These are my sisters and mother - L-R Brenda Nance, Qiyamah A. Rahman, Jackie McMillan, Betty Holmes and Gwen Richardson. Elvina Whipple Vaughn, AKA Mom in the middle.
Reflections on Domestic Work and The Help
I recently went to see the movie The Help. However, before I go into any reflections about the movie I want to share little about my standpoint, that is, what my social loction is. Domestic work is not foreign to me. My first job at 14 was as a domestic working along side my mother for the Silvermans. Ms. Dorothy, Ms. Sally and Ms. Ida Silverman. They were all single middle aged sisters living together in Detroit. I think they may have even been the last hold outs in an all black neighborhood. Ironically, the Jewish family that we bought our house from in Detroit was purchased from the last Jewish family to depart from the street in 1962 which had in earlier years been all Jewish.
One day, my older sister and I joined my mother one Saturday to help her at the Silvermans. My sister and I at the time had very different dispositions, personalities and worldviews. My sister quit after the time and true to her words. She didn't want to be "nobody's maid" she informed my mother. I on the other hand was thrilled at the sight of the $10 bill that Ms. Dorothy put into my hand. The joy of having my own money was a feeling that I recall with great relish and I knew then that I wanted to earn my own money. My parents emphasized a strong work ethic and I learned from them never to shirk from work. However, in retrospect I admire my sister's independent spirit. On the other hand, even at the tender age of 14 I recognized the freedom that having my own money provided. I put it in my bank and saved it. During the summer one of my step siblings came to visit us and it "disappeared." I was pretty sure it was him. It was a bitter lesson I learned but evidently did not learn it well enough. Many years later I experienced other thefts. One occured while I was working at the desk as a library assistant in high school and had $5 stolen out of my purse. Years later when I was working in an office setting I had my entire paycheck stolen not once but twice. But I am digressing terribly but let me say this final thing, I continued to naively believe that others were as honest as I was. And so it took a while for me to establish appropriate boundaries and precautions.
Living so many years in the south I remember being in a meeting with UU ministers talking about the culture of the south. This was intended as a introduction for newly settled ministers in the south. Someone began to talk about their black maid who had raised them. I had heard these conversations before and they always sounded disingenuious because no one ever talked about the power dynamics and how that relationship often changed when they reached puberty. I finally said something to the effect that I appreciated the lifting up of the relationship but I wondered what it would have meant to the maid to be able to enter from the front door, to share just some of the amenities she witnessed but could never have and most important, what it would have meant to translate some of that "love" for the maid into action to change some of the laws that condemned them to 2nd class citizenship.
I have two stories to share, one is about my mother, Elvina Whipple Vaughn, a former domestic worker and the other is about Dorthy Bolden, a domestic worker and the founder and director of the Domestic Workers Union in Atlanta, GA. My mother was a domestic worker that worked long enough to help raise three young women who now have children of their own. My mother had two years of college at what is now Savannah State University in Savannah, GA. Because my father was abusive and controlling and did not want my mother to work around men. She was an excellent barber and cut my father and my five brothers hair. She could have become a master barber or any number of things. She is very intelligent. However, she would have had to work around men. Hence, domestic work was a safe option. My mother just retired about two years ago at 85. We were never able to convince her to stop working. Ironically, she was in Atlanta where she went every year around Thanksgiving and she would return to Detroit after the first of the year. This particular year they were having a snow storm while she was enjoying beautiful mild weather in Atlanta. She called her employers and informed them that she would not be returning. She had been employed with them for 43 years and had seen them through graduate school with the wife advancing from teacher to principal and having three daughters which my mother cared for. Each year around Thanksgiving time Mrs. Farber and her three daughers, all grown and married and some with children of their own, visit my mother and take her out for dinner.
I also think that my mother recognized what my father did not and that is "retirement" could signal a slow down that could be fatal. It was in my fathers case as he experienced a rapid decline in his health resulting in his demise shortly after retirement. My mom used to complain about how he followed her around completely bored and that she could not get anything done because he was constantly under foot. However, her retirement days are filled with cooking and caring for her home, shopping, visiting and traveling and a great deal of church work. She is a devout Christian and member of Greater St. Stephens Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, MI. She also has a lot of friends. My father had neither hobbies or friends. Work was his life. And without it he did not have much of a life.
Testimonials about The Help
"Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multifaceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel like in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people? No. The message is the quality of the work. That is the greater message…As Black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences - experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.
“— Viola Davis, Essence magazine August 2011 cover feature (via monkeyknifefight)
I’m deeply reflecting on this powerful quote from Viola Davis, a phenomenal actor AND beautiful woman. I saw the movie and was horrified not by her acting, which was superb. I was horrified with the film’s subtle and not-so subtle racism. Yes, I know the film takes place in 1962 Mississippi, and one could argue that the film was depicting the times. While some of that is true, what’s also true is that the film is racist and sexist.
Another Testimonial"I’m a great granddaughter, great-niece, and granddaughter of Black women who worked as domestics for racist and sexist White people both in the Jim Crow South and the (allegedly liberated) North. I am the daughter of a southern Black woman who spent 18-months (1964-1966) in Laurel, Mississippi working for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Hardly any of the stories that I’ve heard, first-hand, throughout my life (and I’m in my 40s) from any of the aforementioned women or their friends, matched the portrayal of the Black women and their communities in The Help…
It’s hard out here for Black women actors in the Hollywood (or, Hollyweird, as Toni Cade Bambara used to call it) system. When one turns down a role based on their principles and dignity, another one will gladly accept that role. Ever since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation, one of the earlier cinematic “masterpieces,” Hollywood has been rooted in castigating, maligning, stereotyping, marginalizing, and dehumanizing people of African descent?
How do we stop this powerful system, which influences the world, from its ongoing cinematic racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic/transphobic, and classist assaults not only on communities of African descent, but also on Latina/o, Arab, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Roma (Gypsy), Southwest Asian communities….? When does ENOUGH become ENOUGH?
(written by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Producer and Director of No! The Rape Documentary - http://notherapedocumentary.com/)
I will add more testimonials over time. I plan to watch The Help a 2nd time when it comes to Netflix and revisit my review of the movie.
Blessings! Rev. Qiyamah