In the midst of reading The Red Tent and attempting to follow the lives of 100 Biblical characters every paragraph, I put the book down for Rebecca Sharpless’ Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960.  I gave The Red Tent 100 pages of my time and just had no more interest to give. I have a friend at work who has very different book taste. Typically, we know that if one of us enjoyed the book that the other might not like it. When she said The Red Tent was a great read, I knew it was time to give it up. Anyway, let’s chat about the book I did finish.

As a white woman who has written a book about African American women, I am sensitive to the possibility of overstepping my boundaries or simply Not Getting It.  But I always tell my students that, while an outsider’s perspective is different from an insider’s, it doesn’t have to be all wrong. – Rebecca Sharpless

My Quickie Summary: An accumulation of research on Black domestic workers experiences, within their own communities and white homes.

Their Summary: As African American women left slavery and the plantation economy behind, many entered domestic service in southern cities and towns. Cooking was one of the primary jobs they performed in white employers’ homes, feeding generations of white families and, in the process, profoundly shaping southern foodways and culture. Rebecca Sharpless argues that, in the face of discrimination, long workdays, and low wages, African American cooks worked to assert measures of control over their own lives and to maintain spaces for their own families despite the demands of employers and the restrictions of segregation. Sharpless also shows how these women’s employment served as a bridge from old labor arrangements to new ones. As opportunities expanded in the twentieth century, most African American women chose to leave cooking for more lucrative and less oppressive manufacturing, clerical, or professional positions. Through letters, autobiography, and oral history, this book evokes African American women’s voices from slavery to the open economy, examining their lives at work and at home. Sharpless looks beyond stereotypes to introduce the real women who left their own houses and families each morning to cook in other women’s kitchens.

Thoughts on the Book: Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed The Help. Like many, I began reading with a leery eye and then devoured it in a few short sittings. Well, upon finishing the book, I always had an interest in researching the real books and stories behind the movie. Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens is just that. It’s the reality of stirring the mixing bowls for somebody that wants you to eat their scraps out of a dog dish. It’s the tales of fighting off white husbands when their wives aren’t looking. And it’s the details behind how black women often learned to cook and the families that depended on them for those skills. I read this book like fiction. Not to mention, I read this book like I had a deadline for a research paper looming. Every time I had a spare minute, I’d pull out my book to read the stories that we think we already know about Black domestics.

My only issue with this book is the cover. While the photograph is authentically vintage, it looks staged and I think it takes away from the potential interest that folks outside academia might have in it. And that’s a minor flaw, eh?

Excerpt: Willie Mae Wright benefited enormously from an employer who was a good cook. As a young woman, Wright decided to present herself to a potential employer as a cook despite her lack of experience: ‘It was an ad job, and when I got there the lady asked me did I know anything about cooking. I told her yes’m, but I didn’t.’ Wright’s lack of experience soon became clear: She hired me, and I went to messing up the food. I called myself cooking, but I didn’t a bit more know how to cook than I knew how to jump over Stone Mountain. I was trying to learn, but I really was ruining the food. Every meat loaf or lemon pie or anyting I’d mess up, I’d say: ‘ Well, that’s the way Mrs. So-and-So made it.’ Finally this lady said: ‘Well, Mrs. So-and-So didn’t know how to cook. Do you want me to teach you the way I cook?’

Rebecca Sharpless Responds to The Help: The first time I saw The Help on the “new acquisitions” shelf at the library a couple of years ago, I read the flyleaf and thought, “I can’t bear another novel with a wise African American woman as the protagonist,” and put it down and walked away.  A year later, in response to numerous queries, I finally read the book, and it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.  After more than a decade of researching and writing about domestic workers, I thought that Kathryn Stockett got a lot right, in large part because of her familiarity with the fabulous oral history narratives collected by Susan Tucker and her colleagues at Tulane . . . (Read more . . . )

Overall, a great and recommended read. Happy reading, y’all.

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