Black Girl Working
The digital scale makes a whirring sound when it prints the label that I then rip off for the deli container of pickled cauliflower that I just packed. Whir, rip. Whir, rip. The cauliflower has perfectly formed florets colored yellow-orange by the turmeric in the brine.
“Those are pretty popular, so be sure to pack several of the larger containers,” says my supervisor, a relatively new employee. I don’t care much for turmeric, but I’m intrigued by these pickles. Whir, rip. Whir, rip. I get into the rhythm of the sound and am lost in it.
At the food co-op where I shop, working members—co-operators, we’re called—are entitled to a 5% discount on purchases and, as part owners, the right to vote for board members and in business matters. The work requirement isn't burdensome: six hours per adult in the household over an assigned three-month period. I don't mind. Who doesn't fritter away six hours in three months? You might as well do something useful with those hours that benefits someone else as well as yourself.
I usually sign up to work in the deli with its array of tempting cheeses and gourmet condiments. Everything looks so fresh and the aromas are intoxicating. I detect the pungent smells of Gouda cheeses in several varieties, the brine of Kalamata, Castelvetrano, and Picholine olives, and garlicky roasted tomatoes in olive oil. I pack all of them in deli containers, or I weigh, wrap, and label sliced cheeses. While working, I'm usually introduced to some intriguing morsel I've never eaten before and often end up buying when my work shift is over. Today, the roasted tomatoes find their way into my shopping basket.
I catch myself watching the movement of my hands as they scoop up and wrap the goodies my supervisor has set out for me for this two-hour shift. I think about the nature of work and the value of labor, particularly manual labor, in an economy in which thinking, analyzing, and selling increasingly pay the highest rewards. Tasks performed by hand are the quiet, behind-the-scenes work that brings what we eat to our kitchens and onto our dinner tables; the work that makes what we wear or that keeps our cars on the road. Most of us don’t see those hands or think much about the people who own those “instruments,” but I do.
My ancestors on both sides of my family worked with their hands. My maternal great-grandparents were born just after the Emancipation and worked on cotton and soybean plantations in North Carolina. From the little family history I’ve uncovered, Anna, my paternal great-grandmother, was a house slave on one of the three Virginia plantations owned by the Ridley family in Southampton County. Their holdings included over 300 slaves. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were over a half million enslaved people living in Virginia. They constituted 48.4 per cent of the state’s population.
Emancipation did not bring immediate freedom to these nameless and voiceless men and women. Lincoln’s proclamation was enforceable only in areas of the state under the control of the Union Army, which meant that slavery could continue in some parts of Virginia until uniform enforcement of the law ended its practice in 1865. But an economy and way of life built on the labor of enslaved people does not just die off because of new laws. Virginia politicians fought hard to keep systems in place that limited the rights of the emancipated by changing the state’s Constitution and supporting their new state laws with intimidation, violence, and unfair taxation. The state’s actions kept Black people in service positions and in the fields for decades.
My maternal grandmother picked cotton and tobacco to support herself. Black women had to work whether or not they wanted to; they had no choice. They "took in washing," cleaned white folks' houses, made clothes, worked in the fields, or took care of some white lady's children. It didn't matter that a Black woman might have children of her own to mother; she did what she had to do to feed and clothe her family, even if doing so meant working long hours outside of her home. When suffragists in Virginia began to push for votes for women in 1910, many did not want to include women like my grandmother and eventually the suffragist movement split over the question of race. Suffragists from Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League were not interested in upending the systems that maintained white supremacy and said so in a 1916 printed brochure designed to garner the support of white legislators, confident that literacy tests and poll taxes would prevent Blacks from voting. The League was successful, and white women in Virginia voted for the first time in August 1920, but the state did not ratify the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment until 1952.
I think about how much working with my hands is a choice for me, but a necessity for those who came before me. When my parents were growing up, there were few schools in rural Virginia where Black kids could learn to read and write, just segregated elementary schools with few resources begrudgingly granted by the state’s public education department. The Black high school didn’t exist when my parents reached adolescence, so their education ended at eighth grade. You had to learn to work with your hands if you wanted to survive.
My parents migrated north to work in factories where jobs were plentiful in the post-war 1940's and where there were more opportunities for Black people. They found jobs making gloves and lead pencils that fueled their hopes for a better life, especially for any children who would come along. By the time my sister and I arrived in the 1950’s, courts had begun to clear the paths of obstacles that blocked Black people from schools and worksites. The Supreme Court’s verdict in the 1954 Brown case was the watershed that made possible a new world for me, opened by education.
I contemplate all of this in my reverie at the deli. I watch my hands move quickly as I wrap some cheese slices snugly and marvel at the choices I have that my mother and grandmother never had. I can choose to work with my hands; I don't have to. But I come from a lineage of Black girls and, like my foremothers, I have to work. More education doesn’t make me a woman of leisure. I put myself wholeheartedly into the work I do, no matter what it is. At the co-op’s deli, I arrive on time and work straight through the shift without complaint. At the school where I work in administration, I sometimes stay late to finish a project. I see things through. The Black girls in my family showed me how hard we have to work to make our way in the world. Our successes are a source of pride: we can make a way out of no way, as the elders used to say. Ours are the backs on which much in this country works. If you look around, you see Black girls working everywhere. Chances are they are taking care of your child at the day care center where you drop off your kid so that you can get to work. They are bathing and dressing the elderly at a nursing home nearby. They are delivering your mail, cleaning your office at night, preparing meals in the school cafeteria or a hospital, or driving the bus you ride to work.
Sure, there are plenty of Black girl lawyers and doctors, teachers, writers, and business owners. Not all Black girls are toughing it out in manual labor jobs. But no matter what kind of work we do, we are still Black girls. We are largely invisible and unsung, relied upon by others in an unconscious way. Sometimes I wonder if we collectively took a "blue flu" day, would this country notice? Would we get what’s due: the chance for a better life for ourselves and our families without breaking our backs?
The work we Black girls do matters. To someone. Somewhere. To us. Take notice.
Brenda Ridley is an emerging writer from Philadelphia. This is her debut nonfiction publication in a literary journal.