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Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis.

February 8, 2012

Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. Smithsonian Books (Reprint 2010), 256 pages.

An engaging and unique book “giving voice” to women who worked as domestic servants in Washington, D.C. during the first half of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Clark Lewis conducted 123 detailed interviews recording women’s own accounts of their lives in the south before coming to D.C., the family decisions for them to move, the work they did, and their shift from live-in jobs to day-work. As Amanda says of Tera Hunter’s Joy to My Freedom, “it is impossible not to be moved and outraged by the tale of these women’s struggles.”

Lewis arranges excerpts from the women’s stories into chapters organized around different periods in their lives. I learned much from their depictions of their childhood in the deep south when they were put to work and given responsibility at unbelievably young ages and how they went north less of their own volition than out of the survival needs of their extended families. I had no idea how laundresses served as role models for live-in servants, giving them suggestions for gaining day jobs.

But the truth of the women’s stories is not necessarily the larger truth about black women as domestic servants or about black women’s history more generally. As bell hooks says, “All too often in our society, it is assumed that one can know about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person.” (Ain’t I a Woman, 11)

Oral histories have limitations, and Lewis’ uncritical reliance on them raises troublesome questions. We find ourselves limited to the perspective and memories of the women themselves. At times, the women speak out on topics beyond their own personal experience, claiming to know about the experiences of immigrant and white women working as domestics servants. They compare their own situations to that of domestics “down home” even though they left there as children. I was more willing to trust their assessment of the white women for whom they worked because such understanding on their part was essential to their own survival. Nonetheless, I found their depictions of their “mistresses” somewhat simplistic.

In addition, Lewis does not provide adequate context for understanding what the domestic servants said. Her remarks connecting and discussing the women’s stories sometimes seem shallow or without convincing evidence. We aren’t told, for example, how the interviewees were chosen or how representative they are. The women proudly talk of their own decisions to give up the security of their jobs living in the homes of their employers and to work by the day, but we are not given any significant evidence of what demographic and economic factors made the change possible. Extensive footnotes indicate that Lewis knows the growing literature about black women as domestic servants. I wish she had integrated more of that knowledge into the book itself.

Another problem in the book is that Lewis only touches in passing on topics relating to sexuality and marriage. Her reticence here probably reflects the interviewees’ insistence on privacy. Simply ignoring these issues, however, leaves a gap in the overall narrative.

Despite my reservations about some Lewis’ claims, nothing can take the place of actual women remembering their lives—especially when the women are black women who have been domestic servants, a group seldom heard from or taken seriously in our society.

Yes. Read this book. I recommend it especially to readers wanting to move beyond the stereotypes our society harbors about black women and to hear their authentic voices.

How does Lewis’ relationship to and admiration for the women she writes about strength and weaken her book? Why does she include so much detail about the women as they were decades after they worked as servants?

Issues of race, class and gender pervade this book, but are seldom analyzed as such. How do you see these particular factors affecting the lives of the women interviewed? What can their experience tell us about race, class, and gender?

With regional variations, many of the black women entering academia and the professions after 1980 had mothers or grandmothers like the women Lewis interviewed. What impact did such women have on today’s black professional women? What role did they play in younger women’s success?

Lewis’ account of black women working as domestic servants is very different from that of Tera Hunter’s T ‘Joy my Freedom, which considers similair group in Atlanta in a slightly earlier period? What accounts for the differences? See my review of Hunter.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 7:07 am

    This sounds like a really great read, and I love how the problematic aspect is highlighted here. I can’t believe I misplaced my copy and really hope I’m able to find it and read it soon to be able to contribute more to the discussion!

  2. February 18, 2012 2:12 pm

    This seems like a helpful contribution to the record, if missing context. Thanks for providing hints to more of that context. If we end up reading this for my book club I’ll remember to refer back to this.

    • February 23, 2012 3:18 pm

      I think this would be a good book for a book club. If you do consider it, you might look back at the various reviews of Hunter’s T’Joy My Freedom, or even make sure someone has read it, to give more context. For example, D.C. was about the only place were significant numbers of black domestic servants took jobs as live-in servants.

  3. February 18, 2012 2:57 pm

    I really want to read this – excellent thoughts on this book.


  1. To ‘Joy My Freedom, by Tera Hunter. « Me, you, and books
  2. The Real Help: Living In, Living Out by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis « Amy Reads

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