By The Gazette Editorial Board
If you’ve seen the movie “The Help” or read its inspiration, Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel by the same name, consider reading a more recent book about the same topic: The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South.
While both books and the movie depict the experiences of descendants of slaves who worked as domestic servants in the segregated south from the 1920s to the 1960s, Maid Narratives goes farther. It follows some of these black women and their families who migrated to Iowa, many of them to Waterloo.
The book includes considerable historical research and context. The most compelling content, though, are the interviews with dozens of housekeepers, caretakers, sharecroppers and cooks who share good, bad and ugly memories of their experiences in the South and then in Iowa. It provides valuable insight that is especially appropriate on the eve of Martin Luther King Day.
This book, published last year by Louisiana State University Press, paints the personal struggles of African-Americans locked in a way of life that, while not slavery, nonetheless acted as chains on their freedom and quality of life. It portrays in detail “The Women of the Great Migration” who, along with their husbands and families, were among some 6 million black southerners who moved north as more occupational opportunities became available because of technological advances in agriculture and homes eliminated much of the demand for cheap hand labor in the South.
These women and men often found better-paying jobs in the North but also learned that racial divisions persisted there, too. In Waterloo, for example, it was 1967 before the school board first declared its support for desegregation.
Yet it was in Iowa and other Midwestern cities where “ … these African Americans begin to feel less dependent on individual whites, become more clearly citizens and agents of their own lives instead of people trapped by an economic and political system of racial exploitation,” the authors wrote.
The Maid Narratives’ three co-authors all have Iowa ties and personal links to their subject matter:
l Katherine Van Wormer, a white southerner who was cared for as a child in New Orleans by black women, became a sociologist and a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa.
l David W. Jackson III, black, born in Des Moines, raised in Cedar Rapids, assistant professor in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver and also a co-producer several years ago of the Iowa-based oral video history project, “African-American Voices of the Cedar Valley.” Several generations in his extended family worked as domestics in the South and in Des Moines.
l Charletta Sudduth, black, early childhood consultant in the Waterloo school district. Her mother grew up in Mississippi, working as a domestic and cotton picker. She was a fourth-grader in 1976 when Waterloo first used busing as a way to integrate the schools.
They interviewed more than 50 people overall, both black and whites who were part of this system in the South. The authors provide a collective perspective. They do not condemn Southern whites from this period as all being unkind or wrong to have servants. “From our perspective, the cruelty was in the system, and many of the white folks did their best to get around the worst of the restraints,” they wrote.
And that consensus is reflected in the narratives. They are filled with recollections of demeaning treatment and paltry pay at the hands of employers, as well as memories of kindnesses and even emotional ties and sharing of hardships across racial lines.
ADVICE FOR TODAY
The authors also strongly advise some among the younger generations of African Americans who criticize their elders today for “taking it” too much and too long as servants in the South: “Such criticism of those who survived segregation in the South arises from an ignorance of the realities of the time. Far from ‘taking it,’ these men and women from the South packed their bags and said goodbye to all that in their migration north. Many risked their lives in the civil rights movement that ended segregation. No, they decidedly did not ‘take it’.” … Younger generations need to read the stories that follow” in this book.
Iowa can take some pride in being a place where more justice and opportunity was available to many of these migrants. The Maid Narratives also reminds us that racial barriers within our own state were all too real in our not-so-distant past. This book, as Dr. King did, can inspire us to never stop learning from that past.
Iowans must be vigilant in efforts to mend fences and keep moving forward toward respectful, informed relations among all those who call Iowa their home.
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