From Mammies to Militants
Domestics in Black American Literature
Publication: Nov 82
Rich in psychological insight, Harris shows how black authors use stereotypes in their fiction
The maid, like the matriarch, the hot mamma, or the tragic mulatto, is a stereotype of the black woman. From Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition to Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, black writers, some of whom worked as domestics themselves, have developed the stereotype in a special way as a figure to comment on black-white relations or to dramatize the conflicts of the black protagonists. In fact, the characters themselves, like real-life maids, often use the stereotype to their advantage or to trick their oppressors.
Granny Huggs, in Kristin Hunter's God Bless the Child, Amy tragically give her soul to her white family and put on airs with her own kind, but most of the characters develop powerful strategies for coping with the mistress' tests of their honesty and the master's sexual advances. The stories and plays discussed here are rich in psychological insight. When Carl, the "Man of All Work," in Richard Wright's story, disguises himself as his wife when she can't go to work, he is suddenly thrust into the maid's world. The mistress of the house insists that "she" sponge her down in the bath, the master tries to make love to "her," and the whole racial history of intimacy and oppression flashes through Carl's mind.
Relationships between people are not the only battleground. The house itself is a place where the servant who "knows her place" uses her door or her water glass and enters a room only in a certain way. As the maids become more militant, they flaunt these rules to torment their employers and then to overthrow them altogether.
Professor Harris explores the differences between Northern and Southern maids and between "mammy" and "militant." She touches on nearly all black American writers of the twentieth century, but gives extended discussions of works by Charles Chesnutt, Kristin Hunter, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, William Melvin Kelley, Alice Childress, John A. Williams, Douglas Turner Ward, Barbara Woods, Ted Shine, and Ed Bullins.
"There are no Dilseys here. If white authors had the luxury to canonize long-suffering blacks, the black author has had a more complex and more painful relation the subject. One cannot but wince to learn how many of these authors worked as maids, sometimes even after they had achieved a degree of literary success."
—The New York Times Book Review