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Authors: Alice Childress

Like One of the Family

BOOK: Like One of the Family
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Black Women Writers Series
Series Editor: Deborah McDowell

Beacon Press
25 Beacon Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108-2892

Beacon Press books are published under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

©. 1956 by Alice Childress
Introduction copyright ©. 1986 by Beacon Press
Published originally by Independence Publishers, Brooklyn, New York
First published as a Beacon Paperback in 1986 by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved

First digital-print edition 2001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Childress, Alice.
Like one of the family.
(Black women writers series)
Originally published: Brooklyn : Independence Publishers, [1956].
Bibliography: p.
ISBN 0-8070-0903-2
eISBN 978-0-8070-9665-9
I. Title. II. Series.
PS3505.H76L5 1986
813'.54    86-73367

Eliza White
who loved life


Introduction by Trudier Harris

Selected Bibliography

Like One of the Family

Listen for the Music

On Sayin' No

Ridin' the Bus

Buyin' Presents

If You Want to Get Along with Me

Got to Go Someplace

The Pocketbook Game

New York's My Home

All About My Job


The Health Card

Your Soul … Another You

Signs of the Times

Aren't You Happy?

Nasty Compliments

Old as the Hills

Mrs. James


All the Things We Are

I Liked Workin' at that Place

Good Reason for a Good Time

I Go to a Funeral

Weekend with Pearl

More Blessed To Give

Sometimes I Feel So Sorry

I Go to Church

I Hate Half-Days Off

What Does Africa Want?

I Wish I Was a Poet

Economy Corner

In the Laundry Room

I Could Run a School Too

I Visit Yesterday

Story Tellin' Time

About Those Colored Movies

Why Should I Get Upset?


What Is It All About?

We Need a Union Too

Pretty Sights and Good Feelin's

Dope and Things Like That

Merry Christmas, Marge!

On Leavin' Notes

The ‘Many Others' in History

Interestin' and Amusin'

A New Kind of Prayer

History in the Makin'

Dance with Me, Henry

Ain't You Mad?


Northerners Can Be So Smug

Let's Face It

If Heaven Is What We Want

Where Is the Speakin' Place?


So Much for Nothing

The Benevolent Club

All About Miss Tubman

A B C's of Life and Learning

Somehow I'd Like to Thank Them

Men in Your Life

by Trudier Harris

, T
, is an unlikely place to meet black artists, unless they happen to be invited for special occasions. In December of 1978, Alice Childress and I were there participating in the conference on Black American Literature and Humanism held at the University of Tennessee. In one of the lulls, during which artists and scholars had an occasion to mingle, Childress asked me if I had read any of her work. Although she mentioned the titles of several of her books (even giving me an autographed copy of her novel,
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich)
, I found the title of one—
Like One of the Family … conversations from a domestic's
life—especially intriguing. Having known many black women who worked as domestics, including several in my family, I could not wait to read Childress's depictions of their interactions with their employers.

When I returned to Williamsburg, Virginia, I searched for the book—long out of print—and for more information about this writer who had written so much but been read so little. Childress's life reflected a nurturing and support that would later evolve into the striking independence characteristic of her work. The great-granddaughter of a slave who was abandoned by her former master at Emancipation, Childress was born in South Carolina in 1920. She therefore grew up with a sense of life from the underprivileged side of the veil. Raised by her grandmother Eliza, Childress was taken at the age of five to New York, an archetypal journey from the South to the promised land of the North that generations of blacks had taken before her. Grandmother Eliza encouraged Childress to jot down certain ideas because they were worth remembering, thereby offering the support that eventually led her to become a writer. The grandmother instilled a sense of value in Childress—value of herself as a human being and of her thoughts. This priceless estimation of her own worth encouraged Childress to explore the world of literature, to seek out those voices, as Richard Wright had done with H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and others in the 1920s, which could enhance her perceptions of the world and her own budding artistry. That she is primarily self-taught, not a high school graduate, is a wonder considering her accomplishments since those exploratory days of the thirties and forties.

Childress's upbringing and struggles in New York effectively influenced the kind of writer she would become. She says of herself: “I attempt to write about characters without condescension, without making them into an image which some may deem more useful, inspirational, profitable, or suitable.”
She has also commented that she concentrates “on portraying have-nots in a
society, those seldom singled out by mass media, except as source material for derogatory humor and/or condescending clinical, social analysis.”

Before these ideals could be realized, however, Childress had to serve a long apprenticeship. As her young adult years had already revealed, the dream of better opportunity in the North was elusive. She pursued a variety of jobs, including assistant machinist, photo retoucher, saleslady, and insurance agent as she worked relentlessly to gain audiences for her work as a playwright, actress, and novelist. She also did domestic work for a few months; the day she quit she surprised her employer by throwing her keys at her head. The woman later asked her to return to work. This “only work” that Childress could find turned out to be valuable, for it provided her with firsthand experience of the job situation she would later depict in
Like One of the Family
. Her first commercial acting success came with the American Negro Theatre, where she originated the role of Blanche in their famous production of
Anna Lucasta
in 1944. She later played the same part on Broadway with the original cast, which included such stars as Canada Lee and Hilda Simms. For this she was nominated for a Tony award.

Childress began to be published in 1950 when her short play,
, appeared in the journal
Masses and Mainstream
She first directed the play in 1949 at the American Negro Theatre, where she served as actress, writer, drama coach, and director. But Childress's first major success came with the Greenwich Mews Theatre 1955 production of
Trouble in Mind
, a play in which she challenged directly the stereotyped presentations of blacks in the theater. The main character, Wiletta Mayer, an aging black actress, is once again called upon to play a role that she knows is antithetical to the feelings of a black mother for her son. In the play within the play, entitled “Chaos in Belleville,” she is required to give up her son to the white men she is told will protect him when she
that he will be lynched for the “crime” of voting and urging other blacks to vote. Wiletta tries to lead the cast in a walkout of the racist production. However, paltry bids for stardom win out over principle, and the cast opts to pursue a project they do not believe in and from which they know the white director will release Wiletta for challenging his authority. The price of black human dignity is too dear for them to pay, so they smile at racial insults and try to retain some vague notion of what they believe is their professionalism. But at the end Wiletta still envisions the kind of work she wants to perform.

The extent to which the play challenged prevailing images of black character is attested to in Childress's alternate endings. The more militant option, demanded by the producers to show togetherness and black and white unity, had the cast leave the theater behind a marching Wiletta. Only when the racist director agrees to call in the author for the requested changes do Wiletta and the cast agree to continue work. Childress disagreed with this version because it let the director off the hook, gave him the right to “do it for them.” Childress considered it wishful thinking that the races would agree to change. The original two-act version, published in Lindsay Patterson's
Black Theater
(1971), ends after Wiletta's criticisms and with the certainty that, on the morrow, she will no longer be a part of the cast.

The black woman in
Trouble in Mind
who would not be quiet when silence negated her humanity anticipates, in her almost apologetic outspokenness, the militant Mildred of
Like One of the Family
. After reading the book, I was converted to an abiding faith in the voice of Alice Childress that was strong enough to inspire my first book-length project—on domestic workers in Afro-American literature.
Although I eventually treated several other writers in the study, Childress and Mildred were my motivation and inspiration. A part of that study included interviews with women who had worked as domestics, and Mildred was the source of the anecdotes I used in trying to get them to talk with me about their work. Mildred's description of being tested for honesty, especially in a conversation like “The Pocketbook Game,” was one of the tangible, ongoing ties she had to many of these domestic workers. Even in 1980 and in 1981, black women were still being tested for their honesty in white women's houses, and they were still being cheated out of their rightful wages.

Childress's voice in
Like One of the Family
was different from most I had heard. She dared to test assumptions about the expected in Afro-American literature. Instead of a handkerchief-headed black woman, or one bowing and scraping before her “quality white folks,” Mildred stood up straight and tall. Childress's dramatization of Mildred and of her other characters was lifelike and the issues concerning them immediate. In this collection of crisp conversations of two to three pages each, I shared the adventures of a black maid, a day worker who told her friend Marge about her experiences with the white folks in the New York area. The conversations were structured as dramatic monologues so that although I never heard Marge's voice, I felt her presence and intuited her thoughts through my own reactions to the stories Mildred told. When Mildred said she had snatched a newspaper out of her white employer's hand at breakfast one morning, I wanted to say, as Marge implies: “Aw come on, girl, naw you didn't!” And, like Marge, I wanted to pat Mildred on the back for being so daring. When Mildred stands toe-to-toe with the preacher and tells him, in terms comparable to Langston Hughes's Madam Alberta K. Johnson in “Madam and the Minister,” exactly why she hadn't been coming to church, I wanted to join Marge in her symbolic outcry: “Move, girl, them lightning bolts you stirred up might zap me.” And when Mildred plans parties for the children in her apartment building and gives them lessons in black history, I wanted to applaud an author who could create a sassy character but who could also transcend stereotypes in that creation.

BOOK: Like One of the Family
7.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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