[Issued in response to the movie "The Help" which was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett.]
I was a maid in high school. I cleaned white peoples houses on Saturdays and after school. I cleaned, washed and ironed clothes and waxed the kitchen floor for $3.00 and twenty cents, the latter being for bus fare. I came from a family of nine children so this was the only way I could make spending money. There were no fast food places like McDonald's during the fifties for had they existed I would have had a part-time job at one of them to get spending money.
There is nothing glorious about cleaning up after dirty people and nothing like being exploited by people who don't give a damn about you. I have written about this in my memoir that I am almost finished writing. Maids are invisible and their lives are invisible to their white employers.
When I was fourteen, I quit a job when the white girl who was my age DEMANDED that I wash her blood stained underwear from her menstrual period. When her mother came home from work she told her that I refused to do so and her Mother lit into me saying I thought I was too good to wash these clothes. Before I left that day I made sure that the pancakes Jo Lee demanded that I make for her included dirty dishwater instead of water or milk, and I fried them with the ring of grease around their nasty kitchen sink instead of lard. Jo Lee praised me for making what she described as the best pancakes she'd ever eaten.
As I stood there and watched her eat, I felt vindicated because I had gotten her back in the only way I felt I could. Had I verbally lashed out at her in a tit for tat her mother could have had me arrested for being uppity or she could have done so on some trumped up charges. It was not inconceivable that her mother could have had some mean men torch our home. I never took pride in what I did but as I held back my salty tears that Saturday morning I couldn't think of any other way to fight back for being called a Nigger and being told that I "had" to wash her soiled underwear. "Who do you think you are?" she had demanded. "You think you too good to wash my clothes? You're just a Nigger!" she shouted. My regret that day was that I couldn't tell her that I had fed her dirty dishwater and grease from the sink.
A year later when Jo Lee and I were fifteen years old, I heard from my neighbor who sent me to work at Jo Lee's home that she had gotten married because she was pregnant. She and her high school drop-out husband were living in a shotgun house in the white people's poor section of town.
Can you imagine Jo Lee writing a book about me, my feelings, dreams, thoughts, aspirations and goals? Can you imagine Jo Lee being able to step out of her role of racial superiority long enough to give voice to me and my family? Could Jo Lee ever be interested in where and how I lived, went to school, who my friends were, what we did for recreation, what I studied in school, etc.? Absolutely not. The culture did not allow for a bi-lateral relationship in which this could have occurred. Therefore, how can Kathryn Stockett get inside the head of her characters and truly understand them except from her unilateral and imaginary perspective? She said as much when she said she didn't know anything about her family's maid outside the work environment when she was growing up, and she didn't question it.
It was a rare white employer who had enough humane interest to know the backgrounds and interests of their maids and other black employees. My grandmother was a case in point. For as long as I can remember she worked for a white family. They owned a furniture store. The woman stayed at home and the man operated the furniture store. My grandmother cooked, cleaned, and raised their son and daughter. I was so humiliated as a child when my grandmother went to the daughter's wedding and was seated alone in the balcony. She bought a new dress, hat, purse, shoes and gloves for this occasion and was as proud as a biological mother because she had been the mother to these two children — Joann and Johnny. I remember telling her that I was going to college so I wouldn't have to be a maid. I loved my grandmother very much and I respected her. She was a kind, decent, caring and giving woman to all of us kids and to everyone else.
But my grandmother was stuck in the role of maid because that was the only kind of work she could get. She made $3.00 a day plus bus fare. I was astounded to learn that from this small salary she saved enough money for my cousin that she raised to attend nursing school at Dillard in New Orleans. My grandmother was very disappointed and sad when my cousin chose marriage over college. You see, my grandmother wanted my cousin to achieve what she hadn't been able to accomplish. She wanted to have the vicarious satisfaction of achievement and she wanted my cousin to have a better life than her own. I always regretted that she was denied this because of my cousin's personal choice.
So many of our forebears sacrificed so that we could be nurses and teachers instead of maids. Which brings me back to Jo Lee and her racist mother, who called me a Nigger when she got home from work because Jo Lee told her I refused to wash her underwear. She threatened to fire me but that was unnecessary because I had no intention of going back to that job. Although their words stung but didn't break me. I knew I was not a Nigger and I knew that they were one step up from being poor white trash even though the mother was a secretary for a lawyer. She was also his paramour. If anything, their actions caused me to have a stronger resolve to go to college so that I would not have to be a maid.
As I read Kathryn Stockett's book, I was reminded that I knew a lot about Jo Lee and her divorced mother and they knew nothing about me because their white skin privilege made them view me as invisible, a non entity, and if they had to consider me at all, they saw me as inferior, as a nobody. All the maids I knew were familiar with the intimate details of the families for whom they worked. This has been the case since slavery when black women worked in the houses of white people....cooked, cleaned their houses, wet nursed their babies...then their employers turned around and called them dirty and lazy. How can you entrust someone with cooking your food and raising your children and then, like a schizophrenic, make a 180 degree turn and look on them as inferior, alien, and not worthy of knowing anything about them, or humanizing them? This is the history of black people in America...it is the history of black domestic workers. It is why my father told my mother that she would never work for white people. He saw how his mother's employers tried to dehumanize her by commission and omission.
What is needed is a book by a maid or a group of maids on the white people they work for. Now that's a book that would probably be a lot more accurate and insightful, and the dialect would be correct too. Every time I read one of Kathryn Stockett's "I'm on" instead of "Imma," or I'm gonna" I got irritated. I hated it when she spelled "Eula Mae" as "Yule Mae". I got downright angry when she described the husbands of at least three maids as no count men who had gone off and left their families. At the same time, the white men in Stockett's world aren't absent or "no count" because they have professional jobs, leisure time, and they have enough money to build separate toilets for their maids. God forbid that a black maid who cooks their food would ever be allowed to use the same toilet the white people use. I guess this explains the fixation segregationists had with toilets....for in so many public places there were four. One each for black women, black men, white women, and white men. It's no wonder they didn't have money for libraries and good schools. It was all spent making sure that no black person would ever sit on the same toilet a white behind had graced.
I have thought about my conflict with Jo Lee over the years. I have never taken pride in watching her eat pancakes made with dirty dishwater. It was not my finest young hour but racism had a way of dehumanizing everyone. In the absence of racism she and I could have been equals and friends. But discrimination allowed me to be exploited and her to behave in the worst way. I was too young to be a maid and she was too young to be giving me orders. Kathryn Stockett didn't deal with the dirty and raw outcome of discrimination. The people who populate her book and movie are viewed through rose colored glasses where everyone gets along.
Stockett's book has sold millions of copies and made her a very wealthy woman. The movie will make her even more wealthy and will bring her greater status. However, Hollywood would never have given this opportunity to a black author who wrote about black maids in white households especially in the turbulent South during the struggle for civil rights. Moreover, there is no reason to rejoice in the good old times black servants and white employers. The national marketing frenzy for The Help movie has gone wild. It even includes a full day of marketing products on the Home Shopping Network (HSN). The New Orleans chef Emeril has a new line of cooking pots and pans in honor of The Help. Think of how silly this is: to celebrate maid-ing and maid-hood when women made $3.00 a day toiling over pots and pans on hot stoves. No thanks Miz Stockett. I refuse to go back there.
Copyright © 2011, Joyce Ladner
Copyright © 2011
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