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Books February 2014

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI

By Betty Medsger. Knopf, 2014. 608 pages. $29.95/hardcover.

Reviewed by Martin Kelley

Betty Medsger’s new book is the inside story of eight Philadelphia, Pa., antiwar activists who broke into a sleepy FBI office in Media, Pa., in 1971, and stole documents that exposed massive FBI surveillance of antiwar protesters, African American student organizations, and liberal members of Congress. Never caught, five of the participants have finally come forward to tell Medsger their story in The Burglary. She deftly weaves the activists’ firsthand stories with details pulled from the declassified FBI investigation of the burglary.

As a Washington Post reporter in 1971, Medsger was one of the first journalists to write about stolen files, and she has a great eye for the seemingly random serendipities of that tumultuous era.

The most adrenaline-raising part of the book is of course the robbery itself—the planning, execution, and narrow escapes as 200 investigating FBI agents camped out in radical Philadelphia neighborhoods in the months following the break-in. The details grip one like a classic 1970s heist movie. The choice to time the burglary during the prize fight of the century was brilliant, both logistically and symbolically (it was Muhammad Ali’s first fight after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War and being stripped of his title). J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s paranoid and blackmailing director for over three decades, makes frequent appearances, more concerned about the exposure of bureau secrets than national security.

But while there’s excitement and drama to it all, 40 years later it feels almost nostalgic and quaint. This is a period piece, like some antiwar hippie Mad Men. It startles the modern reader to realize that there was a time not so very long ago when a group of amateurs could break into an office and not get caught.

That the burglars weren’t caught is one of their most remarkable accomplishments. They certainly made repeated mistakes. One burglar walked into the FBI office a month before to case it out, giving agents her real name and the flimsiest of excuses. Bill Davidon, one of the burglars, rented a nearby hotel room and car for the burglary, charging both on a personal credit card. When a press release about the burglary didn’t get published, he made front-page headlines by reading it himself to a packed public audience. Two other participants of the burglary team were arrested (and later acquitted) a few months later in the even-riskier “Camden 28” action.

Today, any would-be burglary team would be filmed by dozens of street cameras as they drove through Media. Investigating agents would subpoena emails, triangulate cell phones locations, and cross-reference bank records. However, today’s target wouldn’t be filing cabinets in a branch office: it’d be secure computer networks. A journalist’s story would feature long technical passages on encryption and ways to avoid electronic surveillance.

The parallels to modern-day whistle-blower Edward Snowden are obvious. But just as telling are the differences. The closest thing to religion he has is a hacker’s social libertarianism and its twin demands for government transparency and individual privacy. The community in which he refined and forged his ideals was found in online chat forums.

In Medsger’s book, religious identities serve as shorthand for particular styles of political activism. The “Quaker” style was largely symbolic and public. A newer generation of “Catholic Left” actions was more pranksterish, eschewing Quakerly staidness in favor of covert actions to monkey-wrench the system. In 1971, Catholic Left activists were known for breaking into draft board offices, a template the Media activists adapted.

But for all of the religious identifications, there are no processes of spiritual discernment documented in these accounts: no clearness committees or priestly confessions, no visits to churches or meetinghouses. No one recalls stopping to pray before joining the break-in team. The ecumenism of this activist generation resisted formal boundaries and reserved the right to hold multiple identities.

Medsger’s book is a wonderful time capsule to another era. Friends who lived through the events will find it rousing. The bravery of the activists is inspiring. The long-deferred limelight for those still living is well-deserved.

I think the book will serve another purpose for younger Friends trying to reconcile our Society’s activist legacy. In 2014, federal employees in suburban Philadelphia offices pilot drone aircraft over Afghanistan while protesters make YouTube videos to share on Facebook. How do we bring some of the 1970s spirit of determination and prankishness to these new protest forms? How do we answer the questions The Burglary raises about the relationship of faith and activism, membership and lived community?

Martin Kelley is senior editor of Friends Journal.

 

Living the Quaker Way: Timeless Wisdom for a Better Life Today

By Philip Gulley. Convergent Books, 2013. 224 pages. $22.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook.

Reviewed by Melissa Blake

This brand-new book grabbed me with its introduction, titled “Discovering Your Inner Quaker.” There Phillip Gulley, a Quaker pastor from Indiana, asserts that “there are far more people who embrace our Quaker traditions, testimonies, and beliefs than ever join a Quaker meeting.” I was excited by the prospect of reaching out to some of these people with a message of personal and societal transformation. The book is aimed at those with little or no experience of Quakerism, but even life-long Quakers will find it interesting and thought-provoking.

In 200 highly readable pages it explores the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, giving some historical context and stories from Quaker history mixed with Gulley’s personal anecdotes and reflections. In this way the author explains what these testimonies mean to him, giving us concrete examples of how they may be lived today. Lest his examination of the deep values of Friends cause him to sound self-righteous or exceptionally virtuous, many of his anecdotes are of his own personal failings. This gives his account a feeling of honesty and sincerity.

Gulley equates “the Quaker way” with the five testimonies mentioned above, calling them “values.” This is a sort of self-help book for anyone interested in how to live according to those values in this modern society. It also could be useful to those new to Quakerism who want to know more about these five testimonies and their origins. More seasoned Friends may find reason to quibble with Gulley’s definitions, as well as with what has been omitted. (One instance that bothered me was his repeated use of the term “consensus” for Quaker decision making, without explaining the spiritual aspect of the unity Quakers seek.) But it should leave them, as well, pondering, “How does my life speak?” and “What does it really mean to be a Quaker?”

This is certainly not a book about Quaker theology or even spiritual practice (except insofar as living according to one’s values is a spiritual practice). Yet I can’t help feeling like something has been lost by focusing so heavily on testimonies (though this seems to be a growing trend in modern North American Quakerism), with the beliefs from which they spring seeming to take a backseat. Quaker beliefs are brought up in the book mainly by way of explaining the testimonies, which seems sort of backwards. In addition, Gulley does not mention that the five testimonies he examines are really a sub-set of all the various testimonies Quakers have been concerned with throughout their history. In the table of contents of my 1972 copy of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, for example, six testimonies are listed; only two of them overlap with Gulley’s list.

Gulley also advocates a very broad definition of “Quaker” such that anybody reading his book might say, “Yes, that is how I strive to live so I am a Quaker.” He even posits that Quakerism for some is not a religion, but a way of life. These are provocative statements—they got me thinking, and wanting to engage in further reading and discussion.

While I don’t agree with everything Gulley says, I do think he’s on the right track in many ways. He urges his readers to “take up and live” the Quaker way, in order to bring about personal transformation and for the good of the world. This is true to the origins of Quakerism, which has always emphasized both inward transformation and how we “walk” through this world. “In the end,” Gulley writes, “I am inviting you not to a church, but to a life.” I think many would agree that the world would be a better place, and many lives would be bettered, if more people lived “the Quaker way.”

Melissa Blake, a member of Ithaca (N.Y.) Meeting, is an environmental and outdoor educator by trade. She is a founding instructor at Ithaca Forest Preschool and currently serves on the board of directors of GreenStar Coöperative Market, Inc. in Ithaca, where she lives with her husband and son.

 

Howard and Anna Brinton: Re-inventors of Quakerism in the Twentieth Century

By Anthony Manousos. QuakerBridge Media of FGC, 2013. 298 pages. $25/paperback.

Reviewed by Larry Ingle

Anthony Manousos, a California Friend and former editor of Friends Bulletin, the newsletter of Western Quakers, is the first to use the more than 130 pages of a memoir that Howard Brinton dictated toward the end of his life to his second wife, Yuki. The book is carefully and expertly written and will surely hold readers’ attention, even if its lack of an index makes difficult any exploration they might want to make. Because it is the only available book on the Brintons, it merits—and will receive—lots of kudos and a large audience among non-pastoral Friends.

Anna Cox Brinton, a granddaughter of Joel and Hannah Bean, influential Iowa Friends who had their greatest impact in California, left no autobiographical writings, so the author has relied on printed sources, a decision that gives Anna short shrift. Despite a reputation for her organizing abilities and quick wit, she never comes to life here; Howard is the mainstay of the story.

Born in West Chester, Pa., in 1884, Howard Brinton was a member of an Orthodox meeting and a mystic who gradually evolved into something of a Wilburite, the branch of Friends we know as “Conservative.” Both Brintons worked and traveled on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, but Manousos does not draw upon any of their reports in the Service Committee’s voluminous archives, which prevents him from telling very much of what they saw or their impressions. They lived at Pendle Hill from 1936 to their deaths, Anna’s in 1969 and Howard’s in 1973. Manousos quotes Dan Wilson, Brinton’s successor as director at Pendle Hill, as saying about Brinton’s career there, “I believe Pendle Hill has been his living autobiography.” Manousos, however, does not delve into that autobiography to the extent he does the one resting in Haverford College’s library.

Manousos does give adequate attention to Brinton’s most notable work, the historical and theological Friends for 300 Years, published in 1952, a Quaker best seller that became a classic to those now deemed “Liberal Friends.” Brinton devoted a bit over three weeks to polishing off nearly all the 239 sparkling pages of a book that proved a worthy successor to seventeenth-century Scottish Friend Robert Barclay’s Apology, the only other Quaker book of theology.

Brinton made no secret about its purpose: he sought what he termed the “real Quakerism,” grounded in the method of silent seeking for God and the divine will within unprogrammed meetings, a goal sure to hamper its appeal among pastoral Friends, convinced that they already possessed the real faith.

Having lived and taught among programmed Friends, both at Guilford College in North Carolina and Earlham in Indiana, Brinton could only have expected this from them. His experiences, though, convinced him that he could write without alienating his opposition—except, as it happened, by the force and logic of his position. A student and friend of the seminal Rufus Jones, Brinton carried forward his mentor’s insistence that Quakers were mystics, something that by the end of his life had become anathema to most other commentators on Quaker historical origins, especially those of the programmed variety.

Manousos has written what he calls but never defines as an “interpretive biography” of two giants of twentieth-century Quaker history. As author of such a work, Manousos could have made more of the opportunity to explore these divergent views that Brinton dealt with—he does assert them—and offer readers the benefit of his insights. To his credit, he does mention that pastoral Friends engaged with Brinton in print only once, but he does not speculate very much on the reasons why.

As a reader who is also a historian, I would have appreciated a tighter weaving of the theme that the Brintons reinvented twentieth-century Quakerism into the narrative. As it is, Manousos offers 219 pages of straightforward and well-done recounting of the Brintons’ lives, but readers must wait until the afterword before seeing the evidence for reinvention laid out. At that point, the evidence is in the form of assessments offered by Friends who submitted papers to a Pendle Hill 2011 symposium Manousos organized. One longs for Manousos’s own take on this central matter.

Had the author cast his research net farther for more context, he would have let his readers taste exactly why and how the Brintons were so significant to Friends in the twentieth century. The other side of the story is that some other historian may become so intrigued with this account that she will apply her time and skills to offer us a more complete history later.

Larry H. Ingle is professor emeritus of history, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; member, Chattanooga (Tenn.) Meeting; and author of Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation and First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism.

 

Silence: A Christian History

By Diarmaid MacCulloch. Viking Press, 2013. 338 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $13.53/eBook.

Reviewed by Signe Wilkinson

Silence is not all that Quakers crack it up to be.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I have never heard of a First-day school lesson mentioning the eighteenth-century biblical scholar Alexander Cruden, who wrote that silence “does not only signify the ordinary silence, or refraining from speaking; but also in the style of the Hebrews … an entire ruin or destruction, for a total subjection … for death and the grave.” What? Silence equals death?

In the follow-up to his 2011 New York Times bestseller, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch begins his lively and provocative new book, Silence: A Christian History, with what, for Quakers at least, is an eye-popping assessment of how the Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, regards silence. His insights will challenge and engage Quaker readers interested in how we fit into a long history of Christian uses of silent worship and life. To start, MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford University, shows that early Jews took a dim view of it. For example, in Isaiah 15:1, the laying waste to a vanquished city, according to the King James Bible, reads “brought to silence.”

Of even more interest to Quakers is when MacCulloch recounts the story of Hannah (in 1 Samuel), who is rebuked for praying inwardly, and deems it evidence to back his contention that “silent prayer to the Lord was a controversial and debatable custom.” Yet, he sees in this and other biblical stories the seeds of Christian understandings and uses of silence, both good and bad.

MacCulloch swiftly moves on to Jesus’s life and the shaping of the church that rose from his teachings and resurrection. While he is clear that Jesus preached widely and loudly, MacCulloch also notes that he sometimes “used silence in a deliberate, self-conscious way to convey certain messages about himself.” He writes that to spread Jesus’s message, the Apostle Paul saw himself preaching a gospel that unlocked the mystery, which was kept secret or “silent,” in a way that distanced emerging Christianity from Jesus’s own Jewish faith.

Moving on from the earliest years of Christianity’s formation, the book next examines how the church dealt with mystics and ascetics who saw silence as an important way to commune with the Spirit directly. At the end of the second century C.E., Clement of Alexandria urged followers to worship the “divine beyond language” in “silent wonder.” MacCulloch then cheekily points out that “Jesus himself seemed inconveniently to have privileged spoken prayer” as a model for Christian communities.

Early Christian monastic life may have been silent, but the urge to communicate resulted in the first sign language, which was also helpful among monks who did not share the same tongue. MacCulloch touches on the various monastic traditions and trots through the Reformation to purifiers like Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489–1561), who broke away from Martin Luther and embraced a “thoroughgoing silence on the sacraments.”

George Fox, whom MacCulloch wryly notes was “endowed with the prophet’s enviable gift of supreme lack of doubt,” loudly preached that silently waiting upon God had more benefit than all the world’s theologians. MacCulloch writes favorably about William Penn’s effort to marry the inner life of the Spirit with an engaged life in the world. He also notes that Quakers have carried on the tradition of social activism in the world because early Friends did not silence the women preachers in their midst, many of whom were at the forefront of social causes.

The last chapters in this terrific book deal with the human tendency to silence people and activities that don’t fit with organized religions’ views of the world. The silence of believers in the face of true injustices like slavery, the Holocaust, and pedophilic priests has been a stain on Christianity. Again, Quakers get a nod from MacCulloch for our early struggles for abolition.

MacCulloch concludes by looking ahead and noting that the most vital Christianity of the day, noisy Pentecostalism, attracts so many because the “worship is often almost the only possible arena for celebration and emotional release amid lives of poverty and deprivation.” Conversely, he wonders if Quakers “have lessons to teach the heirs of magisterial Protestantism.” While MacCulloch personally hews to the written words of the Bible, he notes that out of the silence of their meetings, early Friends were freed “to consider questions of authorship and formation in the biblical text,” and numbered them among the first people to see through the biblical writers’ unthinking acceptance that slavery as institution was “a permanent feature of the sublunary world.”

Though Quakers get a generous nod in this thoughtful book, it challenges us to remember that the Quaker faith didn’t come out of nowhere, but was based on deep wrestling with the texts that inform all Christianity. We may ponder the Bible and other sacred texts in silence, but we should know what they say. At the very least, having that knowledge puts us in community with millions of our fellow seekers, some of whom might want to share in a little silence.

Signe Wilkinson is a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

 

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s Beloved

By James Bryan Smith. IVP Books, 2013. 213 pages. $17/hardcover; $8.30/eBook.

Reviewed by Marty Grundy

An important tenet of Quaker faith is its experientialism. We put our trust not in man-made creeds, but in the personal and corporate experience of being touched by the Divine. The expectation, at least of early Friends, was that this encounter with the Inward Light would transform us. Therefore, a book that offers a practice that facilitates such transformation should be welcomed.

Hidden in Christ emphasizes the need for each of us to experience the transformative effect of God’s love, because only then will we be enabled to love and forgive others and help transform the world into a closer approximation of the “Kingdom” Jesus spoke of so often. The book consists of 30 lessons unpacking Colossians 3:1–17 as an invitation to live a more God-centered, loving life. It includes exercises and discussion questions. They are good and I suspect any Friends group could benefit from serious engagement with them—although the underlying theology would be a stumbling block to some.

At least some Friends Journal readers will find off-putting the author’s assumption that orthodox Christology is the only Truth, and that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. On the other hand, Smith insists that the seed of Christ is in everyone, and that God’s unconditional love is showered on all. He seems unaware of the potential contradiction, perhaps because he is writing to a Christian audience. He does criticize some Calvinistic theologies (without calling them that) that too many rigid, self-righteous Christians hold. Many of his theological statements would resonate with Friends. Although the book is not about theology, his assumptions underlie it. It would be a shame if, because of their own theological assumptions, Friends rejected the spiritual discipline offered here that might well invite them into a deeper, richer, more compassionate relationship with God and people.

There is a lot of really good material in this book. It points to the necessity to surrender our ego and self-will to the loving guidance of God; to the reality of the power given that enables us to forgive and love in situations where such healing is needed, but we would be unable to give it relying on our own strength. The author points to our choices of how we spend our time and with what we fill our thoughts: do they bring us closer to love or into the consumerist world of greed and violence? In what can we realistically place our hope?

Smith’s take on sin is a refreshing insight that is not about the breaking of rules. Instead he calls it that which is unworthy of us, something that mars our souls/spirits/“real self,” which God loves passionately and has already forgiven. He then makes some useful suggestions for avoiding opportunities for temptation. He interprets the “wrath of God” as the inevitable consequence of some of our choices rather than the punishment of a vengeful and judgmental deity. Finally, learning to live a more God-centered, Christ-filled life is not about rules or guilt or quid pro quo (“if I do this, then God will do that”). It is about “because I have been touched by the Light, I am one in whom Christ dwells, therefore I will.” The new ways of behavior include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Of course, we are still human, still flawed, and if our meetings are to be beloved communities we must learn to accept others as they are, not as we want them to be—to accept the opportunity to bear one another’s burdens. We are reminded that forgiveness is not about justice, it is about healing. Strife too often is the result of disconnecting from Jesus, love, or the “Kingdom,” so that one’s opinion must be defended and the divisive issue supersedes the focus on God.

If Friends resolutely translate some of the language or look past the bits that turn them off, and allow themselves to absorb the wisdom that Smith offers, then we might learn again the truth of Penn’s statement that Friends were changed themselves before they went forth to change the world.

Marty Grundy is a member of Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting.

 

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

By Cynthia Bourgeault. Shambhala Publications, 2010. 289 pages. $16.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

Reviewed by Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson

Cynthia Bourgeault may have planted a milestone in the history of the Christian tradition when she wrote The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. This book, one of several in recent years that has examined the person and importance of Mary Magdalene, is similar to but goes beyond the others in significant ways (see LeLoup’s The Gospel of Mary Magdelene, Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, and Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail). The earlier books help us to recover our understanding of the historical Mary Magdalene, the non-canonical gospels, and the role of the feminine in the Christian tradition. Bourgeault’s book goes beyond them by altering our understanding of Jesus’s spirituality, the Passion and the Ascension, and the interplay of the embodied and the imaginal realms.

While this read is a wonder, it can also be thick. Bourgeault is an Episcopalian priest, so the prevalence and centrality of liturgy and the sacraments in her interpretation may become numbing to Friends. Because she is a scholar, some readers might find the development of her ideas torturous as she combs through the gospels and intertwines strands of thought that span two millennia. However, for the patient reader who is willing to translate, there might come a comprehension of Ultimate Reality that only the courageous will attempt to make their own.

One of the most significant contributions of this book for Christocentric Friends is the naming of another presence whom we might find along our spiritual path. In addition to the Mary who conceived Jesus, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene helps readers to more clearly distinguish among the other Marys who were part of Jesus’s life. Ironically, this clarification comes through Bourgeault’s identification of the confusion that arises from the different portrayals of these women in the gospels. She suggests that there is a Mary who anoints us prior to death (Matthew 26:6–13), who agonizes with us while we’re nailed to the cross (Mark 15:40), and who first proclaims the good news to the faithful after Christ has arisen from the dead (Matthew 28:1–10).

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene may be viewed as heretical by some Christian traditions. As Friends have recognized women and men as spiritual equals since our inception, we are likely to find Bourgeault’s naming of Mary Magdalene as an “apostle to the apostles” an easier pill to swallow than those that require male apostolic succession. Also, Friends who have never required ministers to be celibate, are less likely to find heretical the proposition that virginity has more to do with inward integrity than abstinence from sex.

While this book does not directly address Friends, we would do well to attend to it. Here, I highlight three implications of this work for us. Bourgeault’s discussion of the necessary ties between the physical and imaginal realms serves as a helpful reminder of the mystery that abounds, as we easily and repeatedly fall prey to the materialistic worldview. In her discussion of marriage and communion, Bourgeault helps us reclaim the reason why marriage is to be celebrated by and held under the care of a meeting. Finally, Bourgeault articulates how Mary Magdalene can help us return to ourselves. She, Mary Magdalene, is still affirming the paradox that while All is One, our work is to bring Unity, within and among ourselves, between the seen and the unseen.

Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson is a member of Community Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her interest in Mary Magdalene was piqued after hearing that Magdalene is part of her true name.

 

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together

Edited by Steve Heinrichs. Herald Press, 2013. 360 pages. $21.99/paperback.

Reviewed by Phila Hoopes

Make no mistake: Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is an important book. Published at a time when Indigenous peoples around the world are the leading voices against terminal environmental destruction, and fueled with passionate urgency, it brings together the voices of Indigenous and non-Indigenous North American writers, educators, ministers, theologians, and activists.

At issue are the key questions that have underlain all the troubled relations between First Nations and settlers on this continent: questions of respect, honesty, privilege, and entitlement; questions of social and environmental justice versus evangelization, theft of land and children, cultural appropriation, attempted assimilation, genocide, and ecocide; questions of inherited complicity and just reparation.

Finally, there is the cultural razor’s edge on which the whole world is now balanced: how to communicate the value of relating a sentient and sacred creation to a culture in which dogma and profit alike declare the natural world to be an objectified resource to be exploited.

Through political narrative, personal memoir, theological contemplation, poetry and drama, 38 essayists explore these questions and offer crucial suggestions: 1) to become aware of our own complicity in colonialism and cultural genocide through evangelical “mission” programs, residential schools, and other means; 2) to adopt the radical “covenant” perspective of “an abiding relationship between the Creator and all of creation (in) a bond of care and mutuality;” 3) to join hands with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to subvert this corporate, industrial culture; and 4) to call into question our most basic ways of seeing the land and our economy, and to embrace practices of reparation.

For all of these reasons, this is an important, difficult, painful, necessary book. Not only for anyone seeking to understand Indigenous cultural phenomena such as Idle No More, the Lakota Grandmothers Truth Tour, and the many other uprisings and educational efforts around the world, but also for anyone seeking the foundation of a peaceful, just, and sustainable society.

This is the humble, authentic conversation that needs to be taking place in Washington, D.C., in the United Nations, and around the world: developed nations setting aside their hubris and false paternalism in relating to the First Peoples of the Earth, and actually listening to the wisdom that enabled them to survive in partnership with the natural world for millennia.

Phila Hoopes is a freelance copywriter, poet, and blogger (soulpathsthejourney​.org), a student of creation spirituality and permaculture, with a passion for tracking deep connections in the mystical experience of the Divine across faith traditions. She lives in Maryland and is working on her first book. She is a member of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore.

 

The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South

By Katherine Van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, and Charletta Sudduth. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 286 pages. $36.95/hardcover; $14.55/eBook.

Reviewed by Donna McDaniel

How distorted (or absent) are our perceptions of the limitations imposed on people of African descent, North and South! The enslaved have been freed, yes, but freedom does not mean equality of opportunity or advantages in life.

Regardless of our own racial background, this volume opens our eyes to the daily lives of thousands of African American women absent from history books. Working as domestics in the North and South, women were sometimes treated with regard and even loved by their employers, but often barely respected as human beings.

Here’s a hint for Friends uncertain about starting a conversation with an African American: this book offers an opening. Know that many people of African descent are researching their families’ backgrounds. Have they heard of this book? Perhaps they have come upon stories like those told in it or would like to know more. Were their ancestors enslaved or, as many were, always free?

The Maid Narratives fills a great historical void. As the first sentence of the introduction says, it is “intended to take its readers on a journey back in time to a place that, to many, will be a foreign country. We will travel there with the help of our storytellers.”

The storytellers—those interviewed—are free African American maids, or “help,” and the northern white women who employed them. They offer their experiences in their own words. It is an oral history of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North in the early-to-mid 1900s, bringing with them memories of working in white southern households. Their reality—the Jim Crow South—was a life with no workers’ rights: of being at the mercy of white people when “black girls were virtually born into domestic servitude.”

“I started working for white people when I was just big enough and old enough to do the dishes, and that was about seven or eight,” said one.

The interviewer/authors, all with academic credentials, are David W. Jackson and Charletta Sudduth, both of African descent (Sudduth’s mother had been in “domestic service” in rural Mississippi), and Katherine van Wormer, a woman of European descent and child of an upper-class New Orleans household.

Their first goal was to show how women “survived and overcame” difficult circumstances to start a different life in the North. The second was to listen to the experiences of a “sheltered and privileged upbringing” and their “joys and regrets.” There are 101 pages of interviews with maids and 50 with employers.

Readers familiar with the book or film The Help may seek a comparison because both expose employer-employee relationships, but its lens is limited and it doesn’t hold to standard for historical research. Large numbers of The Help readers responded to the Narratives’ website volunteering to be interviewed.

The first three chapters explain the process and topics like sharecropping, the “social control of white women and black men,” the “Latina Domestic Experience,” and “The Women of the Great Migration.” Interviews are supplemented by certain themes: child rearing, paternalism, and the sexual vulnerability of black women.

For interviewer and interviewee alike, it was clear that “race was not a comfortable issue.” Even for those granted privileges not commonly offered by the white women, there were “always the undertones of humiliation.” One woman recalled the familiar feeling that employers distrusted her. They would “eyeball” her when she left to make sure nothing was stolen. Yet other employers made certain that their “help” took home used clothes and/or food from the kitchen.

In the recent movie The Butler, the African American son whose father was a much-respected White House butler accused his father of selling out. Younger people often asked the elders why they didn’t go to school. “They didn’t because they couldn’t!” said one woman. “See, you didn’t have no money to buy no land to work for yourself” and no time for school.

“I tell my grandbabies,” said another, “I’m glad to have a job and they tell me ‘No, I wouldn’t have took it.’ But I say, ‘No, you would have took it. We did because there was nothing you could do about it.’ The kids today, they think it’s a joke, but it’s no joke, it was real.”

Still, employees had limits to how much they could tolerate. One way to show the limit was to leave without notice. Said one woman of her mistreatment:

We weren’t supposed to go in their front door….It really bothered me so I quit! Yeh! I did! I sure did! Let me say one thing: white folks give Negroes hell. I hate to say it like that, but….You couldn’t eat out of their plates. And when they had a dog, they put its food on its plate and…then give you the same plate [to eat from]. We just walked out!

Leaving an employer without notice was a way to express anger. Leaving someone without help for even a day caused problems. One domestic in Illinois found her employer “fooling around” with her pay, saying she didn’t have a check. So the employee, “just left a bit later” without saying goodbye or mentioning she was not going back.

One employer’s grandparents told lies about those she called “Nigra.” When a maid complained about the word, the grandmother “lectured her about how happy the slaves had been and the ‘nigras’ should be grateful for the life they have.” The next day the employee wore a BLACK POWER sweatshirt. And quit at end of the day.

Yet there were also trusting relationships. One employer would go away leaving the house and children with the maid for as long as six weeks. The white children called the maid “auntie” and minded her as they would their mother. When the family moved east, they wanted “auntie” to go with them, but she had her own children; in fact, maids frequently mentioned that working day and night for one family meant less time with their own.

What might be most unexpected are stories of times spent working together, like these:

When the time came to plant gardens, we all worked together. The white women would help us, and we would help them. We would trade stuff. If we had all cabbage and they had all beans, we would trade. We did the same thing with fruit.… All of us would get together and can fruit and make jelly.… Everything we could get we canned and made into jelly preserves.

During the winter they would have quilting parties. And maybe today they would go to one of the white women’s house.… And maybe next week they would go to … one of the black women’s house. The white and black women quilted together. We did everything together. We just didn’t go to school and church with them.

Donna McDaniel, a member of Framingham (Mass.) Meeting, is co-author of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. She is a freelance writer and editor with a special concern to promote racial justice and community.

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