I Am a Domestic

Posted on December 12, 2010

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Josephine Street Kitchen, New Orleans 1939

“It is not only the long hours, the small pay, and the lack of privacy – we often have to share a room with the children – that we maids find hardest to bear. It is being treated most of the time as though we are completely lacking in human dignity and self- respect. During my first year at this work I was continually hopeful. But now I know that when I enter that service elevator I should park my self-respect along with the garbage that clutters it. Self- respect is a luxury I cannot retain and still hold my job. My last one was a good example of this…. 

Lucille and I both met our Waterloo in the following fashion. I had cooked a huge dinner for many guests – we always had company besides the ordinary family of five – and it was 9:00 P.M. before we two sat down to our meal, both too tired to eat.

Suddenly the bell rang furiously and Lucille came back, flushed with anger. “She say to put the cake right on the ice!”

Soon the bell rang again. “Is that cake on the ice?” called out Mrs. B -

I sang out. “We’ve just started our dinner, Mrs. B – Later I said to Lucille: “Does she think we’re horses or dogs that we can eat in five minutes – either a coltie or a Kiltie?” (Kiltie was the dog.) Lucille, who loved such infantile jokes, broke into peals of laughter.

In a second Mrs. B – – was at our side, very angry. She had been eaves-dropping in the pantry. “I heard every word you said!”

“Well, Mrs. B – –  we’re not horses or dogs, and we have been eating only five minutes!”

“You’ve been a disturbing influence in this house ever since you’ve been here!” Mrs. B – – thundered. “Before you came Lucille thought I was a wonderful woman to work for – and tonight you may take your wages and go. Tomorrow, Lucille, your aunt is to come, and we shall see whether you go too!” . . .

Jobless, and with only $15 between us and starvation, I still felt a wild sense of joy. For just a few days I should be free and self- respecting! …”

An excerpt from “I Am a Domestic,”  by Naomi Ward, published in New Masses (June 1940)

I thought I’d introduce readers of this blog to a woman of steel who was a real domestic, and one who voiced her thoughts.

Meet Naomi Ward.

Ms. Ward’s writings are a first person account of being a domestic during the 1940s.

More of her recollections:

“ ‘Tie my shoes— I hate leaning over!’ was the demand of a woman who insisted on calling Naomi Ward ‘Naomi Noble’ because ‘Down South we always call our niggers by our own last name, so here we’ll cal you ‘Naomi Noble’.

 After Lucille and Naomi were fired, Naomi offered her address to the maid. ‘I am not interested!’ Lucille cried dramatically. ‘I felt suddently slapped’, wrote Ward. ‘But from the pleading look in Lucille’s eyes, I understood. Mrs. B—was still in the pantry, and Lucille was thinking that she would get no references after ten months work. . . For a petty whim, they can withhold that precious bit of paper without which it is hard for us to obtain another ticket to slavery. . . How can we forget our sisters still conscripted to domestic service?’ “

The above excerpt is from Sister Days: 365 inspired moments in African-American Women’s history by Janus Adams

 

 

Another woman of steel was Claudia Jones. Activist. Communist. Intellectual. Outspoken advocate for women.

Claudia Jones

 

Claudia died alone and penniless in the UK. Yet she’s buried next to Karl Marx in the UK, and she’s been commemorated on a stamp.

The US deported her. Big mistake. HUGE. The witch hunt of McCarthyism was at its peak. Claudia was arrested and jailed for almost a year, then deported. She sought and was granted asylum in the UK.

UK Stamps of influencial women

 

Claudia’s most noted for her writing in the US, speaking out about the inequitable treatement not only of women in general, but black women who fought for civil rights and also within the Communist party. Black women who were courted by white males, but never seriously thought of as potential wives.

Claudia called them to task.

Late 1940s Political Affairs booklet featuring the writing of activist Claudia Jones

 

Claudia Jones gives a UK interivew

 

Excerpt from Catch a Vibe.co.UK article by  Lauren Ashi:

“A political asylum seeker from New York, Jones became a busy political organizer in Britain, working for anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns, including the international effort to free Nelson Mandela.

Her belief was if people only learned to understand each other’s cultures, they would become better neighbours and citizens. Carnival, she knew, was the Caribbean spirit at its most inclusive and joyful; as the brainchild of the activist, Notting Hill Carnival was, from its start, a tool of hope and reconciliation.

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1915, Jones was raised in a hardworking family. When she was eight years old, her family of five migrated to New York’s Harlem, hoping to escape poverty but meeting further hardship – at thirteen, Claudia saw her mother die of overwork, and by seventeen she herself was ill with tuberculosis.

But despite the difficulties, Claudia remained determined to succeed. Talented and opinionated, she was a brilliant student, earning high academic awards and honours. But career choices for a Black immigrant woman were severely limited; instead of going to college after high school, Jones began working in a laundry, then a string of other shops in Harlem. Alongside making a living, Claudia continued to feed her love of the arts by joining a drama group, and began to write a column called “Claudia Comments” for a Harlem journal.

Claudia Jones 2

Her political awakening came in 1935, when she joined the Young Communist League in defending the “Scottsboro nine”, a group of young black Americans falsely charged with rape. Just six years later she became the League’s National Director and by 1948 she was an editor at The Daily Worker, its national newspaper.

By then, word of Jones’ community-organising prowess had spread internationally, with her receiving invitations to speak across America, in China, Russia and Japan.

But her courage met opposition; she was imprisoned four times due to her activism and the 1955 McCarthy ‘anti-Communism witch-hunts’ saw her deported from the US; after which she was given political asylum in Britain.

Settling in London, Jones began working with London’s African-Caribbean community. Along with activists such as Amy Ashwood-Garvey (the wife of Marcus), Jones was central in fighting for equal opportunities for black people. In March of 1958, she founded and published the first issue of The West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first black weekly newspaper.”

Excerpt from Catch a Vibe.com

Link: http://www.catchavibe.co.uk/%E2%80%9Ca-peoples-art-is-the-genesis-of-their-freedom%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%93-claudia-jones/16260/

Another link and an excerpt:

Claudia Jones founded the first major black post- war newspaper -The West Indian Gazette; and also helped launch the Notting Hill Carnival. Claudia Jones was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1915 Claudia moved with her family to Harlem.

http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/2009/10/claudia-jones-activist/

To be continued. . .

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