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.

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