Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

What We Can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

What We Can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South

Article excerpt

There is awareness today, in the tradition of historian Howard Zinn, that the personal stories of people should be explored in order to bring to life the daily struggles and living conditions of certain periods in history. Zinn's focus on the common people is enlightening (see, for example, A People's History [Zinn, 2003] and Voices of a People's History [Zinn & Arnove, 2009]).

The aim of the present study is to go back to the same period studied by historians now and by social scientists then as preserved in the memories of the people--the people who were descended from slaves of only a few generations before. This study seeks to enrich the history of the time of sharecropping and segregation by recording stories while the survivors are still with us. These are stories of survival and resilience and endurance that can be an inspiration for present and future generations. Since our interest here is life in the Deep South in the days of segregation, we can turn to the few people's social histories that were conducted during the period in question. The writings of Dollard (1937) and Powdermaker (1939) are prime examples as is the literary work of William Faulkner.

John Dollard was a northern psychologist who ventured to the town of Indianola, Mississippi (which he called Southerntown) to study the personalities and child rearing patterns of "Negroes". But when he discovered how closely black and white lives were intertwined, his research shifted from the psychological to the sociological realm. Dollard's groundbreaking Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) is chosen for reference here because it was conducted in the same general region of the cotton-growing South in which our interviewees grew up and during the approximate period of time--that of the Great Depression. It was also conducted by an outsider to the region, a fact that provides a perspective that could not have been obtained by most local residents to whom their rituals and social norms would have seemed a natural part of southern life.

The social life of rural Mississippi was characterized, according to Dollard, by a strict social etiquette in which white was separated from white on the basis of class, and black from white on the basis of caste. In his words:

   Caste has replaced slavery as a means of maintaining
   the essence of the old slavery order in the South.....
   A union of members of both castes may not have
   a legitimate child. All such children are members
   of the lower caste ... Caste in Southerntown is also
   a categorical barrier to sexual congress between
   upper-caste men and lower-caste women, (p. 62).

Other landmark studies of rural Mississippi, such as anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker's (1939) After Freedom, describe the institution of paternalism. This term refers to the master-servant relationship that prevailed during the days of segregation. This relationship was at once protective and punitive. The whites depended on blacks to do the manual labor. Such labor, according to Powdermaker, was avoided by middle and upper-class whites who, as she suggested, saw the Negro as "childlike, irresponsible, and dependent by nature" and "destined to be a servant" (p. 39). Significantly, one white informant is quoted as saying: "I'd much rather have a Negro servant than a poor white ... the Negro's disposition is so much more pleasant." (p. 39). This attitude is to be distinguished from race hatred; it is more insidious in its own way. Physical separation of the races was not the goal here; the drawing of personal boundaries defined by race was. The speaker in the example above is clearly used to being in a superordinate position with reference to others and has little understanding of the race and class privilege that was evidenced in her words. Through the 1950s at least, such Jim Crow paternalism was a characteristic of southern social life.

A more recent analysis by sociologist Mary Jackman (1994) offers insights on the nature of paternalism, which she terms a velvet-glove strategy of "sweet persuasion" (p. …

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