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Like One of the Family : Conversations from a Domestic's Life
Like One of the Family,which provides historical context for Kathryn Stockett's novel,The Help,is comprised of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge. They create a vibrant picture of the life of a black working woman in New York in the 1950s.Rippling with satire and humor, Mildred's outspoken accounts capture vividly her white employers' complacency and condescension-and startled reactions to a maid who'speaks her mind. As Mildred declares to a patronizing employer that she is not just like one of the family, or explains to Marge how a tricky employer has created a system of half days off to cheat her help, we gain a glimpse not only of one woman's day to day struggle, but of her previous ache of racial oppression. A domestic who refuses to exchange dignity for pay, Mildred is an inspiring conversationalist, a dragon slayer in a segregated world. The conversations in the book were first published inFreedom,the newspaper edited by Paul Robeson, and later in theBaltimore Afro-American.
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October 31, 1986
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Excerpt from Like One of the Family by Alice Childress
If You Want to Get Along With Me
Marge, ain't it strange how the two of us get along so well? . . . Now you see there! Why do you have to get so sensitive? . . . No, I was not reflecting on your personality or making any kind of digs! . . . Well, if you'll give me a chance I'll try to explain what I mean . . . I've known you for years and although you've got your ways . . .Yes, yes, I know I've got mine . . . but the important thing is that we go right on being friends . . . for example, remember the time you borrowed my best white gloves and lost them? . . . I know that I spilled punch on your blue satin blouse! . . . Now, wait a minute, girl! Are we goin' to have a big argument over how friendly we are!
I said all of that to say this. Today I worked for Mrs. M . . . and she is an awful nice lady when she wants to be, but she can get on my nerves something terrible. . . . No, I do not mean that you get on my nerves too, and if you keep pickin' up on every litte thing I say, I'm gonna get up and go on home. . . . Well, gettin' back to Mrs. M . . ., she can make me downright uncomfortable! . . . Yes, you know what I mean, she turns my workaday into a real socializin' session, and her idea of socializin' is to ask me a million questions. . . . "What do you do after work, Mildred?" and "Do you have a lot of friends?" and "Are you married?" and "Do you have a boyfriend" and "Do you save your money?" and "Do you like to read?" and "Do you people like this or that?" . . . By you people she means colored people... and I can tell you she can wear my nerve-cells pretty near the breaking point. . . . I know you know!
Well, at first I tried to get used to it because she is so nice in other ways . . . I mean like not followin' me around and dippin' into every thing I'm doing . . . yes, I appreciate that. . . . She lets me do my work, and then if anything isn't quite pleasin' to her she will tell me afterwards but it usually turns out that she's satisfied. Also I like the fact that she is not afraid of a little work herself, and many a day we've worked side by side on jobs that was too much for me to handle all alone. Also she makes the children call me Miss Jonhson. . . . Sure, whenever anybody has so many good ways, you hate to be pointin' out the bad ones. . . . But question, question, question... and it wasn't only the questions. . . . Honey, she could come out with the most gratin' remarks! . . . Honestly, she made such a point of tellin' me about how much she liked and admired Negroes, and how sorry she felt for their plight, and what a fine, honest, smart, and attractive woman was workin' for her mother and so forth and so on and so forth until it was all I could do to keep from screamin', "All right, back up there and take it easy!"
Well, the upshot of it al was that I began to pick her up a little here and there in order to put her on the right track. For example, I'd say to her, "What's so strange about that woman being honest and attractive?" Well, Marge, she'd look so stricken and hurt and confused that I'd find myself feelin' sorry for her. . . . No, I didn't stop altogether but I'd let things go along a bit and then I'd have to pick her up on something again, and over a period of five or six weeks I had to jack her up several times. . . . Girl! all of a sudden she turned coldly polite and quiet and I can tell you that it was awful uncomfortable and strained in the house.
I guess I could have stood the strain but it began to tear me up when she'd say things like "May I suggest" and "Do you mind if I say" and "If it's all right with you." . . . When I had my fill of that I came right out and asked her, "Mrs. M . . ., what is the matter, you look so grieved and talk so strange 'til I don't know what to think?" She looked at me accusingly and said, "I'm afraid to say anything to you, Mildred. It seems that every time I open my mouth something wrong comes out and you have to correct me. It makes me very nervous because the last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings. I mean well, but I guess that isn't enough. I try to do the right thing and since it keeps coming out wrong I figured I'd just keep quiet. I . . . I . . . want to get along but I don't know how."
Marge, in that minute I understood her better and it came to my mind that she was doing her best to make me comfortable and havin' a doggone hard go of it. After all, everything she's ever been taught adds up to her being better than me in every way and on her own she had to find out that this was wrong. ... That's right, she was tryin' to treat me very special because she still felt a bit superior but wanted me to know that she admired me just the same."
"Mrs. M ...," I said, "you just treat me like you would anybody else that might be workin' for you in any kind of job. Dont' be afraid to talk to me because if you say the wrong thing I promise to correct you, and if you want to get along you won't mind me doing so. After all, if I got into all your personal business and wanted to know everything about your life and your husband and your friends, pretty soon you would be forced to correct me even though it might make me uncomfortable." "Oh, Mildred," she says, "I didn't realize . . ." "Of course you didn't," I cut in, "but can't you see that it's unfair to push a one-sided friendship on me?" "Mildred," she says, "I wanted to be friendly." "Now of course you did," I answered, "but, for example, when you told me the other day that you're going to drop by my house and see me sometime I don't appreciate that because I never invited you, and you never had me to your house except to do a day's work." She looked down at her hands as I went on, "I don't think it's fair that you can invite yourself to my house and I can't tell you that I'll be over here for tea on Sunday afternoon."
Marge, she shook her head sadly. "You mean that there is nothing that we have in common, nothing that we can talk about?" "I didn't say that at all," I sad, "but let's just relax and feel our way along and not try to prove anything, and before you know it everything will go along easy-like."
She smiled then, "You mean you don't want to be treated special?" "Well, I do and I don't," I answered; "because I knew a woman once who was awful rude to me and said that was the way she was with everybody, no matter what color, and she didn't want to treat me special. I told her that if that was her general way then I'd appreciate her treatin' me special and I'd bet that other folks would like the change, too." Marge, Mrs. M . . . fell out laughin' and says, "Mildred, people are the limit!" ... And I guess she's right too. . . . No indeed, I don't take that time and bother with most folks because when I run into a mean, hateful one who comes chatterin' around me about "What do you do after work?" I just give her a short smile and say, "Oh first one thing and then another." And by the time she's figured that out, I'm in another room busy doin' something else! . . . That's right, but, as I said, Mrs. M . . . is a nice person, so I told her.