Thursday, November 19, 2009

Invisible Lives of Caribbean Nannies

On any given Sunday in Central Park, upscale Washington D.C. parks, or in the parking lots of frou-frou stores in Livingston, NJ you become aware that many upper class white women do not raise their children.

Often times, it is a Caribbean woman who must take care of other peoples' children six or seven days out of the week, while leaving her children behind or at home to be cared for by extended family.

Caribbean nannies are invisible women that have replaced African-American domestics. There are of course Latinas, especially from Mexico and Central America, but it seems to be something about a black nanny that soothes childhood memories of the rich, white soul.

These diligent women cannot be forgotten. It was one from Guyana who blessed me one day when I was on the train job-hunting in West Orange. She sat next to me and we began to talk about our lives. She told me that she worked 5-6 days a week in West Orange. Usually, she went home to Queens on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings. She told me she did this to put her children through school.

When I told her I was in school for my PhD, she beamed in pride and began to whisper, "You know it is hard for us." She rubbed the skin on the back of her hand signaling her blackness and mine as well. I smiled and said, "Yes ma'am, you are right. It is very hard."

She asked me where I was going. I told her I was reluctantly going back to Newark. I was trying to follow-up on a job and spent my last money taking the train to trek down a professor at a conference. You see I really wanted to go to this conference at CUNY on Blackness (this was a year or so ago), but did not have the money.

Without thinking, she pulled out a $20 bill and told me to go to New York and keep the change. She gave me blessings and said if we never saw each other again, she prayed to the Lord that I finished. Now that was some deep love I need and wasn't expecting on a cold Northeastern day.

To me, this is one of the reasons why I persevere on the hardest days, because this doctoral thing is not just for me, but for the people's whose shoulders I stand.

When we got off of the train, I saw her gait had a little limp. Maybe arthritis, maybe years of picking up other peoples' kids and tending to the them when her back and hip did not permit.

I can never forget the Guyanese woman who helped me that day. It was on a Friday and she was coming from work and had given me some of her work money she just got from her "employer" who paid her in cash and under the table. That woman and all the women who clean stinky booties, scrub nasty floors, and go grocery shopping for people who pay them pennies, but have millions stashed, are the invisible we really need to see.

I thought of both of my grandmothers who were domestics in the South and the reality of the past hit me in the face. Where you had extended families of the South often rearing the children of family members, these Caribbean women may have limited support systems, or newly inducted kinship ties to make it through.

Rarely anyone addresses the high numbers of black Caribbean women tending to wealthy women's babies. A juxtaposed irony, one privileged white woman and one working-class black immigrant woman. One who exploits, but is ever so dependent on the emotional and physical labor of the very person that is exploited.

Especially in the celebrity world where women fashionably have technologically implanted embryos, show off baby bumps to paparazzi, only to dump them onto nannies who silently rear the children as if they are their own mammy.

Or you have the other scenario of the celebs who adopt babies from brown and black countries as if they are socially conscious accessories. They show these children off in public with hair sticking up all over the place. Then they have Little Azziz smile for the camera on the way to Kabbalah class without a clue that they are being pimped.

These celebs who poorly immitate the work of humanitarians like Josephine Baker who adopted twelve children from around the world in the 50s and 60s. After she worked as a spy helping the US and France in WWII where she received full French military honors upon her death, she reached further into herself and adopted. Furthermore, she used all of her money from years of performing in France and throughout the globe to rear her children.

An unwavering supporter of Civil Rights, Baker was asked by Coretta Scott King to take the place of her husband after he was assassinated. You see, in the midst of adopting babies, she helped desegregate Las Vegas, Miami and upscale New York restaurants, march on Washington DC, and fundraise for the NAACP. To Coretta's dismay, Baker declined stating she could not do it because she did not want her children to lose their mother at a young age.

Another thing, Josephine Baker was sensitive to orphan children because her own mother, Carrie, who eventually helped her daughter rear the children until she died, was adopted in Arkansas in the late 1800s by a recently Emancipated couple.

Baker herself knew what it was like to be claimed by someone who was not kin. Her mother mysteriously got pregnant with Josephine while she was a domestic for a German family in the South. A local musician named Eddie Carson, accepted the responsiblity (well, he claimed her).

Unfortunately, Baker spent all her fortunes rearing her children (her white American husand left her because she wanted more) and ended up homeless. She was kicked out of her chataeu in France and onto the street, living similar to a bag lady. Actress-turned-princess consort, Grace Kelly, offered her a home in another part of Europe. Kelly befriended Baker years back when Baker was refused service in a New York socialite supperclub.

Baker, a woman deemed as the most beautiful by Poet Hemmingway, was innately pristine---to the point that she gave her last dime to her children. Something Madonna or Angelina Jolie WOULD NOT.

Moreover, it was Baker's children that were reasons why she went back to performing. She needed to make money to support her household, although she was of failing health. She died after her first night being back on the stage.

8 ish talking intellectuals holla at a sista:

Goddess Intellect said...

This is a beautiful story. I was raised by an aunt who worked as a nurse and caregiver to the mentally challenged...The shifts are ridiculous, the sacrifice & impact on their families -immense...

Asabagna said...

Excellent article! Btw... You are one of my favourite writers.


Ensayn1 said...

Ths is a fantastic post. I was really feeling your point. This is a great equalizer to the Angelina/Madonna adoption craze.

RiPPa said...

I got choked up as I read this. Being from the Caribbean, and having partially raised in Brooklyn, I know this all too well. Lets just say that I could remember some of my relatives being gone all week to do these menial tasks for little money just to survive and not being recognized as real people or human beings as we all are. Yes, I saw my mother and other generations before me with whom I am connected by blood in this post.

QUESTION: Can I repost this on my blog as a guest feature?

Reggie said...

This was a great blog.

krenee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
krenee said...

I was with you on the part about the Caribbean nannies being exploited.

But then you got to the part about Josephine Baker being some sort of Mother Teresa. Now I agree she was a beautiful and talented lady, and an icon. However your picture of her as the world’s greatest mother is not accurate. Did you know that she was openly bisexual, but rejected her gay son after she found him with another boy? Did you know that the reason her husband left her was because she was never home, and when she did come home, she brought another child, and left again, so he was left to be the single parent? Did you know that her children felt she didn't let them become who they truly were inside? And that they felt like show monkeys? On the chance that she was home on a Sunday, she would parade them outside in front of the gaping public and paparazzi. She also withheld information from the children about their birth families. And not all were orphans. Some she literally “bought” from their poor families. Her children acknowledge her short comings. And none have adopted children.

And who are you to say that Angelina Jolie wouldn’t give up everything for her children. Do you know her personally? Because she is white with a multiracial group of children means she loves them less ? I hate it when people are so quick to get mad at celebrities for adopting outside of their race. So what. They are still (most often) loved. And they are cared for way beyond what they would have been. A child is a child. In short, I have not adopted anyone, so I can’t pass negative judgment on anyone who has.

Anonymous said...

Josephine Baker's "white" husband was French, NOT American.