African American literature offers revealing glimpses into the life and psyche of the black female domestic worker. The domestic worker in the north is revealed here to be as badly used as the worker in the south. Even though the women do a full day’s work cleaning and cooking for their employers, they still must fulfill their responsibilities to their own families and households when they return to their homes. Sometimes they are even endangered in the households in which they are employed.
Richard Wright spent much time and effort for years investigating, researching, and interviewing female domestic workers in New York for his unpublished 1940s novel, Black Hope. He focused on the street corners or “slave markets” where black women stood waiting to be chosen to perform a day’s domestic work. He had a real interest in their plight, and he recorded many stories of hardship and abuse at the hands of their employers. Black Hope tells the story of Ollie who is cruelly abused by her employer. The story is not exaggerated, however, because Wright recorded similar stories in his interviews with black maids.
In contrast, Kristin Hunter’s God Bless the Child (1964) presents Louvenia Huggs, a long-time maid for a family in a northern city. Louvenia had been with her white employers for thirty years. She believed herself to be a member of the family. She extolled their virtues and their way of life. She brought their cast-offs when she came home Thursdays and every other weekend to the tenement apartment she shared with her daughter and granddaughter. When the old employer died and the house was bequeathed elsewhere, Louvenia was let go with no provisions having been made for her old age.
Ann Petry’s “In Darkness and Confusion” is a novella based on the Harlem Riot in 1943. In Harlem, William and his wife, Pink, struggle to survive. William is a janitor at a drugstore. He is ill-paid and treated with disrespect and condescension. William knows that he and Pink will soon have to move from their tenement apartment because climbing the stairs is getting to be too much for the grossly obese Pink. He and Pink have one son, Sam, who is in the army. Devastated by the news that Sam has been sentenced to twenty years hard labor, they join a race riot that was sparked by a policeman’s murder of a young black soldier. Pink exemplifies the hard-working domestic. She works hard for her employers, and still has her own chores to take care of at home. On that fateful Saturday, William muses that “Pink wouldn’t be home until late. The white folks she worked for were having a dinner party tonight. And no matter how late she got home on Saturday night she always stopped on Eighth Avenue to shop for her Sunday dinner” (175). William wonders why he and Pink hadn’t gotten any further in life than William’s own mother who had “scrubbed floors, washed, and ironed in the white folks kitchens. They [he and Pink]were doing practically the same thing” (176). Pink dies during the race riot. She strained herself pulling an iron grate from a storefront to allow rioters to enter the store.
In Richard’s Wright’s bitterly humorous radio play “Man of All Work” (later published in a collection of his short stories) Carl dresses up as a woman to go out to work as a domestic one day. He is trying to get some quick money as his wife is sick, and cannot go out to work . Unfortunately, the employer makes sexual advances to him. Upon discovering her husband groping Carl, the wife shoots wildly and slightly wounds Carl. When they discover he is really a man, they pay him to keep quiet and to go away. Upon his return home, Carl’s wife begs him not to ever again dress as a woman and work as a maid.
Lutie in Ann Petry’s The Street, is a young married woman who goes to work as a live-in domestic for an affluent white family in Connecticut. Lutie is a sensitive and intelligent high school graduate. Mrs. Chandler, the woman for whom she works is not much older than Lutie. Lutie studies Mrs.Chandler, noticing the privileges that come with skin color, money, and class. Lutie wonders how she and her husband can get ahead in life. Mr. Chandler and his friends’ and parents’ talk is all about money. Absorbing all the talk about money and getting ahead, Lutie formulates a plan for herself and her husband to save money and eventually become prosperous. But unfortunately, Lutie loses her husband to another woman before she can realize her dream. To save on transportation expenses, Lutie had been coming home only once a month. While she is gone during the month, her husband had moved in another woman.
Each of the maids depicted in these books has her (or his) own unique life story. The maids vary in age and in physicality, in temperament, and in motivation, and in once instance, sex. However, they all share a common bond: their black skins, which means that during a certain time period in the United States, they were compelled to earn money by working as domestic servants because there were few other options open to them. Their lives are not easy, but they work hard and hope for a better day. Most of the time they are disappointed, however.