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Review: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow by Jacqueline Jones

September 24, 2011

Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow coverTitle: 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)
Rating: 5/5
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:

  1. 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?
  2. Did you already know that black women played such a key role in the civil rights movement?
  3. 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!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2011 11:50 am

    This sounds fascinating and very comprehensive. I really like it when books explore history and show its implications in present-day situations, and sounds like this does just that. I’ll definitely be putting it on my to read list.

    • September 25, 2011 11:59 am

      Yes, it was really so all-encompassing Megan. I highly highly recommend picking it up and giving it a read!

  2. September 24, 2011 1:32 pm

    This sounds fantastic! I would love to delve into it, and take copious notes as well. I think there’s so much information and history there that I would really like, and I would love to read more. Thanks for the heads up!

    • September 25, 2011 11:59 am

      I definitely want to reread it to get even more from it Aarti. I think you’d love it!

  3. September 24, 2011 1:40 pm

    And straight to the wish list it goes!

    Also, I read a South African short story collection this week in which the first part deals directly with black South African maids: Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night. Highly recommend!

    • September 25, 2011 12:00 pm

      Oh Eva I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this, I think you would really enjoy it. AND I’m really excited to say I have that on my shelf at home! Must read it soon.

  4. September 24, 2011 5:53 pm

    Hi! Before I jump in the conversation, I just wanted to say that my discussion is finally up. I’m going to get better at posting these earlier in the day, I swear……

    • September 25, 2011 12:01 pm

      Yay, glad to hear it Amanda :) ALSO no time limit ya know!

  5. September 24, 2011 5:55 pm

    Off-topic: I don’t know how you manage to keep up with the blog while you’re traveling!!! You’re blowing my mind. Hope you’re having a great time.

    • September 25, 2011 12:02 pm

      Uhhh yea, it’s difficult Nancy. I had most posts pre-written. This was one of the few I had to write up, the rest are either pre-written or I write if I have time. Now trying to catch up on all the comments – eecks. heh

  6. September 24, 2011 5:58 pm

    1. I have always looked down on people who employ maids. I think this hearkens back to the Protestant work ethic instilled in me by my poor parents, which was three-fold: a) Idle hands are the devil’s plaything b) He who does not work shall not eat c) No job is beneath you. So……on the one hand, I look down on those who employ maids. On the other hand, it bothers me that some people think such a job is “beneath” them or who won’t take it if they need money. However, the book did show me how working as a maid could feel too close to slavery for a black American, so I appreciate that insight.

    2. I was unaware of the key role black women played in the Civil Rights movement, and that was one of the things I enjoyed the most about the book! (I even talked about it in my post).

    3. I think some white writers are just unaware because revisionist history is rampant, and they totally failed to do their job of researching. I also think there’s a self-preservation instinct to gloss over tough parts of history that might make you feel guilty. I also think (and this may be controversial) that some of the writers are actually wishful for a return to white supremacy or institutionalized racism in the US.

    • September 25, 2011 12:05 pm

      Yes, I am the same Amanda. I mean, I’ve had roommates or friends talk about getting in cleaning service and I just can’t fathom it. I mean, why would I? If I can’t take an hour to do basic cleaning then I certainly must not have time for fun things! And yes, I was unaware as well. I SO agree with the self-preservation thing too. Sigh. Interesting controversial thought too. I’ll have to consider what I think of it :)

  7. September 24, 2011 8:39 pm

    So much to think about with this book! I can see that there is just a whole fascinating array of information to consider when reading this one, and think that it would probably really make me think about some things that had never even crossed my mind before. This was such an intelligently articulated post on a book that seems so intriguing. I loved it!

    • September 25, 2011 12:03 pm

      Yes, really so much information zibilee. I’m glad you like the post, I feel like I was a bit scattered as there were so many different topics I wanted to address.

  8. September 25, 2011 7:08 am

    Wonderful book, wonderful review. I sure would pick up this some time to come.

  9. September 28, 2011 8:59 am

    Your review resonates with much of what I learned from African American Literature in Uni. Back then, it was called Black American Literature. Some of these books are classics to be revered in the literary sphere. ‘Not suprised you gave it full marks. sounds like one not to be missed. I would have loved to contribute to the project but maybe next time.

    • September 29, 2011 3:30 pm

      I wish I had taken a course on African American lit Adura – I’m jealous :) I hope you do try one or more of the books!

  10. October 5, 2011 4:29 pm

    The practice of employing househelp continues today, especially in the developing world where opportunities for women are limited. I just read a report where an Malaysian or Indonesia househelp had won the right to seek permanent residency in Hong Kong, a practice that was denied maids even when they’d worked in the city for decades. Also, the working conditions vary from house to house and country to country. A few countries allow them ot unionise. An exception is Zimbabwe. They have quite an active organization that advocates for the rights of maids. At least, it existed when we lived there. Thanks for the review.

    • October 5, 2011 11:43 pm

      Yes Kinna, you are right. Maids and househelp seems to be treated poorly the world over, at least in some houses. While some people may treat them well, that doesn’t mean that the industry as a whole is good. Unionizing seems to make such a huge difference, sad that it’s on such a decline / fighting for its life in the US and Canada at the moment.

  11. maknateukie permalink
    February 24, 2012 9:00 pm

    I’m in Indonesia and unable of getting any copy of this book. Can someone give me some ebook link to download it?
    I need to use this book for my bachelor degree final task…. T^T


  1. Book Review: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow by Jacqueline Jones (The Real Help Reading Project) « Opinions of a Wolf
  2. September 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

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