GOP Presidential hopeful and historian by training Newt Gingrich has seen fit to throw his hat into the already crowded arena of politicians and pundits who have sought to boost their popularity with poor and working class white people by throwing black people under the bus. According to Gingrich, black people need more work and less welfare. In a way Newt is correct: A hand-up is always better than a hand-out. On the other hand Mr. Gingrich is speaking as if black people don’t want jobs, as if black folks don’t want the dignity of earning an honest paycheck and would instead prefer the dole. While there are some black people that actually are lazy, they are by no means a majority of black people. It is one thing to talk facts about black people and their condition; it is quite another to use racially-charged language to score political points with the electorate. Mr. Gingrich seems to think that by insinuating black people–and by definition that includes black women–don’t want to work he is playing a new game. But it’s actually an old game, and it’s time to pack that old game up and throw it away.
During slavery, black women who were slaves had a 100 percent employment rate. A slave woman who was too old and/or too sickly to perform manual work in the fields would still be put to work doing something, even if that something was only to serve as a day-care provider of sorts for younger black women who needed to leave their children behind at the slave quarters while they went off to till the land. Among the small number of black women who were free women even before Emancipation there were higher rates of employment than white women.
After emancipation black women were primarily employed as domestics in the homes of white people or in segregated facilities; later these women would attend college to become nurses and teachers if they had the opportunity. A black wome married to a black man who was a sharecropper or was born into a sharecropping family could export to become a sharecropper herself; she would have to help her household in any way that she could. Other black women began to leave the South to search for jobs up North and in federal employment because black workers in the South were paid so poorly. Many black women left the South solely because they could not physically stand the backbreaking labor that sharecropping required.
A black woman who had the luxury of not working was a rarity. If she chose to enjoy that luxury she often found herself resented for it by a racist white community that felt that for a black woman to want to stay home and care for her children was trying to act too much like a lady, while at the same time white women with families–and even those without them–were expected to stay at home until marriage and avoid work. After slavery as well as before slavery, racist whites felt that a black woman’s place where wherever she could be placed to best serve the needs of white people in general and the cotton industry in particular.
In Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African-American Family, author Donna L. Franklin explains that for black women, serving the needs of others was only expected.
A report by Boston cotton workers who inquired into the disastrous cotton crop of 1867-68 concluded that the greatest lost resulted from the decision of “growing numbers of Negro women to devote their times to their homes and children.”
In the minds of the owners of the cotton fields, weak cotton crop of the late 1860’s and the depression of the 1870’s was in large part due to Negro women who just wanted to stay home with their families like women–ok, white women–of that era also wanted. Yet there were no studies published saying white women needed to get out of the kitchen and into the fields.
The idea that a black women needs to be put to work at all times is a long-standing sentiment of those who feel that black women are obligated to serve the needs of other people and if she rejects that obligation then she’s a lazy mooch, sucking off the government teat. I think the belief that black women who are not working are drain on society at large goes back to the days of slavery where a white master or overseer felt that any slave who wasn’t working–whether because he was ill or because she was too pregnant to perform certain duties–was costing him money.
Thankfully slavery is over and I think that it’s about time that black women who stay home or choose not to work have their rights respected. Black women have the right to avoid the workforce–either for a long period of time or a short period–in order to take care of family, attend school, or pursue personal interests without having their character impugned. White women have long had the right to avoid the workforce without being called lazy. Black women and poor women deserve to enjoy the very same right without being called lazy, shiftless, ‘welfare queens.’
An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog Homespun Wisdom.