Private Household Occupations

By  |  July 28, 2014 Criticism
Illustration by Eleanor Davis Illustration by Eleanor Davis

Housemaids predate houses, and even on a good day, the physical and psychic proximity of a maid to the family she serves can produce an unsettling enmeshment. In the Book of Genesis, Sarah and her maid Hagar made each other mutually miserable in a desert tent camp. Four thousand years later, the quarter-century marriage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver fell apart because their maid got pregnant on the job, as did Hagar all those years before. Prostitution is said to be the world’s oldest profession, but domestic work might actually be more deserving of that title.

Poor black women, the near-universal housemaid labor force in the post-Civil War South, have been idealized—and collectivized—in fiction and in film by characters like the saintly Calpurnia of To Kill a Mockingbird or Aibileen of The Help. The black maids of the American South were regarded as an “irrefutable collective verity,” to borrow the term that Edward W. Said, author of Orientalism, used for the way humans lump others into hazy yet utterly specific generalizations. For most of Southern history, to talk about a housemaid was to talk about the strictures of race and sex that prevented most black women from finding a better job.

Where I live, in Jackson, Mississippi, the prototypical black household maid still in the workforce today is likely a woman fifty-five or older who started working for a family ten (or possibly thirty) years ago. The not-so-young housemaid works for an equally not-so-young customer—someone like me. At fifty-seven, I date back to before the civil rights era. My hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi, was on the movement map, the suspected inspiration for the Bob Dylan song “Maggie’s Farm” (Dylan stopped at the nearby Magee family farm for a rally in 1963). I was seven in 1963, old enough to notice the change in tone of adult conversations and to comprehend snippets from network correspondents in recognizable towns as I flipped channels on the den RCA. Our 1955 black-and-white was on its last legs in 1963, as was the society outside our fiberglass café curtains. Within a year, my parents replaced the old set with a sleek walnut-veneer color model. The stamp of history inside human heads is not so easily updated.

 

Mrs. S began working in my house in 1991, at age fifty, to earn extra money after her husband’s death. She’d arrive on Tuesdays, and I’d hand over my diapered daughter—my older daughter was already in kindergarten—and bolt out the door faster than you could say “Thai House lunch special.” Tuesday was my morning to run errands, volunteer at a Junior League low-income daycare, and meet a friend for panang curry chicken before returning home to pay Mrs. S and reclaim my offspring. Once my younger daughter started preschool, Mrs. S kept coming to do the chores I didn’t want to do. Around noon, I’d hear her let herself in the front door with her key. The wash cycle would thump on in the laundry room down the hall, and the clank of dishes sounded from the kitchen along with the exhale of running water. Six feet tall with broad cheeks, Mrs. S swept, mopped, and made beds as I came and went all afternoon. She wore a sweatshirt and cotton knit jogging pants, and some days she added a navy knit cap; other days her short gray hair was crimped in careful waves around her head. Her eyes were always congenial behind her opaline pink-framed glasses. We exchanged aimless chitchat, often about life with school-age children, since the two granddaughters who lived with her were similar in age to my girls. Sometimes we talked about racial injustice—in general terms of local and national politics—and she told stories of navigating Jim Crow life in 1940s-era Copiah County and in Jackson in the 1960s.

Time moved along. My girls departed for college, and so did Mrs. S’s two granddaughters. After I had employed her for nearly twenty years, our arrangement changed; I started swapping Tuesday cleanups with my ex-husband, who wanted Mrs. S’s help at his new residence after we got divorced. Then one afternoon a few years ago, Mrs. S lost her balance while sweeping his living room. She fell on the wood floor and soon retired. That brings us to the present. Every few months, I take Mrs. S—now seventy-four, on Social Security, and homebound with both arthritis and diabetes—a half-dozen bottles of insulin, courtesy of a doctor friend who sets aside pharmaceutical freebies. The doctor knows Mrs. S because she did housework for his family in 1963, when he was eight. Jackson is a pretty small pond.

Now that I have decided to parse out my relationship with Mrs. S, I am nervous as I try to portray myself as sensitive in the way that whites—earnest middle-aged Mississippians like me, anyway—do when they’re in racially charged territory. My employment of Mrs. S puts me in some quasi-Book of Judgment, the post-civil rights movement Mississippi section that exists in my head and in that of Mrs. S—even now, in 2014, when our matching Obama bumper stickers are faded and peeling (Mrs. S and I had twin 2008 and 2012 sets). Even when Jackson has been led by black mayors and police chiefs for so many administrations that the fact ceased to be news long ago. In the microcosm of my ranch house, where Mrs. S and I made small talk, I often felt us sliding into mutual representatives of history. We were both acutely aware of what the other represented in a way that people born after 1975, and maybe non-Mississippians, simply aren’t. Race was the very subtext of our relationship.

 

My tie to Mrs. S brings up two unsettling points. For Southerners our age, the weight of history still eerily presses on seemingly benign black-white relationships. Generations have signature perceptions based on the events that marked the formative years of that population’s era; it’s called a collective generational memory, and our consciousness is formed by events that took place from childhood up to age thirty, the theory goes. For skulls as imprinted by Mississippi history as mine and Mrs. S’s, we can’t sidestep the memories we pack. My second point dates back to long before civil rights (or even the Civil War). The Book of Genesis is only twelve chapters past the Garden of Eden when it presents evidence that humans, given the chance, are apt to take advantage of others. Sarah banished Hagar because she could. Jacob stepped on his brother Esau when presented the opportunity. Likewise, I had the upper hand in my own household, and I didn’t want to relinquish it. The unsavory impulse is nothing new. I was no trailblazer, nor was one of Mrs. S’s other customers who plays a major role in our story. We’ll call her Barbara.

During Mrs. S’s work week, I was one of a half-dozen employers on her schedule. So was Barbara. Out in public—I knew the woman casually—Barbara was the kind of hale, smart octogenarian who as a woman had herself navigated a restricted landscape of opportunity. The ever-smiling Barbara had channeled her talent and public pep into heading the town’s Junior League for a term. (Jackson is the kind of place where the accomplishment of being an ex-Junior League president stays with you for the rest of your life, like playing SEC football or being in the Peace Corps.) “We need to send the blacks back to Africa” is typical of what Barbara would say, obtuse to her offensiveness. Behind her back, Mrs. S mimicked Barbara in a prissy, clipped imitation of white speech that swished with ridiculous self-importance. Mrs. S confronted Barbara on the Africa comment, prompting Barbara to qualify her original statement: “Well, the criminal blacks, I mean.”

Over the years, Mrs. S catalogued Barbara’s atrocities for me. The woman routinely forgot to leave Mrs. S’s pay for weeks on end. One freezing Christmas Eve, Mrs. S set her departure time at the midpoint of Barbara’s holiday dinner to attend her own family Christmas party, but she was detained because her coat was missing. Eventually, she found it stuffed in Barbara’s trashcan outside.

Looking back, I realize that the Barbara anecdotes were more than just a shared running joke. Mrs. S turned the galling stories into a kind of indirect language to convey to me what was unacceptable employer behavior. The existence of an indirect language, of course, indicated the limit to our own candor—a line I wish I could say hadn’t existed. True, our conversations about race in general were easy. But talking about politics and decades-old memories was one thing. Talking about us specifically was a different matter. We never talked about her pay.

I didn’t ask Mrs. S what she wanted to be paid, and she never volunteered the information. I had no idea what her other customers paid her, but I left her a flat forty dollars for the cleanup, which would have come to about nine or ten dollars an hour. Mrs. S never asked for more, and I never officially gave her a raise, though I rationalized that omission by adding another ten- or twenty-dollar bill from time to time and paying for the Tuesdays when I was out of town. (I also got her a raise by telling my ex that her charge was sixty dollars, not the forty I actually paid her myself.) But try as I may to justify this arrangement, the fact is I didn’t increase Mrs. S’s pay outright for more than fifteen years. The extras were tips—grand discretionary gestures that meant she had to thank me every time I gave her more than forty dollars. That I remember all the details and justifications of paying her proves that I felt a little uneasy about the arrangement, even then. Would I have paid a white housecleaner more? Maybe not, but with a commercial cleaning service, there would have been an open conversation about the fee.

In her fine oral history, Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South, Susan Tucker notes how in the Jim Crow era, white female employers augmented their black domestics’ minimal pay with leftover food and used household goods. The practice became a ritualized part of the relationship, an echo of the nineteenth-century “service pan,” or the dish that a domestic worker in a Southern kitchen used to carry leftovers home. An entire chapter of Tucker’s history, “Giving and Receiving,” examines the common act of supplementing a worker’s low pay with gifts—food or cast-off household items—and the accompanying assumption that the worker would be grateful. The offerings permitted the employer to come across as thoughtful, yet also confirmed her superiority.

 

A logical date to mark the start of wider employment opportunities for black women would be the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, on July 2, 1964. The historic legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. When the act went into effect, the local daily, the Clarion-Ledger, printed a front-page news story that included an off-handed disclaimer about discriminatory classified advertising under the law: “This could lead to changes in the traditional ‘help wanted, men’ and ‘help wanted, women’ ads in newspapers,” although the advertiser, not the newspaper, would be held responsible for breaking the law, the story claimed. But as before, thirty-eight pages over, the Clarion-Ledger continued to run advertisements for positions such as: “WHITE assistant manager for McLemore’s Texaco Service Station,” “WHITE waitress, experience not necessary, age 18-25,” “COLORED cook, experienced, for residence, 2 until 9 pm.”

Even so, a shift was occurring in Jackson. Another milestone in wider opportunity was a February 1965 hearing conducted in Jackson by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Long-time Mississippi journalist Bill Minor covered the multi-day hearing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and recalls how the event brought out the first rational response by the local white establishment. “Moderation had reared its head in Mississippi,” wrote New York Times reporter Roy Reed. Police harassment persisted along with other impediments to voter registration, but finally there was testimony from influential white figures calling for the end of violent resistance to equal rights. Reed’s account noted that in addition to fact-finding, the hearing had an “implied purpose—to work on the conscience of white Mississippi.” Minor, now ninety-one, remembers how after the hearing, major businesses in Jackson started hiring black employees for conspicuous jobs. Black assistant managers and bank tellers became a part of the Capitol Street work force, along with another sight Minor hadn’t seen before: black and white co-workers eating lunch together downtown.

 

The Help, the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, a Jackson native, follows an interconnected cast of Jackson maids and housewives during the early 1960s. The ending’s satisfaction comes on two fronts: the fall from power of a white-supremacist socialite bully, Hilly Holbrook, and the publication of a tell-all book about the working lives of a dozen Jackson maids, secretly co-created by Skeeter Phelan, an outlier Junior Leaguer, and Aibileen Clark, a long-time maid who serves as the novel’s heart.

For the filming of the Tate Taylor adaptation, dozens of northeast Jackson women gamely set aside their customary Ann Taylor mode of fashion to time-warp back fifty years as high-haired and lipsticked extras. Predictably, many people from northeast Jackson—the Clarion-Ledger’s once-routine phrase “fashionable northeast Jackson” describes both a map location and a mindset—also put energy into speculating over the real local counterpart of every character. Of course, not everyone was amused by the story, including Grace Sweet, eighty-two. Mrs. Sweet stands apart from the other Jackson women who felt burned by Stockett’s portrait of employers of household help; she actually issued a book in response. Mrs. Sweet also happens to be black.

I had tea with Mrs. Sweet at her two-story townhome in northeast Jackson to discuss The Help and her response to it. In her living room, Victorian-era family furniture surrounded us, as well as framed family mementoes like her husband’s four-foot lace-scalloped christening gown from 1905, hanging in a shadow box over the mantle. Photos of family members with Bill Clinton, Sargent Shriver, and President Obama hung on the walls.

Mrs. Sweet took issue with how The Help reduced Jackson to well-off whites and low-income blacks. “It just pictured all white women as rich and having maids, and all black women as maids,” she said. “Not every black woman worked in somebody’s kitchen.” Mrs. Sweet, a biology teacher and guidance counselor in the Jackson public schools for thirty years, doesn’t dispute that black maids were mistreated in the city. Her complaint is that the book gave the impression that all black women in Jackson worked as domestics.

The Sweet family is prominent. Mrs. Sweet’s daughter Denise Sweet Owens has remained on the bench as a chancery judge in Jackson for twenty-four years. Her son Dennis is one of Mississippi’s most high-profile trial attorneys. Besides her lawyer children, Mrs. Sweet’s extended family includes a Ph.D. and nine medical doctors. Born two years after the Civil War, Mrs. Sweet’s father graduated from college in Indiana before returning to Mississippi as a Methodist minister.

Mrs. Sweet earned her master’s degree in biology from Baton Rouge’s Southern University in the early 1960s, a time when graduate programs at Mississippi’s white universities weren’t open to her. Published last year by the History Press and co-authored by Benjamin Bradley, Sweet’s book Church Street: The Sugar Hill of Jackson, Mississippi is a history of the professional black community that existed in Jackson in the first half of the twentieth century. The title refers to the affluent Harlem neighborhood of Sugar Hill, nicknamed for the comfortable sweet life in the enclave from 145th to 155th streets. In Mrs. Sweet’s childhood, Church Street was home to Jackson’s African-American professionals. She lived across the street from a physician’s family who employed a full-time maid, gardener, and chauffeur. This same resident owned three hundred rental houses.

While she was working, Mrs. Sweet employed full-time help from 1953 until 1969, and it took one-third of her salary to pay her housekeeper appropriately. “I treated them as professionals,” she said. Her maid wore regular clothes instead of a white uniform, was addressed as “Mrs.,” and was included as a guest on family occasions. One housekeeper of Mrs. Sweet’s resigned to take a better-paying job with a white family, but she returned to the Sweet household a day later, after her new employer asked her to crawl under the house and pull out the dog.

 

The book version of The Help has sold more than ten million copies, and the film adaptation has generated more than $200 million in worldwide revenue. Despite—or maybe because of—its success, the story has become a lightning rod. The Association of Black Women Historians maintains that by omitting Klan violence, civil-rights activism by blacks, and the issue of sexual assault on black housemaids, Stockett’s portrayal of the era is distorted.

My initial misgivings reared up on the first page, at the sight of the phonetically written passages of black dialect. It was unsettling to see—and therefore be conscious of—the editorial choice to print the maids’ voices in dialect. It seemed as though the snippy housewives of the novel weren’t the only ones diminishing the maids’ dignity; the book I was holding did, too. Any Southerner knows the layers of assumptions tied to the sound of an accent. Unfairly, I think, none of the white charactahs’ non-standard pronunciation is spahtlighted by funny spellin’. Initially I found it hard to focus on the content of what the dialect-speaking characters had to say. Once I settled in, however, my attention shifted to the humor of the ironic, dry lip service that the maids marshaled as they went about placating their employers. A frequent criticism of The Help is the patronizing quality of its white-girl-to-the-rescue plot. Yet Stockett makes patronization a two-way business. The reader witnesses the maids’ silent exasperation and righteous anger, but we’re also privy to the blistering satire that comes through the maids’ display of fake servitude to the white world during work hours. (Mrs. S got a kick out of the film, particularly when the maid Minny Jackson feeds the villain Hilly with excrement-laced pie—talk about a recipe that is truly signature.) Being a maid is “a real Fourth of July picnic,” Minny vents to Aibileen. “It’s what we dream a doing all weekend, get back in they houses to polish they silver.” She continues, “We love they kids when they little, and then they turn out just like they mamas.”

The double-standard dialect issue evaporates in the film and audio versions of The Help. Alice Walker recommends the audio form. “When I began listening to The Help, I found myself seeing my mother’s sacrifice and love at an even greater depth than I had before. . . . I finished the novel, late in the night, and after many tears and some laughter,” she wrote on her blog. Walker lived in Jackson from 1967 until 1971, when she was married to NAACP attorney Mel Leventhal. On her blog, she noted that she had initial misgivings on hearing about the novel, but she had no criticism of what Stockett included and omitted in the domestic, female-centered story. “This is why fiction exists,” she wrote. “To tell the story in the only way you can, given the reality of one’s limitations.”

I once heard a frustrated writer give a sarcastic prescription for commercial creative success: treat a horrific subject in a way that lets the audience feel relief—and indeed, racial injustice gets an uplifting presentation in The Help. Hilly Holbrook is an easy-to-hate cutout whose cartoonish cruelty frees readers from any self-examination of their own potential for complicity in racially unjust systems. No one can possibly identify with Stockett’s Mean Girl (her alien relish while eating excrement is as psychologically ham-handed as it comes). And The Help’s saintly maid Aibileen Clark is equally unchallenging, a nurturing and maternal black female with an inherently loving disposition. Like Harper Lee’s Calpurnia, William Faulkner’s Dilsey, and Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy, Stockett’s Aibileen trades on our devotion and unconditional love for the archetypal mother figure. Aibileen has made a career of raising seventeen white children, beginning in 1924. Further, her greatest wound comes from her own experience as a mother: she mourns the loss of her son, denied first-rate hospital treatment after a sawmill accident three years before. Aibileen amounts to a Southern version of the breasty fertility figures that were humanity’s first figurative art, carved from mammoth teeth thirty-five thousand years ago.

In The Second Sex, published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir writes of how women are a blank canvas for the imagination: “Nurse, guide, judge, mediatrix, mirror, woman is the Other in whom the subject transcends himself.” The Southern black maid is another archetype on history’s long list of feminine projections, a specific sub-set of the Other. De Beauvoir maintained that the maternal figure—a woman like Aibileen and her literary clones—“is so necessary to man’s happiness and to his triumph that it can be said that if she did not exist, men would have invented her.” In The Second Sex—which eventually landed on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books—de Beauvoir draws parallels between the limits and projections placed on women and on the Jim Crow experiences of expatriate writer Richard Wright, her Jackson-reared friend.

 

Stockett’s novel may be the most popular entry in the genre of fiction that explores the tension between black maids and their white employers, but it’s not the only take on the topic. The dynamic is examined in two other Mississippi works, the late Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby (1988) and Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra (2010). Each narrative proffers a smart examination of the lopsided maid-employer tie. Like The Help, these novels also feature Southern kitchens in brisk use: tomato aspic, exemplary roasts, and six kinds of cakes (from thin-layered lemon to dense devil’s food) come with the literary territory. Can’t Quit You, Baby demonstrates how decades’ worth of suppressed anger can underlie a seemingly smooth relationship. In The Queen of Palmyra, the maid’s connection to her white employers unwittingly facilitates a racially based murder. In both novels, the antagonists come with painful histories that somewhat explain their flawed actions and even draw reader empathy.

The Queen of Palmyra is set near Jackson, and the sharpest eyes in the story belong to Zenie Johnson, a housemaid whose work makes her a bridge between the white and black communities of the fictional town of Millwood in the pivotal summer of 1963 (the same setting as The Help). Zenie has a survivor’s intuition; her insights emblemize standpoint theory, which holds that less powerful people in a group inevitably have a clearer and more objective view of a situation than the powerful, because the marginalized can’t afford not to see accurately. Only reluctantly, Zenie lodges her politically outspoken college niece for the summer. With equal reluctance, she consents to having her employer’s granddaughter Florence come to her home in the afternoons until the child’s father, Win, can pick her up. Win is a third-generation Klansman who initially seems more reverent than threatening when it comes to his family tradition. He stores his robe in a treasured, heirloom wood box and for a while manages to retain a measure of good will with readers. Meanwhile, Win’s wife, Martha, unravels over her husband’s Klan affiliation. She eventually runs away in the family’s dented red Chevy, and it’s Zenie who sees how dire life is for the terrified, silent Florence. In a Dostoevskian way, the novel tracks how disassociation grows in Florence’s increasingly traumatized mind; the more horrific Win becomes, the less his once canny, now neglected and abused daughter absorbs what is going on around her. Win’s demons psychologically sicken his bystanding family.

In Can’t Quit You, Baby, the villain turns out to be the book’s satisfied and serene protagonist: forty-four-year-old Cornelia O’Kelly. She manages nicely with her growing deafness, often preferring to turn off her hearing aid to enjoy the silence. Her 1969 household is a display of genteel eye candy; her suitably shining walnut dining table is spread nightly with equally suitable from-scratch dinners. Around the living room, carefully cropped family photos are on silver-framed display. Cooking alongside her housekeeper Tweet Carrier, Cornelia prides herself on being sensitive and conscientious enough to feign interest in Tweet’s affable, long-winded accounts of past family treacheries. Yet Cornelia only pretends to listen. She doesn’t care about Tweet’s pain, nor does she dwell on her own woundedness. The steely Cornelia has neither the emotional bravery nor the generosity to listen. As the novel progresses, Cornelia comes to realize that all her intimates resent her, due to her rigidly curated version of reality, and as the chief relationships of her life come into question, she faces how flawed human ties inevitably are—and how recalibration is often possible instead of rupture, a truth Tweet has always known. After Tweet’s husband betrayed her, she shot him. Two wrongs may not make a right, but the literal bloodshed rearranged the dynamics between her husband and herself, Tweet notes. Adopting Tweet’s approach, Cornelia seeks to reset her connection to Tweet, which is as metaphorically bleeding as Tweet’s unfaithful husband once was at Tweet’s hands. “What can we do . . . when we’ve shot somebody?” Cornelia comes to ask Tweet in hopes of reconciliation. “Look around? See where we’re headed? That’s all I can see to do after you shoot somebody.”

The maid characters created by Douglas and Gwin are both childless, defying the nurturing maternal black stereotype; neither Zenie Johnson in The Queen of Palmyra nor Tweet Carrier in Can’t Quit You, Baby ooze much warmth. Far from being a country-rooted earth mother, Tweet is repelled by newly hatched chicks. They seem more sinister than endearing to her; she is unnerved by the soft, almost absent quality of their bones. Devoid of the Madonna mantle, the characters bristle with what Margaret Mead identified as post-menopausal zest. The wise woman, crone, or hag—all recognizable identities across cultures—is a persona who rises up as a figure of authority at the close of a woman’s fertile years. Tweet and Cornelia exude strength. (Zenie’s full name is Zenobia, in tribute to the ancient queen of Palmyra who eventually ruled Egypt and successfully led an army against the Roman Empire.) In fact, they do not traffic in traditional feminine beauty. Each has a markedly marred appearance that has developed in middle age: Zenie has weeping leg sores underneath her thick work stockings, while Tweet’s facial “risings” are a factor in her husband’s infidelity.

There is a deeper underlying connection between the two books. Gwin teaches Southern literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is devoted to the works of Douglas as well as those of Mississippi-born novelist Elizabeth Spencer. She admires both for their groundbreaking examinations of racial injustice from the white perspective dating from the 1950s and early ’60s. When I asked her, via e-mail, about these two influences, Gwin told me that, in writing Queen, “I was always trying to live up to their subtlety and their piercing moments of insight.”

 

Jackson has a population that is 79.4 percent black, yet I’ve noticed that when anyone I know hires a housecleaner these days, the worker is either white or Hispanic (groups that account for 18.4 and 1.6 percent of the population, respectively). A friend of mine counsels adolescents, and she occasionally hears a black teenager say her grandmother worked as a maid and now forbids her grandchildren from considering what the U.S. Department of Labor classifies as “Private Household Occupations.” The math of Jackson’s demographics suggests that for black female jobseekers, history’s stigma makes the idea a nonstarter.

As for me, I occasionally employ Mrs. A, who is forty-four, white, and in a college accounting class with someone I know. She comes to work in Bermuda shorts, with ear buds laced through her long blond hair; as she reorganizes my hall closet and garage, she listens to motivational downloads on her iPod. She always departs in time for her regular evening job as a Fitness Lady aerobics instructor. She charges twenty-five an hour. I’ve never worried about the subtext of our relationship.

 

On one of my recent insulin runs, I asked Mrs. S if she would give me her honest thoughts on working for me, however unflattering. Given the long-time limits on our candor with each other, this was a fairly stilted attempt at getting at the truth. Still, maybe she had nothing to lose at that point.

Leaning on her walker, Mrs. S opened the front door of her mauve-brick ranch house. Building the house was a project she began with her late husband before his cancer diagnosis. After his death in 1984, she pressed ahead with construction—on a cash basis over the span of a few years—until she eventually moved mortgage-free into the four-bedroom house. Inside, she led me through the foyer, past the living room, and into the open kitchen-den area. I’ve always noticed that every table surface in the household has a spotless luster, as do her oak floors. My house never gleamed like that, not when Mrs. S was cleaning it, and certainly not now that I do the cleaning myself. That fact never ceased to miff me. That I routinely felt miffed struck me as evidence that my skull housed an entitled hot spot.

Mrs. S slid the sack of six boxed insulin bottles into her refrigerator, then we settled on the nearby sofa. She had on black pants and a jade paisley tunic with her last initial monogrammed over her heart.

“You know, I always paid you forty dollars,” I began. “That was a long time for you to go without a raise. But I paid you when I was out of town, and I’d add twenty some weeks. I told myself it evened out.”

Mrs. S nodded. “You did.” Her encouraging smile was as congenial as always.

“Still, I let myself off the hook on giving you a real raise.” There was a tiny hitch in my voice.

Maybe my intrusion and belated frankness made Mrs. S feel uncomfortable, too. Maybe she felt sorry for me and wanted to make me feel better. Whatever the reason, at that point Mrs. S shifted back to our old conversational comfort zone: the failures of Barbara. “That was the worst family I ever worked for,” she said. Mrs. S never pressed me for a raise, but she did at Barbara’s, she said; she’d insisted on ten dollars an hour. “I had to tell her the facts.” She also noted that since she stopped working for Barbara, the woman had visited her house only twice, once bringing a silk flower in a thumb-sized metal bud vase. She never brought a gift of extra cash. “I meant nothing to her,” Mrs. S said. The bridge of her nose folded into slashes of disdain.

“I never knew what other people paid,” I continued. “You didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.”

“I knew you were a single person,” said Mrs. S.

“How did what I paid compare to what other people paid?”

Mrs. S paused. Then she went ahead with it. “It was on the low side.”

I guess I always knew that.

“I thought about a raise, but you were a nice lady. You might have been pressed.” She looked me in the eye. She didn’t wear the pink opaline-rimmed glasses anymore. Her new frames were silver metal. “I knew you were a single parent. That means you have to see about everything. Good kind treatment is better than money.”

If that’s true, my urge to examine my long relationship to Mrs. S might reveal another possibility. Am I flattering myself by digging into the Old South myth, however bad it makes me look? Maybe I am socioeconomically overrating myself to think I’m a member of the oppressor class. That is its own kind of privileging, after all—to identify with the historic forces of oppression. Am I exaggerating the importance of my sub-par pay on Tuesdays? Did it matter so much one way or the other? The reality is that Mrs. S and I have plenty in common: we are both single women who own ranch houses in Jackson, each of us mother to a pair of college-graduate offspring. Maybe my guilt is a back-door means of self-aggrandizement.

 

In my exploration of the employer-housemaid nexus, I’ve discovered a striking fact: it is white women who write most specifically about the relationship. When black women write about characters who are housemaids, they treat the job as one component of a larger story, not the sun around which the pages spin (Squeak in The Color Purple hates her job, for example, and Mississippi-born poet Natasha Trethewey writes about her grandmother’s Sunday morning off-hour in “Domestic Work, 1937”). Barbara Neely’s Blanche White detective series centers on the sleuthing exploits of a tart middle-aged woman who works as a domestic. Playwright Alice Childress’s 1956 collection Like One of the Family features the maid Mildred Johnson in her off-hours, archly telling her Harlem neighbor Marge, also a maid, about her day job’s indignities. Of course, white writers home in on the work hours of maids because that time is the intersection that exists between the white and black characters. The unnamed narrator of Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby says so: “I thought I was at home in Tweet’s life, that when she spoke, I heard her speak with her own authentic voice,” she observes. “But of course I never heard her speak, except to Cornelia. Does that trouble you as it does me?” And there are other reasons for why the employer-employee relationship might matter more from the white woman’s point of view. Hiring a maid represented a rare act of economic agency for white women, up until the last few decades. For generations, what happened inside a white woman’s house was, for the most part, her story.

The early psychoanalyst Karen Horney challenged her mentor Sigmund Freud in the 1920s over his male-centric theories as applied to the lives of women. Women’s behavior, development, and longings were richer and broader than simply a response to a male world, she reported in lectures and papers from 1922 until 1936. Yet she shifted her efforts by the late 1930s. The realities and habits of the wider culture were so knotted into the choices and behavior of women—and men—that it was impossible to separate a culture’s stamp from what was innate and true inside any one person’s head. Humans move in a unified field fused with the place and time where they are.

I think about Mrs. S between my visits to her house, but it’s a relief that she no longer comes to mine. I’d rather economize, and I don’t just mean in terms of keeping my forty dollars and plowing the Swiffer down my own hall. It’s an economical choice in terms of mental payload. An analysis of race doesn’t have to hijack a simple decision to pay someone to sweep the floor. Yet inside my fifty-seven-year-old head, in the year 2014 and in Jackson, it still does.


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Ellen Ann Fentress's work has been featured in the New York Times, Wilson Quarterly, and StorySouth. Her first newspaper job was selling subscriptions by phone, which usually ended with her apologizing and telling the people she called that the subscription was too expensive.