Review: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow by Jacqueline Jones
Title: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, from Slavery to the Present
Author: Jones, Jacqueline
Length: 408 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Race, History, Women, Politics
Publisher / Year: Basic Books / 2009 (updated second edition)
Why I Read It: Our second read for The Real Help project.
Date Read: 22/09/11
Note: This is a project initiated by Amanda and I to read the books recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians as alternatives to The Help. Please see the dedicated page I created for more information and for a schedule. We are hoping that more readers join us and we are also looking for others to host discussions. For discussion of this title, read on below! I am the discussion leader for this title.
In this book Jones offers a thorough analysis of black women, as the title suggests, from the times of slavery through to present day. The book was originally written in 1985 but the author updated the book and it was released in a second edition in 2009. I love studies that look at the intersection of various topics rather than examining one and ignoring the rest, because life doesn’t happen in a vacuum like that. Jones does that in a way that few do. This book is a true examination of race and gender, as well as class, and we study all of these as they interact with each other throughout the years.
Starting with slavery Jones talks about how both black men and black women were affected, but she highlights the ways in which women experienced slavery in such a different manner. Throughout history, from slavery and until present day, women have been responsible for work in and outside of the home. In this way they do more than and experience different and additional issues to those of men. For example in the time of slavery women were usually expected to work as hard or almost as hard as men, but were also responsible for bearing and raising children, and keeping a home – cooking, sewing, cleaning, and more. White women, however, were not expected to do any work outside of the home at this time and also had the black slaves to help them in the house. For this reason examining history through the lens of only race or only gender does not give the true picture of life for black women.
One of the themes that was highlighted most often through the book was that of family. Black women were forced to toil long hours for meager pay throughout history and until the present, and still expected to do most of the work at home as well. Jones talks about how work at home was prized and worth doing, often times, compared to work for whites, and how they would always try their best to find jobs with as much time with their family as they could.
Jones says on page 58:
For most black women, then, freedom had very little to do with individual opportunity or independence in the modern sense. Rather, freedom had meaning primarily in a family context. The institution of slavery had posed a constant threat to the stability of family relationships; after emancipation these relationships became solidified [...]
The way that freedom was granted with no accompanying land or money or opportunities of any kind really drove the way our culture stereotypes to this day. Men are seen as “irresponsible” because they are unable to make livable wages. Eventually (though not really covered by this book), these men become criminalized. Women are seen as “parasites” because rather than being prized “breeders” for new slaves, instead they become a drain on the resources of plantation owners who have hired the family. This has become the “welfare queen” stereotype, when women can’t make a living wage that allows her to afford childcare, transportation, and other necessary expenses – no matter that white women are often expected or exhorted to return or stay at home being a homemaker. So basically black women were demonized for wanting to take time away from paid work to spend on their families, time that white women took for granted themselves.
Of the role of maid or servant Jones writes on page 110:
In fact, the system of paid household labor itself undermined the black woman’s own role as mother and homemaker. It thus served as a tangible reminder of the days of bondage, when black women were (in the eyes of whites) servants first and family members only incidentally. Moreover, service made manifest all the tensions and uncertainties inherent in the personal interactions between the female members of two different classes.
Jones also talks about the history of black women as house help and how they would, as proved time and again through history, take any other job no matter how terrible to avoid it. She talks about how mistreated they were and how they often had to lie to get by and survive in the job. Related to this, she talks about how black women were a huge force behind much of the civil rights activism and victories, and how unwilling participants many of the white women often were (i.e. in driving their black maids to and from work because they refused to take the segregated buses anymore). On page 235 she says:
Observers frequently noted that southern black women formed the “backbone” of the movement
And on page 242:
Like their menfolk, white women believed that citizenship rights were finite, and tot he extent that black people won their rights, those of whites would be diminished accordingly. At the same time, white women’s fury over school integration in particular seemed to represent a perverse form of mothering, an attempt to preserve for their own children the advantages which depended on denying those advantages to others.
I was really happy too with the inclusion of up-to-date information on current situations. It was incredible to me, especially given the way things are going now, how important unions really were in pushing for better opportunities and living wages for black men and women, and sometimes even jobs. While originally often antagonistic to black employees they became one of the main forces for many of the workplace advances that black people managed to get. Jones also talks about the legacy of inequality and what that means today, saying on page 242:
Increasing numbers of white people would call for “colorblind” public policies that would leave intact the legacy of generations of discrimination and prejudice – particularly the clustering of the impoverished black people in the rural South and northern inner-cities. And a largely indifferent white constituency would acquiesce in the injustice of this “new redemption”.
And on page 291:
Despite some observers’ pronouncements that the United States had finally achieved a “colorblind” society, the erasure of apartheid legislation from the legal code was insufficient to overcome the residue of four centuries of economic discrimination and cultural stereotyping.
The book is incredibly dense, packed with an amazing amount of information, but was very well worth the read. I found myself making numerous notes that I would love to share with you but instead, because there is really too much to share here, I will just direct you to the book itself. Definitely highly recommended to all who are interested in race, gender, class, history, politics, current events, and basically any other subject! Jones touches on it all.
Discussion Questions for The Real Help Project:
- Given what the book says about how women viewed the job of maid, does this change your impression of the historic role? Was this new information to you?
- Did you already know that black women played such a key role in the civil rights movement?
- Why do you think these two facts are often distorted by white writers? Do you think it is fair that they are?
And don’t forget to also check out Amanda’s review!