Maid Narratives (van Wormer)

The Maid Narrative: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South
Katherine van Wormer, David Walter Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth, 2012
Louisiana State University Press
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780807149683

The past is a foreign country; they do things different there.

With this well-known quote from a British novel, the book begins. In the historic descriptions of the norms and culture of the day, the reader is taken on a journey to another time and another place that only exists in the memories of older southerners who dare to remember. In the Deep South of the 1930s through the 1950s, the races were defined in terms of a caste, not class, and as the narrators of this book reveal, most people knew “their place.” For those (the boys and men) who did not, the consequences could be fatal.

The opening chapters of The Maid Narratives draw from studies by anthropologists, historians, and novelists to depict a society that was feudalistic and a clear legacy of slave days. The purpose of The Maid Narratives, as stated by the authors, was to capture these stories and record them in the same way as the slave narratives had been captured and recorded before the last of the survivors were gone.

The official documents do not tell us what these older women can tell us of what daily life was like for the common people, any more than the published records can tell us of what it felt like to abide by the norms and contradictions of an incomplete racial segregation in which the closest intimacy coincided with rules of strict separation. As the white narrators tell their stories to explain and perhaps to relieve their consciences, the black narrators who view themselves far more as survivors than as victims tell their stories to share. In the words of one of the narrators, Irene Williams:

You know sometimes I set up here and I tell my grandbabies how we used to have to do. You know what they tell me? ‘That was back in the olden days.’ I say, ‘No. Honey, you just don’t understand. This was real.’….I hope they will hear our stories and learn the truth..

The history of the Great Migration from the Deep South to Iowa is described briefly in chapter 3. Then we hear directly from the women themselves, from the oldest to the youngest, the stories of growing up as children of the cotton fields, and of the childhoods spent not in the schoolhouse, but in the fields.

The rules of southern etiquette come alive in these narratives in fascinating detail relating to the idiosyncrasies of the individual white families for whom these women worked. Menfolk forced to go into hiding, sexual attacks on the girls and women, grown women forced to address young white children as “Miss” or “Mr.,” the custom of toting or gift giving that was often appreciated—these are among the situations that come to light by these storytellers.

Common to all these stories is a turning point of sorts, because these black narrators all had made the decision to migrate northward, some to continue in domestic service but at much higher pay, others to seek the educational and vocational training they were denied previously. The lives they found there were variously disappointing and fulfilling.

These narratives are complemented by the voices of white women, such as Flora Templeton Stuart from New Orleans, who remembers her maid fondly but realizes that she knew little about her life, and Elise Talmage who wrote a poem called “The Dark Past.” Like these women, many  of the white narrators remain haunted by their memories of how they abided by the racial norms of the time; some chose not to use their real names.

Viewed as a whole, The Maid Narratives reveals shared hardships, strong emotional ties across racial lines, and inspiring resilience in the face of mass oppression. (From the publisher.)

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