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Like One of the Family, Alice Childress.

March 15, 2016

Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life,  Alice Childress. Beacon Press, 1986. (First published as a book in 1956.)

Light-hearted, feisty essays, by an African American woman, describing her work in the homes of others and commenting on events around her.

Alice Childress (1916-1994) was an actress, playwright, and novelist who broke barriers for black women in the American theater. In her writing she focused attention on those traditionally ignored by mainstream America. This book is a collection of short pieces originally written in the 1950s for distribution to African American newspapers about the only employment available to many black women.

The narrator of Like One of the Family is Mildred, a spunky African American woman ready to talk back to those who challenge her dignity.  She is single, lives in an apartment house, and regularly stops off in the apartment of her friend, Marge, to relax and talk. She often describes herself as acting with bravery and wit, confronting whites in ways that most black women didn’t dare to do.

The title and first piece in the collection highlight the words of those who employed black domestic servants claiming to treat them “like one of the family.” (This is a response I still get online when I review a book critical of slavery and the treatment of domestic servants.) When an employer makes this claim, Mildred forcefully responds.

In the first place, you do not love me; you may be fond of me, but that is all. . . In the second place, I am not just like one of the family at all! The family eats in the dining room and I eat in the kitchen. Your mama borrows your lace tablecloth for her company and your son entertains his friends in the parlor, your daughter takes her afternoon nap on the living room couch, and her puppy sleeps on your satin spread. . . and whenever your husband gets tired of something you are talking about he says ‘For Pete’s sake, forget it.’

Mildred frequently snaps back at those who do not treat her with dignity. She also writes about an ideal employer and urges domestic servants to unionize. When whites were discussing whether or not Africans were “fit for freedom,” she responded “if educated folk can’t do anything but jail, whip, starve and abuse, what in the devil makes you think they are anything but unfit to rule”? Other comments relate to events she attends in and outside of the African American community.

I recommend this enjoyable book to readers interested in the views of working-class black women before they gained access to a greater range of jobs.  It is simply fun to read.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2016 2:18 pm

    Oh I’m glad to see one of the books from The Real Help Reading Challenge pop up in someone’s blog after all these years. Yay!

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