Why Occupy Can’t Just Get By With a Little Help from Our Friends

Like countless others in our justice movement(s), I am awestruck by the dynamism of the coming-together of so many struggles in this moment—Troy Davis, Occupy Wall Street, police brutality, Anonymous, the California prisoners hunger strike, the growing atmosphere of drawing lines in the sand and taking sides. But last week I was set on different path that feels valuable in examining the kinds of privilege that are accelerating these current movement narratives, and which are largely absent in my local context of impoverished, under-educated, and largely computer/internet-illiterate New Orleans.


Last week I saw Yes Ma’am, a documentary that would be a perfect response to The Help if it didn’t pre-date that novel by 28 years. Yes Ma’am is a series of interviews and filmed interactions between white New Orleans families and the Black women (or almost entirely women) who work as their maids.


Unlike The Help, there are no white heroes in the story Yes Ma’am tells. The viewer’s interactions with white subjects are stiff, often a moving family portrait featuring a white couple and their children seated around a “maid” who is “part of the family,” has “raised” the children, who is a “friend.”  Through these uncomfortable scenes and more candid interviews with Black subjects, the audience learns of concerns workers share about job security as their bodies begin to give out after four or five decades of selfless service, or the shame their children feel about their line of work. One Black man mentions that throughout the neighborhood he is known by his own first name and his employer’s last name, a brief moment in the film that sent me reeling. (It’s as though he were assigned a slave name, in the 1980s. But of course, he could think of his given name as a slave name—how many names would we have to travel through to find his first ancestral encounter with colonization and subjugation?)  Black women talk about the politics of winning the love of the families they work for, and thereby acquiring some level of job security. One woman explains that her employer didn’t simply catch a lucky break, but was instead “born lucky, while I was born into bondage.” Here, the heroes manifest as Black women organizing at the bus stop, handing out leaflets to other domestic workers and refusing to even say the word “maid,” instead referring to themselves as home technicians, a term with tangible results: One woman talks about being unable to secure a loan when she referred to herself as a “M-A-I-D,” but later impressing the loan officer when she identified herself as a technician.


And the white people in the film—chilling. Our best representative is a woman who explains that she loved the Black women who raised her so much that she joined the civil rights movement—but was soon disappointed at how “belligerent” those same women became when she expressed to them the manner through which she believed they “should exert their rights.” The rest of the white subjects are far more uncomfortable to watch. Some actively seek out a “Mammy” figure later in life, while one young man lusts somewhat openly for the significantly older woman who raised him. Framed Mammy-themed art and imagery hangs in some of the white homes featured in the film, and every white family without exception speaks as though their relationship with their maid is unique in that it is one of friendship and family.

I tried to look up a good summary of this film, and that Google experience jarred me even more—what little coverage the film has received upon its re-release frames the issue of Black folks working in white folks’ homes as though this is an uncomfortable chapter in our history. It’s as if we all previously agreed not to acknowledge that this phenomenon is very much a part of our present, even as we actively whitewash that same “past” through The Help, a sharp regression from the awkward and often brutal honesty of Yes Ma’am.


But how can Yes Ma’am’s reality pull off this trick of hiding in the past?  I was born the year after this film was released, and I was raised in Cleveland in part by domestic workers, who were mostly Black.[1] Are we seriously acting like that no longer happens in the North, as well as the South?


Our current moment at the expense of a Black man murdered by the state last month, and the technologies available to those of us who are generally far less likely to be killed by the state, have combined to reveal to many social [justice] net-workers the fate of one Black woman who was horribly abused in her role as a maid.[2]  But these technologies that carry resistance messages of hacktivists and justice-minded Flickr users are perhaps least accessible to the people closest to this chilling and elusive history.  Here in New Orleans, these stories are often passed down through oral tradition, and the curation of collective history.


The Help is useful in thinking about oral histories—who collects them, and who profits from them. Just as our current movement moment comes at the expense of the lives of people like Troy Davis and Lena Baker, The Help’s protagonist (as well as the novel’s author) builds her success on the backs of the stories and experience of Black maids. While the role of privilege and personal profit in The Help has been impressively explored through a number of thoughtful critiques, a more recent, local, and nonfiction example offers another chilling representative of white people’s building their success on the back of collective Black knowledge, suffering, resistance, and academic and cultural production: This past weekend I attended a lecture by Dr. Leon Waters about Daniel Rasmussen’s book American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. I don’t know Rasumussen, who recently graduated from Harvard and launched himself onto national bestseller lists with his telling of the 1811 slave revolt here in Louisiana. And I don’t know the specifics of the information Dr. Waters shared with him before Rasmussen chose to be transparent about his research and intentions. But it seems clear that in publishing this “untold” story and in frequently citing only to databases and other research the author himself created, Rasmussen dipped into local Black oral history and the careful curation of that history by several of our local community members in a way that has caused serious pain and deeply disconcerting accusations of theft.


Like so many throughout our national and global media-savvy community, I have watched with bated breath as the largely white and relatively well-resourced Occupy movement(s) and the largely white and well-resourced hacker and legal collectives that support them are daily sharpening the cutting edge of resistance in our current context, inspiring and enduring work for which I’m so truly, deeply grateful. And l am in awe of the painful and powerful work that people of color and white allies are doing to expand this movement into one that is truly for and by the 99%. But like so many others, I cannot help but notice that the revolutionary moments that have led us to this point have largely come at the expense of under-resourced people of color—the disproportionate victims of predatory lending and eviction, Rodney King, Guantánamo Bay detainees, victims of police violence and torture in New Orleans and Chicago and across the country, Oscar Grant, profiled, disappeared, abused, and incarcerated people of color throughout the US, peoples in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Irvine 11, Troy Davis, etc, etc, etc. And with deep love and respect, I hope that those of us with race/class/educational/cultural privilege can think about doing this work in a way that doesn’t merely launch individual bestselling-writer careers or turn the suffering and sacrifices of people of color into a marginalizing movement moment. It is our work to integrate this movement so that we don’t need an FBI-accessible Facebook account or the ability to access and navigate an internet browser to engage in this struggle. Because as exciting as this moment is, our movement will never plant roots while it’s standing on the backs of its most vulnerable, bravest, experienced, and knowledgeable members.


Emily Ratner is the co-coordinator of the National Lawyers Guild student chapter at Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law. She is a member of Eurporan Dissent and the Greater New Orleans Organizers Roundtable, and her writing has appeared in a number of publications and news sites, including Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Electronic Intifada, Washington Report on the Middle East, and MondoWeiss.


[1] My own relationship to the concept of “the help” is deeply problematic of course, and has been a source of great confusion and guilt for me.  It’s also resurged recently—just as The Wire actor Wendell Pierce recently revealed that his mother was “the help,” I am currently struggling with the morally correct way to be honest about my own experience of this phenomenon—a decades-long process that goes beyond the scope of this piece.

[2] “The Only Woman Electrocuted in Georgia's Electric Chair,” published on Flickr and shared heavily on Facebook. “Such is the story of Lena Baker, an African-American mother of three, who was electrocuted at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.  She was convicted for the fatal shooting of E. B. Knight, a white Cuthbert, Georgia mill operator she was hired to care for after he broke his leg. She was 44 and the only woman ever executed in Georgia’s electric chair. For Baker, a Black maid in the segregated south in the 1940’s, her story was a tough sell to a jury of 12 white men. And rumors that she was romantically involved with victim E. B. Knight did not help.  Her murder trial lasted just a day, without a single witness called by her court-appointed lawyer. She was convicted and sentenced to death. John Cole Vodicka, director of an Americus-based inmate advocacy program known as the Prison and Jail Project, said Knight had kept Ms. Baker as his "virtual sex slave." She was his paramour, she was his mistress, and, among other things, his drinking partner. If you read the transcript and have any understanding of black-white relations, Black women were often subjected to the sexual whims of their white masters, their white bosses, or some white man who had control over their lives or the lives of their families. "Here is one who resisted and paid the price.”  The undertaker who brought her body back to Cuthbert buried her in a grave that went unmarked for five decades, until the congregation of Mount Vernon Baptist Church raised $250 for a concrete slab and marker. Relatives are still trying to clear her name with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.  Lena Baker, who had a sixth-grade education, stated publicly her innocence to the very end. “What I done, I did in self-defense," she said in her final statement. "I have nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/22067139@N05/2419978246/ 

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