- Twenty-Five Years Out from Telling MemoriesConversations Between Mary Yelling and Susan Tucker
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For Telling Memories Among Southern Women, Mary Yelling interviewed about one-third of some 200 women who had the time and courage to talk to us about their memories of domestic workers and domestic work. As I said in the book, Mary’s part was essential. As an African American woman, she was able to gain trust with current and former domestic workers in our racially divided society much more quickly than I, a white woman, could.
We had first met in 1979 on Department of Labor survey research projects carried out in Mobile, Alabama. Mary began with them when she decided to leave work as a math teacher. I began with them also in a gap year, away from being a librarian and archivist, because I wanted to explore more fully than a full-time job would allow the relationships of white employers to their African American domestics. I had begun this work in 1973, interviewing white women and researching domestic workers as portrayed in literature and archival records.
In 1980 I asked Mary to join me in this research because we shared an interest in our segregated communities and how segregation was both mitigated and reinforced by domestic workers, their employers, and especially the system that created and continued a servant caste. We also soon learned that we shared much more. Our grandmothers and grandfathers had lived on the same street, for example, and essentially we had grown up in the same neighborhood, albeit one divided by race. Both of us also loved stories, and we thought of the stories that domestic workers and their employers told about one another as critical to understanding so much around us.
I have received three to seven calls every year since 1988 from those seeking advice about their own work on domestics or pleased to tell me how they had read Telling Memories and used some of the narratives as a springboard for their research and writing. One of these callers was Kathryn Stockett. Given the frequency of these calls over the years, perhaps it should have occurred to me how significant a topic the story of domestic workers might prove one day to popular audiences. I did not think this, but I was always glad to help, and Mary and I remain grateful that we were able to provide some part of a foundation upon which others could build.
On the other hand, because of this continuing interest and because of a sense of fairness to all those women who told us intimate details of their lives, Mary and I have continued to work together in a series of recorded conversations (with each other and with others over the last two decades) on a variety of topics, especially the centrality of place in shaping who one becomes, and legacies within life paths set alongside thoughts on reparations for slavery. The excerpts below come from this documentary project.
In Their Own Words …
Tell me about your earliest memory of a domestic worker.
I guess it would be of my grandparents’ cook. I can remember seeing her in the kitchen. And there was a little set of steps that I would climb up and jump down into her arms. Also, my grandfather would sit at the table and he would say, “Cook, bring the ice cream.” I remember how she would stand with her hands on her hips when she talked to him. She was assertive. I didn’t know the words for that, but I knew she stood her ground. He wasn’t supposed to have dessert. And my other grandmother had a maid named Mattie, and she made really good pralines...