Books: Too Heavy a Load and Storming Caesar's Palace
In Too Heavy a Load, Deborah Gray White profiles a group of black women who seek to establish a set of moral standards for other black women in the spirit of racial uplift. She notes, “chastity became the litmus test of middle-class respectability…Middle-class status in black society was associated was much with ‘style of life’ as with income” (30). In other words, gender performance was also class performance, targeting white audiences. For clubwomen, defending their womanhood is an assertion that black women are just as feminine and worthy of respect as white women. While attempting to climb social, economic, and cultural ladders, black clubwomen left many behind, feeling that some black women did not measure up to middle-class standards of cultural refinements. Some rural blacks rebuked the “high falutin’” ways of clubwomen. For example, hair straightening techniques were rejected for preferred multicolored headwraps. This form of resistance is a demonstration of gender, race, and class performativity. Whether images of New Negroes or iconic blues women, young black women were offered various examples of how to (re)present their gender, race, class, and sexuality.
Annelise Orleck’s Storming Caesar’s Palace, is a story of poor women who became anti-poverty activists. In the 1950s, these southern women left sharecropping behind to become domestic laborers (maids and cooks) in hotels in Las Vegas. While there, a number of the women joined labor unions, providing them with their first experiences with political activism and interracial solidarity. During the 60s, issues concerning layoffs, health, and childcare, resulted in them applying for public assistance and forming a welfare organization. By 1971, their grassroots organizing received national attention following their opposition to drastic welfare cuts through a march to the lavish Caesar’s Palace. The march included poor women and their children, peace activists, civil rights leaders, clergy, and celebrities. Eventually, forming Operation Life, these women lobbied politicians and wrote grant proposals to get Nevada to support federal programs like food stamps and WIC as well as attempts to get President Carter to create jobs that addressed concerns of gender segregation in the workforce and lack of childcare for poor mothers. For the mothers, they no longer saw themselves as “clients” rather they saw themselves become “catalysts of change” (167).
While reading Too Heavy a Load, a couple of books exploring race and gender at the turn of the 20th century came to mind. White reveals that black clubwomen embraced Victorian gender and performance. Responding to this is Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, which discusses how whites used white supremacy to sexually oppress black people. Entering this conversation is Eileen Suarez Findlay with her work, Imposing Decency, which explores the relationship between political change and discourse on sexuality in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Each of these historians engage in a discourse around racial uplift that links progress with adopting white cultural norms and values. Implied in this assimilation are performances of womanhood related to race and class decorum. During my reading of Storming Caesar’s Palace and thinking of the welfare rights movement, Premilla Nadasen’s Welfare Warriors immediately came to mind. Welfare Warriors examines the racial politics of welfare from the 1950s to the 1970s, during a time when welfare became synonymous with black motherhood. Nadasen explores the grassroots movement and activism of black women in cities across the nation, demonstrating that the welfare rights movement was integral to the Black Freedom Movement and other Black Power organizations.