Note: I started this post months ago right after I read Kathryn Stockett's novel. I am compelled to update it and publish my thoughts on it since the waves of commentary recently hit the blogosphere and media at large regarding the novel, now feature film. Comments from folks (who haven't read the book) but have strong opinions why we should or should not indulge in this story line are getting the conversation started. Click here to read my initial thoughts and overview of the plot, then read on to find out what I think on black women as domestic workers, especially as a black woman domestic worker myself...
Reading the novel made me think a lot about my role as "the help," seeing how I'm a professional babysitter and all. I've babysat for black and white families whose financial status ranged from just making it to outright loaded. There are some kids who I've taken care of for years, or every day for concentrated periods of time and I feel like I practically raised them; they are my babies, just like Aibileen felt about the seventeen that she raised. She knew from the start that two year old Mae Mobley would probably be the last child she cared for and she wanted to do everything in her power to keep that child from growing up and turning into the racist employer that the others grew up to be.
I spoke with another young black woman my age a few years ago who commented that she resists being a babysitter because she is a black woman and she doesn't want to be viewed as The Help. I never even thought about it, up until that point. I know it's not my situation so I'm not worried about it. Still, go to the playground and most children are there with their nannies, often middle aged black women (though not often African American) who are full time help. I have to wonder, how is the contemporary babysitter/nanny culture of New York City any different than the maids in the 1960s south? Obviously we are not living in the same overtly racist society, but the set up is still the same.
Children spend large parts of their days or evenings with me on a regular basis, and while I am by no means replacing their mother, I play a major role in their development as a caretaker. I know for a fact that I have taught several children their manners, good daily hygiene habits, discipline, budgeting & shopping etc. I also try to instill in them a sense of self worth. When I first read the part about Aibileen having Mae Mobley repeat, "You are smart. You are kind. You are important," it reminded me of myself. There's one 3 year old girl in particular who I always tell, "You're a strong woman."
A few months back I was walking down the street with one of the white mothers I work for. We happened to run into a former babysitter for her kids - another young black woman who sits for a few of the same families in the neighborhood that I do. After we all exchanged pleasantries and a minute of small talk, we parted ways and kept on toward the train.
"You know not all the babysitters we have are black," she suddenly felt the need to explain. "Actually, the one who we interviewed before you was white." As her monologue went on she admitted that she felt slightly awkward about employing me in a domestic capacity especially given that she's white and I am black.
Wow, I thought. Here I was again with someone over thinking my job as a babysitter. The fact is that of all the jobs I could do with decent pay and flexible hours that will supplement my dance work, I CHOOSE to babysit. It just so happens that I am a black woman and many of the families I have been referred to work for are white. I was completely taken aback by this woman's admission, and her strong need to explain herself as if this was 1960s Jackson, Mississippi and this was the only employment opportunity available to me as a black woman, or she was holding some kind of preconceived notions about how (well) I would take care of her children because of who I am.
I indeed am hired help, but I have no ill feelings about taking on this role to make sure the rent is taken care of when the dancing doesn't pay enough. I love spending time with children, and would do it any day over waiting tables. I don't feel a need to avoid domestic work at all costs because my grandmother cooked for a white woman. This choice is a privilege, no doubt, and I acknowledge and am thankful for the women who came before me breaking all the rules to provide me with this privilege.
The thing is, as a young woman with two degrees post-high school pursuing multiple skills and talents, this privilege of choice is particular to my situation. As stated earlier, there is definitely a nanny culture in NYC that consists of colored (black, latina etc.) women who are career care takers. I wonder if they feel like they have as much choice and privilege about their situation as I do? I wonder if they are nannies because it was the job of the generations before them? I wonder what their stories are, and how closely they resemble the stories of domestics decades ago just trying survive and cope with an overtly racist culture.