History Makes Hiring Household Help A Complex Choice

May 24, 2013
Originally published on May 26, 2013 5:39 pm

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?"

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. For generations of African-Americans, especially women, the job most available to them was working in someone else's home as a domestic. With the expansion of the black middle class, many black women are themselves hiring help. We have the latest story now in our series on The Changing Lives Of Women. Karen Grigsby Bates, of NPR's Code Switch team, explores why some African-American women are conflicted about being the ma'am their help answers to.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Solange Bumbaugh has a busy life. She's a mother of two small boys, and she's also completing a doctoral degree. She and her husband have a housekeeper, and she believes the money they spend on paying her is a good tradeoff for eliminating the marital spats they used to have over who cleaned what. But even though she's had help for several years now, Solange Bumbaugh remains conflicted about being the boss lady.

SOLANGE BUMBAUGH: It feels very weird. I know for me, certainly because of - you know, African-American history in this country, it feels uncomfortable being on this side of the divide.

BATES: Her current housekeeper is from Central America, and they speak to each other in Spanish. They have a good working relationship, but Bumbaugh says she still flinches a little bit every time she asks for work to be done. She doesn't want to feel like one of the housewives in "The Help," barking orders to their black maids.


BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (As Hilly Holbrook) Put mama in a chair before she breaks a hip.

BATES: But she's not a white socialite in 1960s Mississippi. So Solange Bumbaugh tries to put aside her middle-class guilt, to realize not employing her housekeeper isn't going to help either of them.

BUMBAUGH: Clearly, that's why she's here. She's here to make money for her children.

BATES: Maria Reyes says, in essence, get over that guilt thing. Reyes has worked as both a nanny and a housekeeper. She's now on staff with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and says having an employer of the same race doesn't guarantee anything.

MARIA REYES: (Foreign language spoken)

BATES: You and your employer don't have to be of the same race, Reyes says. What matters is that as an employee, you be treated with dignity and respect. We're human beings, she insists, and we deserve respect.

Natalie Preston-Washington is a marketing communications specialist in Tampa. She says friends and colleagues her age have no problem hiring help if they can afford it, and they are not conflicted in the least.

NATALIE PRESTON-WASHINGTON: We recognize that - you know, you can't be all things at all times to all people; and there is something that, you know, you will have to let go of. And for me, you know, it was cleaning.

BATES: So Preston-Washington hired a black couple to deep-clean her home monthly, after she had her son. She thought she was being respectful. But things got rocky when one day, she left a list of to-dos for the husband-and-wife team. The couple was offended, and so was Preston-Washington.

PRESTON-WASHINGTON: I feel like they treated me like it was a personal relationship rather than a professional one.

BATES: Forty years ago, if a black woman had help, frequently it was a personal relationship. Her housekeeper often was a friend of a friend or a neighbor, or someone from church. In 1975, the hit TV sitcom "The Jeffersons" built its first episode around Louise Jefferson's refusal to hire a housekeeper friend to clean the deluxe apartment in the sky she shared with her husband, George.


ISABEL SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) Remember when Lionel was growing up, and I did domestic work twice a week to - sort of help out?

SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Yes.

SANFORD: (As Louise) Remember the folks I worked for?

HEMSLEY: (As George) Uh-huh.

SANFORD: (As Louise) It was all "yes, ma'am, no ma'am." Now, how can I ask Diane to say"yes ma'am" to me?

HEMSLEY: (As George) Because now, you're the ma'am.

BATES: "Weezy" Jefferson eventually did hire an opinionated maid who stole the show. But Duchess Harris, professor of American history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., sympathizes with black women who cannot get comfortable with the notion of being the ma'am. She says for more than a century, there was one occupation open to them.

DUCHESS HARRIS: The job that black American women could get was being domestics. And they were awfully - incredibly disrespected. I mean, even my paternal grandmother was a domestic. And so for a lot of black American women, we can't let it go.

BATES: Harris and her husband, a surgeon, have gotten around that problem by hiring au pairs from an exchange program, to live with them and help with their three children. The young women mostly come from European countries that are part of the exchange, and it works well for her family. But Harris says a lot of her black friends and acquaintances wouldn't consider it.

HARRIS: I find that black Americans are open with how uncomfortable it would make them, to have someone living in their home from a different background.

BATES: Given demographic shifts, it's quite likely that "someone" will be a person of a different background. The majority of housekeepers in the U.S. are no longer African-American; they're Latina. And as the Latino middle class grows, many Latinos, like their African-American counterparts, have begun to ask themselves the same questions: Can I hire someone who looks like me? Is it OK to be the ma'am?

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.