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.)

Author Bios
Katherine Stuart van Wormer, MSSW, Ph.D.,
Van Wormer, who grew up in New Orleans, is a sociologist and professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. As a student she was actively involved in two civil rights movements, one in North Carolina and one in Northern Ireland. She is the author or coauthor of 20 books on various aspects of human behavior, criminal justice, and oppression. Visit her website.

Book Reviews
In The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (Louisiana State University Press), the real “Help” talk to authors Jan van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth about what it was like to work for white families during that same era in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Of the 17 women interviewed, the oldest was born in 1906; the youngest in 1953. None of them hold back. Backdoor entrances, separate eating quarters, outside bathrooms, sexual overtures from their male employers—it’s all here, as well as memories of the murder of Emmett Till, visits from the Ku Klux Klan, and the dawn of the civil rights movement. They talk of walking miles to school, of sharecropping and cooking and cleaning from the age of seven. Read this fair-minded study for the reasons the maid themselves give: “…kids need to hear it. They need to know the struggles that black people have gone through to get to the point where we are today because our children are a lost generation. They don’t know the history of the struggle and they need a better appreciation of what they have so they don’t take it for granted.” The book also includes narratives from 15 white women whose contributions, the authors say, “inform in both what they say and in what they do not.”
Gina Webb - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Long before The Help became a popular book-turned-movie, researchers in Iowa were already hard at work on the real-life version. LSU Press recently published The Maid Narratives, which chronicles the lives of black maids and white employers in Civil Rights-era Louisiana and Mississippi. [The book] contains the stories of black maids and their white employers in the Civil Rights-era South. "We wanted to preserve this history before it died off. Black people say they see the love and healing in the book, but I was struck by some of the negative things," said Katherine Van Wormer, professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa and one of the book's three authors. "I was very interested in the close bonds that I remember ... between the maids, cooks and the children—very close bonds across racial lines."
Chelsea Brasted - New Orleans Times Picayune

Long before last year’s popular film The Help, scholars in Cedar Falls began interviewing black domestic workers in Iowa...who had their own remarkable stories to tell. The authors of The Maid Narratives...were surprised at what they found. “The white people were just horrible in the movie, and silly,” said [co-author] van Wormer, a white woman who grew up in New Orleans. “The stories were more positive than we thought they would be. All of the interviewees were very forgiving. They weren’t consumed by bitterness, as you expect they might be.” Van Wormer’s own mother grew up with a black maid, although they were so poor during the Depression that the maid had to bring over her own pans to cook. Having a maid was the custom. So was racism, discrimination and cruelty that were also found in the stories of black maids from the 1920s to the 1960s. The domestics were often paid as little as $3 a day, were yelled at or abused, couldn’t use the front door or the bathroom, and were made to feel inferior to whites. Yet a close bond grew between some white and black women that lasted a lifetime.
Mike Kilen - Moines Register

“I wish I was like you—easily amused.”—Kurt Cobain This line from “All Apologies” by Nirvana could easily be used to describe anyone who thought The Help was an accurate depiction of what it was like to be an African-American “domestic” during the late ’50s and early ’60s. For the most part, the film was pure fiction. If you want the real story, you’ll need to pick up a copy of The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South by Katherine van Wormer, David W. Jackson III and Charletta Sudduth. “Aligning themselves with whites of the professional class, black women often earned the respect of members of the white community and formed alliances that could render them and their families a certain degree of protection,” the authors note. “Black domestic workers moved freely between the white and black communities. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, they had a mobility denied to others of their race. Domestic workers often fell into the role of go-betweens, as interpreters of black life to white people and of white life to black people.”
Bowling Green Daily News

Discussion Questions
1. How were the situations different for black maids who worked in Mississippi versus those in the Louisiana / New Orleans area?

2. What, if anything, surprised you about the stories of the women of the Great Migration?

3. Compare the work conditions as described in the book of sharecropping versus domestic service?

4. Consider the power dynamics in the 1950s and earlier as experienced by the white woman who ran the home and by her servant. How were  they alike and different?

5. What did the black narrator (Annie Victoria Johnson) mean by her statement that if the black men kept their women from working in the white homes, when they needed help, there was no one to help?

6. From the black narratives viewed as a whole, how did domestic service in the North differ from domestic service in the South?

7. What did you learn about the norms of segregation from reading these stories?

8. How did the whites who were raised by black maids describe their relationship with them? Choose some examples of differences among the whites referring to the final chapter with the themes.

9. Did you find that whites who were nurtured by black maids were more comfortable around black people when they grew up and moved out in the world?

10. What did you learn of the mistress/maid relationships from the descriptions provided by the white narrators?

11. One of the authors whose mother worked as a maid has described her response to reading The Maid Narratives as a healing experience. What do you think she meant? How about resilience and resistance as revealed in some of the stories?

12. If you were making a movie of this book, which of the episodes described in this book might you use?

13. If you read The Help or saw the movie, how did the real situations described in The Maid Narratives compare with those in the fictional account? (Questions courtesy of authors.)

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