The Labor of Black Women

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have labored harder within its borders than
any other group. Black women have constituted
the most disposal segment of the
American labor force, working in the least
desirable, least paid positions. Not only
did they work along side men in fields,
Black women labored in kitchens, cleaned
houses and washed clothes while the
planter class leisured. As cotton became
king, Black women’s bodies were industrialized.
Through her womb came workers
and her breasts fed future masters, while
her own children went lacking.
Hence, even mothering, a devalued
status in the U.S., has been a contested
space between white and Black women.
White mothers birthed citizens for the
Republic. Black women were breeders of
its laborers and as Jim Crow and sharecropping
systems collapsed, they were
breeders of surplus labor. While Black
women have fought for control of their
reproductive labor, particularly their children,
white women have rallied for freedom
from the “carceral” constraints of
mothering. Further, Black women have
had to struggle to balance mother work,
kin work and spiritual work with efforts
to attain living wages.
To date, Black women remain among
the lowest paid workers in the U.S. Yet,
Black women’s labor history includes
union activities, although their efforts to
unionize domestic and laundry work were
unsuccessful based on contracts that were
individually and orally constructed. The
1881 Washerwoman’s strike in Atlanta was
one example of Black women seeking to
leverage their power for better wages. It
was through unions and the agitation of
groups like the NAACP that economic
gains were realized. It was through the
efforts of Charles Hamilton Houston that
Black teachers were able to be paid equal
to white teachers. Still, they were excluded
from social security coverage, the protection
of wage and hour laws and worker’s
Today the failure of schools reflects the
failure of the economy to support the
demand for living wage employment by all
adults. Schools educate youth to compete
effectively in the global market. The disappearance
of work has a symbiotic relationship
with education in urban communities.
No longer able to work the land,
domestic and service work still avails itself
to some unskilled Black women as
hotel/motel housekeepers and as nursing
assistants in senior citizens homes, albeit
with increasing competition from immigrant
There has been a direct relationship to
Black women’s labor and war. The Civil
War allowed them to enter the free labor
market where they were, conceptually, able
to negotiate for wages. During the First and
Second World Wars, Black women were
able to gain temporary access to better,
higher paying jobs. However, when Rosie
the Riveter returned to the domesticated
space of her husband’s home, Black
women were once again forced to find creative
means to provide for their families.
Today, the military is an anxious
employer, soliciting Black women right out
of high school with promises of education
that will prepare them for employment in
the 21st century. Not only is the militaryindustrial-
complex a willing employer but,
its twin, the prison-industrial-complex is
making use of Black women’s unfree labor
in a range of vocations, including telemarketing,
travel agents and on furniture
assembly lines.
Workplace cultures also impinge on the
opportunities of Black women, as employers
enforce an assimilated racial and gender
identity in the job selection process. For
example, employers seeking correct ‘fit’
often find only certain ‘normative’ characteristics
attractive, while they negatively sanctioning
what they deem as ‘inappropriate’
behavior—behaviors that may actually
reflect cultural differences. Hence, the
desired ‘fit’ is actually one that approximates
white norms or what whites are willing to
tolerate with respect to a Black identity, making
Black assimilation a highly valued commodity
for white employers. Moreover,
Black women, who are too Black—consciously,
phenotypically, or culturally—are
less likely to find employment.
Today, Black women comprise six percent
of the total U.S. population. Yet,
according to the U.S. Department of Labor
2000, 35% of Black women are either
unemployed or not in active in the labor
force. Only 25% of Black women work 35
or more hours a week, while the rest work
less than full time or not at all. The median
income for full-time Black women workers
is $25,589 compared to white women who
earn $27,878 and only 32% of Black
women 14–54 years of age live at or above
the poverty line.
Locally, the University of Illinois is the
largest local employer and the best hope
for Black workers to elevate their families
out of poverty, through benefits that
include a living wage, health and life insurance
and tuition reimbursement for
employees and their children. Unfortunately,
it is difficult to gain and retain
employment at the University at nearly
every level. As of fall 2005, only 3% of faculty
were Black, while Black academic professionals
comprised only 5 % of all Academic
Professional posts. In support staff
positions, of 140 workers classified as
Administrative/Management, 64% were
female and only 10% were Black. In the
Professional category, out of 525 workers
68% were women and 10% are Black. In
clerical/secretary positions, 92% are female
with 10% Black; of the 654 technical/ paraprofessionals,
12% are Black and 57%
women. In the skilled crafts, there are a
total of 567 employees, with 7.5% Black
and 5.6% women. And of 1,349
service/maintenance employees, there are
18% Black and 41% women. These numbers
have remained fairly consistent over
the last 22 years.
Black women have labored to build this
country, literally from the bottom up yet
their productive and reproductive labor—
from the fields to the ivory tower—has
been consumed and devalued in ways that
detract from their rights of personhood.
Despite their decreasing value in the
neoliberal, global economy, Black women
are very much valued for the labor they
perform for their families and communities
as mothers, lovers, sisters, daughters,
aunts, kin and friends. We must dare to
envision a world without racism and patriarchy,
where Black women will be allowed
the rights, freedoms and protections of citizenship—
where their dignity and worth
can unfold for the benefit of all.

This entry was posted in African Americans, Human Rights, Labor/Economics, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

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