Black women in domestic work have rarely been talked about as much as they have this week. Between the controversy surrounding Nene Leakes’ “Free Sweetie” campaign and The Help author being sued for her ‘embarrassing’ depiction of a black maid, many are grappling with talking about the women that often are forgotten and misunderstood.
There are major differences between Sweetie, Kim Zolziac’s personal assistant, and Albene Cooper, the woman whose likeness was used in Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book about a black maid working for a white family in the 1960s. Sweetie, who has worked for Zolziac for 11 years, gave her consent to be on the popular Bravo show, and appeared as a central character long before Nene had her bus outburst and referred to her as a “slave.” Cooper, who worked for Stockett’s family for years, did not agree to have her story told to the millions of readers who have made The Help a New York Times’ Bestselling title.
Despite Sweetie’s and Cooper’s varying expectations of privacy, the response from the women who introduced them into the spotlight has essentially been the same: What’s with all the fuss?
Stockett replied to news of Cooper’s lawsuit with a statement saying, “The character ‘Aibileen Clark’ in The Help is a fictional character and is not intended to depict Mrs. Cooper. I’ve met Mrs. Cooper only briefly.” For her part, Zolziac seems unable to comprehend why the other Housewives took issue with the way she spoke to her assistant, asking repeatedly on the show’s reunion special, “So what?”
It may be a deflection, but the ‘so what’ question is an important one. There is much debate about who can tell stories about blacks as discussed in Christopher Witherspoon’s piece for The Grio about The Help. Though they have played a vital role in America’s discussion of families, for years, black women in domestic work have been spoken at or about, instead of to, or better yet, heard from.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Sweetie and Cooper is how they are choosing to use their own voice. By actively pursuing action against Stockett, Cooper has created a debate on the validity of The Help and white depictions of black experience. Conversely, by expressing her embarrassment over Nene’s antics, Sweetie has reignited a debate between black women on the dignity of black domestic workers.
The conversation is one that is raw for many of us. As someone who has family and friends who make their living in domestic care, the topic is sensitive and complex. I respect that these women are working to provide for themselves and those they love, but I get emotional when hearing their stories of being treated without the dignity they deserve. To simply say that no one forced them to work as a domestic, or claim that it’s not our business how they earn money seems to be a backing away from a debate that, for many of us, hits close to home.
I’m not certain if the conversation on black women in domestic work will ever prove any easier for any of us to have. But I’m sure there’s a better way to conduct it than we have in the past.