BAR Book Forum: Tracey L. Walters’ “Not Your Mother’s Mammy”
The assumption is these women are uneducated or without skills beyond cleaning or caring for children and adults.
“There’s a misconception that these women are uneducated or without skills beyond cleaning or caring for children and adults. “
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tracey L. Walters. Walters is Associate Professor of Literature in the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University in New York, where she also holds an affiliate appointment with the Department of English and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Her book is Not Your Mother’s Mammy: The Black Domestic Worker in Transatlantic Women’s Media.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tracey L. Walters: The book engages with a number of current political issues: systemic racism, immigration, minimum wage, and so on. Unfortunately, discussions about immigration often fail to highlight the threat to domestic workers. Furthermore, advocacy around minimum wage often overlooks domestics. Thankfully, the social justice group Black Lives Matter has included domestic workers’ rights as part of their political/national agenda. BLMs partnership with well-established domestic worker advocacy groups is important because they have introduced a younger generation of activists to the plight of domestics and shown them the interconnectedness of immigration, wages, and gender oppression.
On another point, last summer, a number of companies made a commitment to engage in some administrative soul searching. Many implemented DE&I (Diversity, Equity, ad Inclusion) plans, others set to work changing the culture of the work environment or the branding of their products, especially if they were racially biased or insensitive. As an example, Aunt Jemima was denigrating to Black women. Although the Quaker Oats company kept updating her image, her name and her association with the image of the plantation mammy were racist. General Mills’ decision to remove the Aunt Jemima figure from their packaging was the first step to redress the company’s past actions.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope organizers and activists will gain insight into the lives of domestics beyond the USA. The book investigates the experiences of women in America, South Africa, and Senegal, as well as London, and Canada. My transnational reading of domestic workers makes the book unique. One of my main objectives was for scholars and activists to recognize the value of the creative works produced by former domestics. Alice Childress and Sindiwe Magona’s semi-autobiographical experiences resonate strongly with readers. These works, and others, not only expose the public to the exploitation and abuse experienced by domestic workers, but they tackle issues that are not often addressed, such as healthcare needs, mental health issues, concerns about immigration/deportation, and housing insecurity. Prior to writing the book, I hadn’t thought much about how some women are dependent upon domestic work for safe and secure lodging. Finding housing is especially difficult for newly arrived immigrants. Victoria Brown’s Minding Ben really highlights this problem. I really hope activists will be inspired to encourage domestic workers to write and document their histories. I know this work is happening. In 2019, The Brooklyn Public Library ran a free writing program for nannies. The eight-week “Nannies’ Fairy Tales Writing Workshop” was created by poet Mark Nowak.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Domestic workers are more than their uniform. There’s a misconception about women who work as domestics, especially women of color. The assumption is these women are uneducated or without skills beyond cleaning or caring for children and adults. The True Nanny Diaries serves as a perfect example. The protagonist arrived in America from Trinidad to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia University. Domestic work was only supposed to be a means to an end, but almost twenty years later, after losing her scholarship and failing to renew her visa, she had no choice but to work as a domestic. My chapter on black actresses who played maids during the Golden era of Hollywood are in a similar predicament. Black actresses played maids because they had no other choice. Many of these women were trained actresses who were as talented as white performers, but racial discrimination relegated them to supporting or marginal roles. Despite these setbacks, they found ways to assert themselves. Furthermore, while it might have looked as if they complacently took on roles as subservients, behind the scenes, they advocated for more diverse roles. Even when they were denied complex roles, they found ways to give their characters dignity or gave standout performances that made them memorable.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I was fortunate to receive my graduate training at Howard University. At Howard, I was exposed to an African diasporic intellectual tradition that laid the foundation for my own scholarship. Many of my intellectual heroes are scholar-activists and creatives. Caribbean intellectuals such as Stuart Hall, CLR James, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, Claudia Jones, and Carole Boyce Davies provided a strong grounding in postcolonial theory. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, Homi Bhabi, and Gyatri Spivak have a place on that list as well. James Bawldwin has played a prominent role in my intellectual journey. Sixty years later, Notes of a Native Son remains relevant. A lot of my own writing draws on black feminist theory. I’m heavily influenced by the work of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay, Britteny Cooper, Melissa-Harris Perry, and Hortense Spillers. Finally, Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer (and more recently) Zadie Smith, have all had a profound influence on my scholarship on the Black British experience. Zadie Smith’s slim volume of essays Intimations, written during the height of the pandemic, is absolutely fantastic. Joan Didion is not an intellectual hero, but I admire her writing. Almost all the writers on this list are referenced in Not Your Mother’s Mammy.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In a new world, the stigma about domestic work as women’s work would be a thing of the past. Today, stay at home mothers still do not receive compensation for completing household duties, and in advertising and film, women of color, continue to be cast as domestics. The book encourages us to think of a world where labor laws protect domestic workers and women who work as domestics do so because they can earn a living wage. Domestic Workers remain one of the only groups unprotected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) - farm workers are the other group. In 2019, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Representative Premilla Jayapal (D-WA) introduced legislation for the Federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In a perfect world, this legislation would be passed by 2022, and women who work as domestics, caregivers, etc., could unionize and be protected under federal law.
Finally, changes to immigration laws would make it easier for undocumented domestic workers to pursue a path to citizenship. This would mean, domestics would not have to choose between family and work. Currently, many domestics workers find themselves unable to return home for funerals, weddings and other special family occasions. Obviously, this takes an emotional toll on the women who are sacrificing so much to provide remittances for their families.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.