhere in the world you would know that you want these women at the head of your movement! They are incredible organizers and tireless fighters for justice for all workers.

What is really interesting, at least to me, is how similar the language used by domestic worker organizers all over the world, and throughout history is. Poor working conditions, no minimum wage, lack of protection from physical/sexual abuse, no days off, no benefits, no insurance, no vacation…and no dignity. I read it everyday in the archives dating  back to the late nineteenth century. I read it everyday on social media as I keep track of the movement in the US. And here it is again in the Arab world.

In 2011, when I began this project I learned that domestic workers were still not guaranteed the rights that we all take for granted as workers. And I was horrified. And I’m still horrified reading it here. Honestly, it calls our global humanity into question. The cutting room floor is really comprised of the things that I just can’t stop thinking about. But if I put them in the dissertation my committee would hang me by my toes for writing too much.

But I owe to the women who fight to keep the movement growing in the US and other parts of North America, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, and now in the Arab World to keep talking about it. And I will.

The Unwelcome Return of Mammy

I had a pretty bad day yesterday. Like mercury in retrograde bad. So my good friend came to the rescue with a two piece and a biscuit and her hulu plus password so we could watch Empire.

Don’t judge me.

If you haven’t heard yet (or you aren’t keeping track of black twitter) Empire is a new show directed by Lee Daniels (of Precious and The Butler fame) starring Tariji P. Henson and Terrence Howard chronicling the drama that is Empire Records, a hip hop dynasty.

For you soap opera fans, its sort of like the black version of Passions. For other pop culture fanatics its like Glee meets Fame (the tv series not the movie) meets Superfly.

Again, don’t judge me.

I wasn’t planning on watching it. I’m not much of a Lee Daniels fan. Plus I don’t have cable. Or TV. Or time.

But I enjoyed it in that way that we unapologetically enjoy over the top terrible pop culture trash. At least until this happened.

In the middle of episode 2 the family sits around their lavish dining room table, in their lavish mansion, for some lavish reason. Just your average black family. (sarcasm)

Empire

Anyway, sometime during this scene a maid walks in and serves Terrence Howard something. We never see her face, only her ample back side. She is on screen for all of 5 seconds.

I immediately turn to my friend and ask: Why is Hattie McDaniel in Empire?

hattie mcdaniel

She has no business in this scene whatsoever. She does nothing to move the plot. Or even create a necessary pause in the dialogue. She says nothing. She is ambiance. Essentially she is just a symbol of how rich they are. An ornament of new money.

She is a painfully familiar trope. I found it strange that she was wearing the traditional uniform. Like the one domestic workers were once required to wear. A mark of their labor and a justification for their presence in certain segregated spaces. Contemporary domestic workers look nothing like this. At all. In fact, at one time household laborers protested the uniform requirement. It was sort of like capitalism’s version of the scarlet letter.

In my diligence as a researcher I scoured the internet and did figure out her name. But she has no other acting credits. I really wanted to know who she was. This dissertation research and work with activists and advocates has me wanting to put a name and a story to all domestic workers (real or fictional).

I used to relish in the examination of symbolism as an undergraduate english major. Now it has become a  major pain in my ass. The symbol or idea of the domestic worker is probably one of the most powerful images in the American imagination. I think its this that continues to render domestic work invisible.

For those of us who live in urban centers, like New York, we see domestic workers all the time on public transportation or in parks, etc. But we don’t *see* them. There is this image of these women fixed in our brains that comes with 200+ years of shit. It feels like a brick wall that I have to bang my head against just to talk about something as mundane as the actual labor process that domestic workers encounter. Its so frustrating.

So when the ghost of Hattie McDaniel appeared on my screen I just wanted to scream: GO AWAY! And not to Hattie. I love Hattie. But to mammy. And on a black show no less! Ugh!

I wasn’t going to write about this but when I woke up this morning still thinking about it I decided it belonged here on the cutting room floor.

To Unionize or not to Unionize: That is the Question

For the last couple weeks I have been finishing this chapter on the amazing Esther Cooper Jackson and her master’s thesis written in 1940 on domestic workers and unions. Its pretty damn incredible. During the first half of the twentieth century domestic workers formed unions in Birmingham, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and a host of other cities.

These unions were quite militant. Neva Ryan, the president of the Chicago Domestic Workers Association wrote in a 1934 editorial that she didn’t know why domestic workers had not revolted long ago. But that the new union was the writing on the wall.

Of course, this was not without a significant amount of resistance from employers and agencies. Take for instance this anti-union posted from a 1942 article published in NY PM Daily.

Anti Union Poster from PM Daily 1941

I’m really just sharing this because I find it laughable. One woman alone can run a household! She simply chooses not to! Of course. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the subject of this post. Currently, domestic workers in the United States are not permitted to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Domestic workers over the years have set aside a movement for inclusion in the Act, in favor of advocating for legislation guaranteeing minimum wage, social security, maximum hours, etc.

But now that domestic worker bills’ of rights have been passed in several states the question of unionization is back on the table. It’s a really complex issue.

First, there is the issue of citizenship. Unions would not necessarily be able to protect those who are undocumented. Because immigration issues are so important to organizers, as they should be since a significant number of domestic workers in the US are immigrant women, they are invested in exploring other models for representing workers.

I wonder how well bills of rights will protect undocumented workers at all? Hmm. I will have to get back to you on this.

As an aside, in many parts of Europe undocumented workers do have certain legislative protections and can be advocated for by unions. Just gonna leave that there. Since I could write a tome about America and the politics of migrant labor and capitalism. I have to resist including this in the dissertation all the time.

But then there is the pressing issue of enforcing the bills of rights. Many domestic worker advocates and activists see unionizing as the answer. It would give workers the ability to collectively bargain, and a way to combat the isolation of private household work.

I have no idea what the right answer is here. Its a really tough question. But what I will say is that I learned an important lesson as a scholar by witnessing these debates at various times.

I think labor scholars and Leftists like myself sometimes get caught up in the magic that was early twentieth century labor organizing. To be barred from unionizing was a major injustice in my eyes. Because I know what unions can do. Or, should I say, did do.

I have watched labor scholars both relish in the melancholy that is the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the glory days of Left labor organizing, while advocating for unionizing where ever it is not.

Thanks to my research and conversations with current domestic workers, I realize that unions are not the only, and not always the best means for organizing. Especially in this moment, which is nothing like the moment in which Neva Ryan called for domestic workers to revolt.

Parts of that long gone movement seem to be returning. I see elements of it in the organizing of fast food workers, for instance. But issues of race, gender, and citizenship complicate this question for domestic workers.

I find that the debate has really expanded my historical lens and compelled me to ask new and different questions. I’m a better scholar for it.

As for now, I can finally remove the post-it on my desk reminding me to write this post. And leave the question of rather or not to unionize here on the cutting room floor.