Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Review - Like One of the Family by Alice Childress

Paul Robeson, born in 1989, was an African American man who became a highly successful and well-known actor and singer.  Living most of his adult life in the Bronx, New York, he was a part of a vital and active African American community.  His performance of Othello was, at the time, the longest-running play on Broadway.  He was invited to visit the Soviet Union in 1934 and, upon his return to the USA, he became more politically aware and politicized.  He felt that, in the USSR, he was treated not as a Negro but as a human being with dignity and respect.  He was a deeply involved and vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in America from then on.  In 1950, he began publication of a civil rights-themed newspaper, called FREEDOM.  Included in these newspapers were brief fictional stories written by Alice Childress - conversations between a domestic worker named Mildred and her friend Marge.  FREEDOM was discontinued in 1955, and in 1956 Childress' vignettes were first collected and published as Like One of the Family.  It was republished in 1986 and then most recently in January of 2017.

In the book's 221 pages, there are 62 individual stories, each only a few pages long.  In each and every one of them, Mildred is telling Marge about an experience she had working in a white person's household.  In most of the stories, the employer has specific expectations for their relationship for the duration of Mildred's employment.  This includes what days/hours she will be expected to work, what she will wear while working, how she and her employer will interact, and other expectations for her work.  In all of these scenarios, the employer expects Mildred to bend to those wishes and demands without demur.  What they find, however, is a woman willing and able to stand up for herself and insist on being treated fairly and with respect.  She refuses to be viewed as anything other than a paid worker.  Even when she encounters a housewife who wants to only pay her two times a month (so as to get a free week of work every few months) and give her half-days off,  Mildred rebukes the woman and sets her straight with what her requirements are.  She is not a woman to be treated as anything close to a slave!

What the author does brilliantly in these stories is to not only to shine a light on the situations that may plague domestic workers, but to use these vignettes as vehicles to justify the many progressive aims of the Civil Rights Movement.  In the story, "Ridin' the Bus", Mildred and Marge are riding a city bus, taking seats in the very back of the bus.  This inspires Mildred to talk about how different it is to ride a bus in New York than it was anywhere in the South, because people can sit wherever they want and nobody pays any attention.  What was important was, "...that when we took this seat it simply showed which one we had picked out and not which one was picked for us" (pg. 13).  Mildred also notes that the segregated bus-riding laws restrict white people as much as black.  "Some people still think we want to sit with white people when they hear us talkin' about that Jim Crow ridin' and what they seem to forget is that there was never nothin' equal about those separate seats even though they were all on the same bus" (pg. 15).  Through this story, Childress is demonstrating that the Jim Crow laws of segregation, and any that restrict the freedoms one group, restrict the freedoms of all.  By granting full civil rights and citizenship to all peoples, regardless of the color of their skin, the entire population will be happier and more liberated.

Like One of the Family is a remarkable collection of brief vignettes about domestic work in particular and the Civil Rights Movement aims in general.  While the topics may be controversial, the writing is completely approachable.  It would be readable for people of all levels of education.  I believe that it was republished at a very appropriate time, because there are real political issues at play that may move this country back toward the era when these stories were written.  Perhaps this book will inspire a new generation of readers to take action and work for equality.

Librorum annis