- The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South by Katherine Van Wormer, David W. Jackson, and Charlotte Sudduth
The Maid Narratives is a book whose substance reflects the interests and experiences of its authors: Katherine Van Wormer’s (white) relatives employed black domestic servants; David Jackson’s (black) relatives were domestic servants; and Charletta Sudduth studied the Great Migration for her doctoral dissertation using oral history as a core methodology. The Maid Narratives, then, explores the relationship between black domestic servants and their white employers in the Jim Crow-era South, as well as delves into the choices of African Americans who participated in the Great Migration from the Southern states to the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western United States from the 1910s through the 1960s. Central to the authors’ study are oral histories with over fifty individuals, black and white, who discuss what it felt like either to be a domestic servant in the United States in the Jim Crow era or to have a person work in their home as a servant during such racially divided and charged times. The authors are not only interested, as they make clear in the introduction, in capturing this aspect of American history and in introducing more detail about domestic life and work in the South during this period of time, but also in probing their interviewees about, for example, how African Americans raised their children to become competent adults when the children received little formal education, what it is like to have memories of living in a society whose social customs seem strange and foreign today, and how it is possible not to be consumed with rage and bitterness about the oppression of Jim Crow-era life and social stratifications.
The book is well organized, especially for those who have very little knowledge of life in Jim Crow South, and is broken into three parts: “The Background,” “The Maid Narratives,” and “The White Family Narratives.” The number of chapters in each part varies slightly, with three in the first and two each in the second and the third.
In the first part of The Maid Narratives, the authors set the stage for their interviewees, offering a good amount of historical context for the Jim Crow era and introducing the reader to the women of the Great Migration generally—their motivations, the social structures in which they had to live and work, and other such relevant topics. After doing this, they immediately move into what the domestic servants had to say about their employment, presenting segments from each of the thirteen oral history interviews they conducted with African American women (the reader gets to see the interviewers’ questions followed by the answers of the interviewee). The authors arranged these interview segments chronologically by the age of each woman and provided a little information about the background of each interviewee ahead of her testimony. Although [End Page 359] there is some diversity among these interviewees, seven of the thirteen women were migrants from the South to Waterloo, Iowa, who reflected on the conditions in the South and compared them to the conditions under which they lived and worked in the North. Most of the interviewees’ testimony did allow for greater insight into domestic racial structures, such as black maids not being able to use their white employer’s toilet, not being able to enter homes through the front door, not being given a living wage, and being called by their first names while having to address their employers as “mister” and “misses.” Following the narrative segments, the authors then move on, in the next chapter, to sum up what they found to be the major themes expressed in the servants’ oral histories. Of greatest interest to them were, for example, share-cropping, the civil rights movement, childrearing, Southern racial etiquette, and starting one’s life over after moving North.
The third part of the book focuses...