Feb 23, 2012

 

Chicago, IL - Oprah Winfrey recalled her grandmother's greatest wish for her: "I hope you get some good white folks like I have."

Ms Winfrey, the media mogul, remembers, "My grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid, her mother before her was a slave. My mother was a maid."

Experience had taught her grandmother that domestic work was one of few career options available to black women. The best that she could realistically hope for her granddaughter was that she would become a maid in the home of a benevolent (white) employer.

When Ms Winfrey accepted an honorary Academy Award, an "Oscar", in November as a recognition of her humanitarian work, she highlighted her against-the-odds personal narrative by telling the audience about her female relatives and the chequered dreams that they had for her. With tears streaming down her face, Oprah reflected on the profound effect that the film The Help, a fictional story about African American domestic workers in early 1960s Mississippi, had on her. It reminded her of the limited possibilities that were available to her mother, grandmother, and women like them.

This week, The Help and its cast compete for their own Oscars. The occasion of the imminent award ceremony alongside the occurrence of "Black History Month" in the United States merit a consideration of exactly why a woman's most heartfelt prayer for her children and grandchildren would be for "good white folk".

It is no secret that sexual assaults of black women occurred with great frequency within private residences throughout the long history of legalised captivity and the century that followed emancipation.

It was widely rumoured in the late 18th century that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of Sally Hemings, a slave who worked in his household. In recent years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society have independently released statements asserting the "high probability" that the former president or, perhaps, his younger brother Randolph, was the biological father of some or all of Hemings' six children.

In her 1861 autobiography, Harriet Jacobs, an escaped captive, reveals that a girl's 15th birthday - "a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl" - marks the beginning of heightened sexual attention by her "master". She remembers, "My master began to whisper foul words in my ear" and, "He told me that I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things."

Other autobiographies suggest that unwanted sexual attention and advances occurred at an even earlier age. Olaudah Equiano, in his autobiography, writes about the behaviour of slavers on transatlantic ships in the late 1700s: "I have even known them to gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.

Despite the end of legalised slavery and the arrival of the 20th century, the abuses continued. In 1925, future US senator and ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond, who would later publicly state that blacks and whites should be kept apart everywhere, including the household, fathered a daughter with his family's 16-year-old black maid. A The 700 Club profile on Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Thurmond's daughter, identifies the pregnancies of black maids by their white employers as "a common social occurrence in those days".

In recent years, there have been plenty of examples (or allegations) of men behaving badly with women of all complexions, which makes it easy to imagine how much worse the experience was for black women in the past: Arnold Schwarzenegger's "love child" with his maid. President Bill Clinton's "not appropriate" relationship with an intern. Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly chasing a hotel maid through the halls of his suite naked.

Although not every bedroom tryst was an assault or a rape, the differences in power relationships - "master" and "slave", or employer and employee - makes it difficult to determine if the women involved had agency. It is not a question of whether the women could say, "No", but whether their "No" had the power to curtail the sex act.

It has been estimated that the average African American, whose ancestors survived the hardships and abuses of slavery, is at least 12.5 per cent white (as if one can really quantify blood by percentage or "drops"). DNA tests reveal that this whiteness tends to emerge along paternal bloodlines. They evidence the fact that most African Americans have at least one ancestor who likely was "raped" by a white man and, of course, have an ancestor who was white and a sexual aggressor.

Click here to read the entire article.

3 comments:

  1. I read the entire article.

    Author Carleen Brice brings up a very valid point about this type of book. She points out that The Help has received a lot of critical acclaim as an authentic story about our experiences as Black women, while books by Black women authors do not receive the type of marketing that would interest White women to read their works.

    I have had a couple of women recommend this book to me. They are surprised when I state that I will never read The Help. While they gush all over the support of the domestic workers, I find myself going back to the time when my own mother did this type of work. Even though we live in the mid west, the impact that the demands of the family (Jewish) had on our lives still remains very fresh on my memories.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I’m so sick of people trying to defend and explain the degrading job; that which a maid is; to be something to be so proud of because of the movie “The Help”. When I was in college the essay prompt I responded to in order to obtain my Bachelors Degree was; “What job would you absolutely not take?” My response was a “maid” hands down, real or imaginary.

    I recall when I was a child my Mom would go and clean up some old Jewish woman’s home three times a week, but on Saturday mornings she would work me and my sisters in our own home like runaway slaves. I always thought to myself; if she could go clean up someone else’s home, why she can’t clean her own home. Notice, I said, thought to myself, because I wouldn’t dare say it to her face, I probably wouldn’t be living right now if I had, but I digress.

    My Mom would come home so tired, she would lie on the living room floor and have my sisters and I rub her feet, legs and arms until she had the strength to move them again. I used to hate that too, because it took away from my playing outside time.

    My mother; the proud woman she was, would bring home clothing and food from this old Jewish women’s home, only because the women had given it to her, and would say; “Throw that sh## in the garbage, I don’t know what make that old women think I would have my children wear or eat something, that her children discarded or something left over from her kitchen”. That made me so proud. As I’m now thinking back, umm I might have been a little bougie brat, I didn’t want to wear anything used from anyone; I didn’t even want wear hand me downs from my older sisters, I would cry and act a complete fool if the clothes were not new or if my mother would try to make me wear something that belong to one of my sisters, again I digress.

    Anyway, when people say things like “The Help” showed the true human experience of maids, I say no; because they didn’t show what went on at the homes of the black maids; that film showed what it was intended to show, and that was how black maids took care of white families and how well they did that.

    Unlike a lot of people critizing the movie, I actually read the book and I saw the movie, and it really brought up a lot of emotions in me that I had suppressed since writing that Essay some years ago. I, like Oprah believe that black women could be more and would be more with education and courage, and I could honestly say that when I said I would not be a maid real or imaginary I could say it with confidence in knowing that my mother and my ancestors may have had to be maids, but I knew I could be more.

    My mother did eventually give up her job as a maid and became an entrepreneur that was one of the proudest memories of my childhood, when my mother came home and stated she was no longer going to that old Jewish women’s home to be her maid. Even though she still didn’t help us clean up on Saturday mornings, at least I knew it was because she just didn’t want to, not because she was just too damn tired to.

    So I would greatly appreciated if Hollywood would leave maids in the distant past because I don’t want to see another movie or read another book depicting maids, no matter how white folks want to spin it, it wasn’t cool then, and it’s not cool now. But I will say I’m not mad at Viola and Octavia for playing the roles of maids, just as my Mom had to feed her family, they too have to feed theirs. My prayer is that from this moment on they won’t ever have to play a maid again to do it.

    And shout out to the women who are maids and like it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. To me, the movie did not give much insight into the lives of the Help. It was more about the journey of the girl that wanted to tell the story. I really wondered what all the excitement was about...that pie?? For this reason, I was not all that impressed with the film. I had not real interest in the movie to begin with. Not for reasons that other people seem to have had, I'm not big on movies. I only saw this because my family insisted on watching it over the holidays. So I figured I'd see for myself what the fuss is about.

    The work of the maid or "the help" is honest work which makes it honorable work. The problem is people back then and even now belittle the work, consider it beneath them and belittle and demean those that perform the work. They usually are financially vulnerable and are preyed upon. I think those are valid stories to tell. Perhaps the book and the movie opens the door for more of the stories to be told and accepted by society at large.

    It is an unfortunate fact that many blacks were limited to this line of work. during most of my teen years, my parents owned a janitorial service. My first job was actually working for them periodically. One day I asked my mother how this business came about. My dad would clean from time to time filling in for my grandfather would clean on the side. When he became more sickly, my dad and uncles would step in. My parents turned it into an entrepreneurial opportunity and for a few years it was quite lucrative. It is honest work and necessary. It is hard labor... nothing compared to chores that we endure on a less frequent basis.

    I guess the larger purpose of the film was to humanize the maids. Personally I think they could've done more to do that. Should someone aspire to do this type of work? I can't say unequivocally no because this type of work is not respected and typically those employed as the help can't make ends meet. But I can't say that it isn't honest work. If an outcome of the film is people begin to respect this role more, then I'll say it was worth it. Unfortunately, I do not trust society as a whole to ever duly recognize this group.

    ReplyDelete