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History Makes Hiring Household Help A Complex Choice

Actress Marla Gibbs (as maid Florence Johnston) and actor Sherman Hemsley (as her boss, George Jefferson), appear in an episode of <em>The Jeffersons</em>.
Actress Marla Gibbs (as maid Florence Johnston) and actor Sherman Hemsley (as her boss, George Jefferson), appear in an episode of The Jeffersons.

Sheryl Sandberg's best-seller Lean In has sparked a national debate among women about reaching for success in the workplace. But in order for women to lean in to their ambition and spend the arduous hours embracing the success Sandberg urges them to, they need to lean on support at home. That often comes in the form of household help — the housekeeper or nanny. But because being the help has figured large in the history of African-American women, some who are in the position to lean in are torn about hiring domestic employees.

That ambivalence was reflected back in 1975, when America met George and Louise Jefferson. In the maiden episode of their now-iconic TV series, the Jeffersons were, as the title song indicated, "movin' on up ... to that dee-luxe apartment in the sky." The black middle class had begun to expand, and George and Weezy, now affluent from several dry cleaning businesses, were moving into a high rise on Manhattan's swank Upper East Side.

The tension in that first show revolved around who was going to clean the shiny new palace. George pressed hard for Louise to hire a black maid she'd met in the elevator; Louise refused. She reminded George that when they were a young married couple, she did domestic work a couple of times a week, and had to "yes ma'am, no ma'am" the white woman who employed her. "How can I ask Diane to say 'yes ma'am to me?' " she fretted.

"Easy," George replied. " 'Cause now you're the ma'am!"

Louise Jefferson was reflecting the real-life ambivalence many African-American women have about being the ma'am.

After more than a century of working as domestics because of restricted employment options, black women's communal memory of often being taken advantage of economically and sometimes sexually can still be painful.

It doesn't help that the media images of black maids and nannies through the ages tended to run a narrow gamut: self-sacrificing mammy figure at one end, eye-rolling sass pot at the other. (From Hattie McDaniel's patient Beulah to Marla Gibbs as the Jeffersons' wisecracking Florence.)

Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says history haunts many black women who might want household help but hesitate to hire it.

From the end of slavery to the end of World War I, Harris says, "the job that black American women could get was being domestics. They were often incredibly disrespected." She knows this because Harris has heard the tales firsthand: "My paternal grandmother was a domestic," she says. "So for a lot of black American women, we can't let [the memories of] that go."

Harris definitely needs help. In addition to teaching history at Macalester, she also lectures at a nearby law school and is on the speakers' circuit. Her husband is a surgeon and spends long hours at the hospital. Their domestics have been au pairs from Europe who are part of an exchange program, and they're part of the team that watches over the Harris' three children.

The au pair arrangement works well for Harris and her immediate family, but, she says, her extended family and friends are not shy about telling her what they think. "I find that black Americans are open with how uncomfortable it would make them to have someone living in their home of a different race," she admits.

Solange Bumbaugh isn't as worried about race or ethnicity as she is about class. She and her husband agreed to hire a housekeeper several years ago to ensure domestic tranquility — no more fighting over who cleans what. But Bumbaugh still feels bad sometimes about asking for specific chores to be done. Knowing that communal history, "It feels uncomfortable, being on this side of the divide."

Then Bumbaugh shakes herself, and acknowledges reality: "That's clearly why [the housekeeper] is here, to make money for her children."

Maria Reyes has some advice for Bumbaugh: How you treat your housekeeper is more important than the fact that you have one. Reyes is a former housekeeper and nanny who now works on the staff of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the union for household staff, many of whom are immigrants. She's had good and bad employers of all ethnicities, Reyes says, and that doesn't matter: "What matters is that as an employee, you be treated with dignity and respect."

But sometimes respect is a subjective thing. Natalie Preston-Washington is a marketing and communications specialist at a university in Florida, and when she had her first baby, she looked for someone to come to her home monthly for large-scale cleaning. She hired a husband-and-wife team who were African-American and about her age. They had a cordial relationship — until she couldn't be home one day and left a to-do list for the couple.

"My list was not well-received," Preston-Washington sighs.

Looking back on it, Preston-Washington says the problem might have been boundaries: "I feel like they treated me like it was a personal relationship, rather than a professional one." She figured the cleaning arrangement was business; they might have thought the commonalities — same race, same age — made a bond.

Through history, though, when black women had help, it often was of a personal nature — maybe a cousin came to help out, or a neighbor from down the street, or a friend of a friend. These women were paid, but they weren't referred to as housekeepers. They were just folk who came and "did" for the family. But that was then. The new generation doesn't seem to mind a little distance.

Most social observers agree that the era of the black housekeeper has faded away. The duster has been passed to a new generation: Latinas now dominate the household and personal services industry. But just as the black middle class expanded in the '70s, the Latino middle class is expanding now. Which means Latinas in the position to hire a housekeeper or nanny are going to have to ask themselves the same questions their African-American sisters did: "Can I hire someone who looks like me? Is it OK for me to be the ma'am?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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