Storytelling and Nadasen’s Household Workers Unite

Nadasen, Premilla. Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Boston: Beacon, 2015.

Oral tradition and storytelling plays a pivotal role in Premilla Nadasen’s book, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. As we have seen (or will see) in Tyler’s blog, storytelling pulled African American domestic workers out of the shadows through the process by which storytelling collectively amplified a political and social voice for this group. These women were dealing with low-wages, hard (private) labor, and the sheer neglect of their profession being serious, respectable work. The movements which they created forged new understandings of domestic workers, not only during enslavement, and between the 1950s and 1970s, but also onwards through today. The intersection of women’s rights and storytelling converges as a means, as Nadasen states, “to connect with the struggle for black liberation” and a means to establish self-determination and recognition in these communities (3). Many studies of workers’ movements have been focused on white male workers–such as those that focus on the “forgotten man” narrative that explains the conservative turn and rhetoric targeting blue collar workers. A similar theme in LaShawn Harris’ Sex Workers, Psychics and Number Runners, Nadasen’s book participates in reshaping how people consider the intersections of race and labor.

The various books we’ve read thus far have approached gender in two distinct ways: (i) a hierarchical, top-down examination of power over people, mainly women; and (ii) a focus on disenfranchised peoples and the rise of their own political, social, and cultural voice. Nadasen’s book follows both paths simultaneously. Women are central to this story. Not just any women, but domestic-working African American women that were “middle-aged or elderly black women, very often mothers and grandmothers, who took multiple risks, made enormous personal sacrifices, and offered powerful critiques of the status quo” (5). One major theme in Nadasen’s book seeks to pull these women out of the shadows. She states that domestic workers, especially those who are women of color, strategized “mobilization and explor[ed] how storytelling was central to the way they organized and developed a political agenda.” This important methodology “offer[s] a new way to think about how storytelling helps construct identities and how social movements create historical narratives and put them to use” (3).

Tyler’s blog points out the importance of storytelling. I think he says it quite well when “Nadasen powerfully demonstrates how stories and narratives can be employed for social activism” in addition to the social construction of gender. This methodology showcases the power of telling a collective history of the domestic workers’ past; what Nadasen called a movement which “mobilize[d] other household workers and forge[d] a collective identity” (4). Yet, I think there is something more to be said about Nadasen’s methodology in the broader scheme of gender history. These women forged a collective identity by collectively remembering their past. This is something that Nadasen does not really theorize, however it’s an important point to raise.

Storytelling—aka remembering—in Household Workers Unite adds in perspectives most commonly ignored. I wonder, though, how does the storytelling in Nadasen’s book reinforce gendered roles for women being the bearers of history and the telling of the past? Also, how would this story change if the narrative did not solely focus on the stories in which domestic-working-women chose to remember? When thinking of the second question, my mind draws to Rodney Harrison’s article, “Forgetting to Remember, Remembering to Forget,” that discusses at length the role of forgetting as an integral aspect of remembering. Harrison states, “One cannot properly form new memories and attach value to them without selecting some things to forget.”[2] Or, “forgetting is a necessary form of cultural production, a vital decision-making process by which we choose to emphasize and memorialize events that have social value, and forget those which are irrelevant.”[3] How does “forgetting” certain aspects of their past help bolster the parts they want to remember? Does focusing on historical moments that bring that community of workers together help bolster political movements more broadly?

If domestic workers collectively remembered the past as a means to bring unity to their selves within the larger movement of black liberation, then possibly Nadasen’s book is a testament that shines new light on the everyday struggles of black working class women during the mid-twentieth century. Disenfranchised black voices also surfaced during the same period, adding to the engendering the power of the Civil Rights Movement. African American domestic worker lives were “out on the borderlands,” to use Carolyn Kay Steedman’s phrase. [4] Yet, over time surfaced as groups that played (and continue to participate in) integral roles over workers’ rights, wages, and equality. Collectively they bargained and politicized a movement which brought recognition and a collective search for equality.

[1] Tyler Balli, “Storytelling in Household Workers Unite.”

[2] Rodney Harrison, “Forgetting to Remember, Remembering to Forget: Late Modern Heritage Practices, Sustainability and the ‘Crisis” of Accumulation of the Past,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19:6 (2013): 580.

[3] Harrison, “Forgetting to Remember,” 589.

[4] Carolyn Kay Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 5.