Like One of the Family
Alice Childress's Like One of the Family … Conversations from a Domestic's Life (1956) is a collection of sixty-two short conversations that originally appeared in Paul Robeson's newspaper Freedom under the title “Conversations from Life” and were continued in the Baltimore Afro-American as “Here's Mildred.” The novel's heroine, Mildred Johnson, recounts for her friend Marge the daily battles she has with her white employers who either treat her like she is invisible or who try to overwork and underpay her for her services as a maid. Childress's novel uniquely celebrates the lives of countless African American women who raised families while working as domestics. Unlike the docile, self-effacing, one-dimensional domestics often found in American literature, Mildred is assertive, intellectually superior, quick-witted, and dignified. Mildred questions authority, confronts her white employers, attacks stereotypes, and challenges the abuse of Black domestics. Childress creates a world in which a poor, Black female takes it upon herself to enlighten her employers about race, class, and gender biases.
Conversations such as “Like One of the Family,” “The Pocket Book Game,” and “The Health Card” illustrate Childress's skillful manipulation of her heroine. In “Like One of the Family,” Mildred corrects her employer who makes the mistake of boasting that Mildred is like one of the family. Mildred reminds her that she eats in the kitchen while her employer's family eats in the dining room. She tells her that if she were to drop dead, she would be replaced within a heartbeat. Mildred also reminds her that after she has worked herself into a sweat, she does not appreciate the low wages. Mildred uses this opportunity, while she has the employer at a point of vulnerability, to ask for a raise. In “The Pocket Book Game,” the white employer holds on tightly to her purse as if she is afraid Mildred will steal from her. Mildred turns the tables when she comes running back into the house and snatches her own pocketbook. She reassures her employer that if she paid anyone as little as she did, she would hold on to her purse, too. Childress demonstrates in “The Health Card” the disruptiveness of stereotypes. When Mildred's employer asks for her health records, Mildred in turn requests health cards from each member of the white family. Mildred's humor serves to expose the rampant racism of the 1950s.
Childress's novel makes a serious contribution to African American literature because of the storytelling forms that she makes use of in the conversations. While the use of an omniscient narrator would have earned for Childress the label of didactic or propagandistic, the use of a character who speaks her own mind allows the audience to view racial tensions of the 1950s from the point of view of an impassioned character who relates her own personal experiences. In a sense, Mildred is held accountable for what she says to her white employers, and Childress as author maintains some degree of distance from the experiences.
Like One of the Family, with Mildred at its center, is unique in that it celebrates the experiences of African American women domestics. Childress gives voice to women who on bended knees improved the conditions of their families.