Like One of the Family – Alice Childress (1954)

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(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition. The first day of February in 1960 was the first recognized lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, NC, when four college freshmen from North Caroline A&T sat at their local Woolworth’s requesting service. Looking back at this fairly recent history, I continue to be amazed at how people treat at each other – and continue to do so.)

I actually have no idea from where I got this title (probably on a fellow blog or similar), but it was on my TBR shelves and it fit perfectly into my February themed reading for Black History Month (in the U.S.).

Alice Childress

Alice Childress

Although this is fiction, it’s based on how life actually was for many people, and this book recounts the snippets of life for a black domestic worker in the 1950’s. (In fact, Alice Childress the author had experience in this position at times in her life.)

It’s written as a series of one-sided conversations between Mildred and her friend Marge who is also a housekeeper for another white family elsewhere, and, as both women live in the same apartment building, they usually get together for a chat after they get home as they’re friends as well as neighbors. This narrative structure worked really well, for it left a lot unsaid in its writing, which allowed the reader to become particularly engaged. It was like hearing only one side of a telephone call, or perhaps like reading a diary (except more immediate). (And it’s epistolary of sorts and you know how I like those.)

The title, “Like One of the Family”, was taken from a related conversation that Mildred had with the family for whom she cleans (and much more). For example, the (white) woman of the house was having a small gathering of her (white) women friends one morning, and as Mildred passed through the room, refilling plates and coffee cups, the hostess had said “Oh we love Mildred. She’s just like one of  us.”

This, of course, was patently untrue on many levels (and insulting on others), and as you read this part of the book, it’s crystal clear that, although the phrase was meant with benign intention, it was still insensitive. Mildred is not one to hide her feelings, and so once the visitors have left, she talked with the lady of the house and made it patently clear just why she feels it is not so. After you read why, you’ll agree as well as this is such a cogent obvious argument that it’s tough to realize why people did not understand that fact in those days. (Well, there was not a lot of clear race-focused thinking at that point in general, methinks.)

This is not a comfortable book to read as White writes Mildred with a simmering anger that bubbles just under the surface and you’re not quite sure when it’s going to emerge. It’s also difficult because as one looks back to that period in time, you know the life of the African-American person is not going to get better until many years into the future which added a little poignancy (combined with annoyance at the situation) for me. I just do not understand how one group of people could treat another group with such inhumanity. Mildred was not the only one getting angry in this story!

So this was a seething look at the world of domesticity, although this time was viewed through the lens of people who were forced to do it as they had few other options open to them (as opposed to the current New Domesticity crowd who have a wide range of choices). First published in 1956, and then not republished until Beacon Press released it in 1986. 1956 was at the cusp of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and was slap-bang in the middle of Jim Crow. Brown vs. the Board of Education had just happened in 1954, Doris Day was popular, the space race was picking up speed, and the Red Scare of Russian communism was a huge concern. The times they were a-changing and I can well imagine that this unnerved quite a few (white middle class) readers in the US of the 50’s.

This was a good read to begin February and Black History Month as I think it gives the immediacy of how frustrating and horrible the culture was if you were black (or African-American or similar) even a century after slavery had been outlawed. I’m looking forward to reading other titles as the month progresses, so more to come.

If you have titles that you’ve read or have heard of and would like to suggest them, please feel free. I’m always open for ideas, and I know that there are a lot of good reads out there of which I haven’t heard. Suggest away!

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