african american history, american south, blogging, civil rights, dignity, domestics, equality, life, mid-century politics, oral history, protest, protest movements, respect, social movements, southern history, thoughts, writing
Sometimes we can conjure the magic of human dignity with a single phrase:
The Diary of Anne Frank…
Letter from Birmingham Jail…
No one puts Baby in the corner….
Here’s another one.
I always used mops at other houses.
It’s part of a story we collected during our recent oral history interviews at the museum. An elderly black woman named Geraldine was recalling her teen years, which she spent cooking and cleaning for white families.
One woman had dogs. She ordered Geraldine to get down on her hands and knees to scrub the floor. Geraldine had never been on her knees to scrub floors before. She’d been working since age ten, but she’d always used a mop.
And so, when I was supposed to go back to her, I didn’t go.
The woman contacted Geraldine’s mother to complain that she’d missed a day of work.
So Geraldine explained about the dogs and the scrubbing. Maybe she didn’t expect any sympathy. Probably she didn’t. Her mother had been cleaning, washing, ironing and cooking for white people for decades.
But Geraldine got a surprise.
She turned her head and smiled to herself… she contacted that lady and told her that she needed to get a mop.
I know it’s a little thing. But it’s a big thing. Geraldine had nothing against scrubbing, or working hard, or dogs. She’s owned them her whole life. When I first listened to her interview and then transcribed it, I was having trouble putting my finger on exactly why that story was so powerful.
Everyone in the room was struck dumb… the scholar asking the questions, me, the two cameramen… just everyone.
Partly it was her mother’s reaction… the clear implication being that she wanted her daughter to rise above, to refuse injustice, to have a better life.
But it was also the fact that Geraldine was saying something very astute about the human condition. Our need for respect is a desire that’s courageous, dignified and universal.
And I’m certain Geraldine knew it was a pivotal moment… which is why she brought it up during the interview.
No one can order me to my knees.
Even as a teenager, she had that strength. I just love that.
We all loved that. Best moment of the interview… hands down.
It will be featured prominently in our women’s history exhibit.
Which… on a related note… while searching for pictures to illustrate these oral histories, I miraculously happened upon a whole collection of incredible photos of African American women and girls working as “domestics” (I dislike that term) during the 1940s.
Isn’t this a remarkable image?
These were taken by the U.S. Farm Security Administration, are in the public domain, and are from the Library of Congress.
You can find them online at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/.