Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Too Many Cooks: Contested Authority in the Kitchen

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Too Many Cooks: Contested Authority in the Kitchen

Article excerpt

Ellen Douglas begins her novel Can't Quit You, Baby in a kitchen. Cornelia, the white employer, and Tweet, her black domestic servant, sit together at the kitchen table making preserves. "There is no getting around in these stories of two lives that the black woman is the white woman's servant. There would be no way in that time and place--the nineteen-sixties and seventies in Mississippi--for them to get acquainted, except across the kitchen table from each other" (5). White women's kitchens were one of the few spaces in which cross-racial relationships developed during segregation, and these relationships were rigorously circumscribed by the gulf in status and power separating the black domestic worker from her white employer. Alice Childress, in her collection Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life, shows how her character Mildred, a black domestic, chafes against this circumscription in the stories Mildred tells her friend Marge about her white employers. These two literary representations of cross-racial relationships show white women profiting from the oppressive circumstances of the black women they employ--often forcing a one-sided intimacy on them--and black women expressing their discomfort at the indignity of their positions. Douglas and Childress attempt to reconfigure the roles assigned to the black domestics by the historically and culturally constructed space in which they work to give their characters some authority to resist circumscription.

The segregated kitchens of these texts help define the roles played by the women who work in them. Childress's conversations are set in the mid-1950s, and we see Mildred's battles against segregation carrying over into her relationships with the people for whom she works. Mildred is as much of an activist as Childress, her creator. One of her employers has a guest who is a staunch segregationist from Alabama. He tells Mildred a story about "Rev'rend Higgensby," an accommodating black man from his town who is puzzled about segregation, and asks her to send "a heartenin' message" back to the old man. Mildred replies, "When you see that old Uncle Tom you tell him I said that if I ever lay eyes on him I'm gonna kick that walkin' cane out of his hand and beat his tail with it" (188-189). Many of Mildred's stories about her interactions with her employers concern her dedication to ending segregation.

Douglas's novel is set a decade after Childress's in 1969, after John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. have been assassinated. As an author writing in the mid-1980s, she has a retrospective perception of segregation. Even though the novel is set after segregation formally ended, Douglas reminds us that the space of the kitchen is political and historical by explaining that one cannot ignore the class and caste of the characters: "To them race sounded the endlessly repeating ground bass above and entwined with which they danced the passacaglia (or, as it may sometimes appear, the boogie) of their lives" (5). Childress's political activism and Douglas's knowledge of segregation and its aftermath highlight the nature of the kitchens as culturally constituted spaces.

American kitchens have been segregated spaces beginning with the plantation kitchen, which was separate from the rest of the house. This separation remains a structural/physical enactment of segregation and a symbolic chasm between the black and white spaces that survives even after the kitchen becomes a part of the house, even in New York where Mildred lives. Though it seems that white women would gain authority through becoming employers, by hiring black women to work in their kitchens, white women ultimately relinquish authority there. Minrose Gwin explains, "The separation of the kitchen from the dining room, and the symbolic separation or 'ritual break' between black food preparation and white consumption which that distance expressed, make the kitchen a marginalized location within the white household. …

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