Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960

By Rebecca Sharpless; Waldo E. Martin et al. | Go to book overview

7
If I Ever Catch You in a White Woman’s Kitchen,
I’ll Kill You
EXPANDING OPPORTUNITIES AND THE DECLINE
OF DOMESTIC WORK

In Langston Hughes’s 1949 poem “Graduation,” his prediction for postwar America, he contrasts the old and new types of employment for African American women. Mrs. Jackson—“Mama”—has toted home chicken and has put her daughter Mary Lulu through secretarial school with her wages as a cook. Being a typist may not be the best job in the world, but for the Jackson family, it is a big step out of the kitchen, and that hope is enough to spread stardust over the two women. Mama looks forward to the day when “the colored race shall rise,” but, tired from cooking in the white woman’s kitchen, she sighs with weariness.1

Like Mrs. Jackson, from the early part of the twentieth century, real-life cooks envisioned brighter futures for their young female relatives.2 Frances Twiggs Walker was a skilled cook who prepared elaborate French cuisine for her Richmond employer, Sallie Dooley. Walker’s niece, Virgie Payne, visited her aunt at Maymont, the Dooleys’ estate, in 1923. Dooley addressed the little girl: “I hope, young lady, that when you grow up, you’ll be a fine cook like your aunt.” Walker, by then a seasoned servant at age sixty, placed her hands on Payne’s shoulder, looked her employer of four years in the eye, and said, “Thank you, ma’am, but I don’t want her to be a cook.” Later, she told her niece, “You learn something besides cooking, because they’ll cook you to death.” Walker anticipated days of opportunity and potential for her young relatives, times to come with education, suffrage, and employment that did not involve working in someone else’s home.3

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