My Cousin Shay worked as a chauffeur until he became too frail. It wasn’t until Cousin Shay died that I learned that he earned his money by driving for one of Cleveland’s “prominent” white residents. What’s so striking about films like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help is the presumption these films make regarding how black people viewed themselves in relationship to the white people they worked for. In Driving Miss Daisy, you have no sense of what Hoke’s life looked like when he wasn’t working. Hoke’s entire life occurs at work. When Cousin Shay came to visit, he never talked about work. Cousin Shay didn’t seem to find his employer nearly as interesting or as important as Hollywood films suggest he would. For Hollywood, black workers are never complicated or interesting; there’s no inner life that exists in opposition to the public face.
I remember listening to ABC News anchor, Peter Jennings, report on the end of South African apartheid that gestured towards this complicated inner world. Toward the conclusion of his report he told a story that served to reflect white anxiety regarding the possibility of black violence against them. In this account, a white, South African woman who for years employed a black, South African man as a servant peers through her window at the commotion taking place in the street. The woman turns to her employee and says, “they say there’s going to be violence when this is all over,” and he replies, “mm hmm.” “I’ve been good to you all these years, so you would never do anything to harm me; would you?” she asks. “Madame,” the black man replies, “you would be the first person I’d kill.” With that, Jennings signs off.
I was a young person when I heard Jennings tell this story, and it confused me. I didn’t understand then that in declaring her right to determine what her employee deserved offered some indication of the ways she had tormented him. Very seldom would you find in popular American culture a presentation of black folk in service to white folk that would make the servant in Jenning’s tale intelligible. I haven’t yet seen The Butler, but I don’t have much hope for a complicated representation of working class black folk with Lee Daniels, the film’s director, controlling this narrative. White supremacist ideology greatly informs Daniels’s vision of black life. He sees black people as nothing more than the stereotypes offered in American culture. This problematic point-of-view is blatantly expressed in Daniels’s claim that when he entered a health crisis center to learn more about AIDS and he saw “black women with kids—[he] thought [he] had walked into the welfare office.”
When I was growing-up, I just didn’t hear working-class people discussing how good they wanted to be at their jobs. Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha pretty much sums up the ambitions of the working-class folk I knew:
She was going to keep herself to herself. She did not want fame. She did not want to be a “star.”
To create–a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.
What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.
She would polish and hone that.
Maud Martha’s job is one worth having.