|Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.|
The Maid Narratives—The Real Women of The Help
The popularity of The Help by Kathryn Stockett thrust black domestic service into the public’s attention. But what is the real story of the women behind the fiction? Two recent volumes of scholarship seek to tell the domestic workers' side of the story.
Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 by Texas Christian University professor Rebecca Sharpless describes the history of black domestic servants in the South. Sharpless argues that, although the black women who labored in white kitchens experienced systemic racism, they found ways to resist subjugation. Sharpless suggests that mere survival often served as resistance to a system where low wages, constant suspicion, and insidious discrimination preserved the racial hierarchy. But they also exercised their agency by living away from their employers, pursuing educations for their children, and leaving unsatisfactory work positions for new opportunities.
The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South by Katherine van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, and Charletta Sudduth offers oral histories of the black women who labored in white households as well as white women whose families employed domestic servants. Among these stories is that of Annie Pearl Stevenson, a native of Oxford, Mississippi, who recalls working in the house of a restaurant owner. Stevenson’s recollections help readers to better understand her life outside of the workplace. She sometimes stopped at her employer’s restaurant for lunch, but segregation prevented her from entering. “We always had to go around to the back,” she remembers, “and they would hand the lunch out to us.”
Both books combat one stereotype about domestic service. These employment relationships were not based on love. For the black women who served in white kitchens, their labor was an economic transaction. As Sharpless contends, if these women labored for the sake of love, it was for the love of their own children who waited for them at home.
Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2010)
Katherine van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, and Charletta Sudduth, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2012)