Maid Narratives (van Wormer)

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

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