My aunt Carolyn retired from a college teaching career and moved into our family’s historic farmhouse in northern Wisconsin. When the St. Paul Pioneer Press asked readers to describe “the worst jobs they ever had” for a Labor Day feature, she wrote about working at a local resort with fishing cabins, where she cleaned latrines and what some might call chamberpots (in her case galvanized pails). This happened in the early 1950s when she was fourteen years old, too young to work for a local vegetable canning operation as my mother did. As she says,
The crowning task was burying fish guts from the pail under the square hole in the middle of the cleaning table. I was shown where to dig in a not very big plot of sandy earth [where such guts had been buried for years]….Each time I nudged my shovel into the ground, I found an unwavering wave of fishy rot.
The newspaper published her story and featured it with this full-page illustration on the front of its Sunday Life section:
I mainly like—and certainly find interesting—that my aunt’s race and gender are ambiguous in this rendering. This is not at all what she looks like—blonde and Swedish with a round face. What does it mean that she looks so different in the drawing? Is the idea that she is an “everyperson”—or possibly “everywoman” but, if so, more androgynous than in real life? Is there an implication—at least one we might wonder about—that she won’t be a suitable “everyperson” if she looks too white? Are terrible jobs only legible at first glance if they involve racialized Others?
I’m not sure, but maybe it is more good than bad to represent terrible jobs as ambiguously racialized and gendered—given that more whites than non-whites are impoverished, but non-whites are more likely to be impoverished. In any case it interests me that they decided to draw Carolyn this way.
The story also seems interesting in relation to what I wrote about “rememberers” in my last post. College kids now are further removed from the 1970s (when I started college), than I was removed from the 1930s (when my mom was very young) during the 1970s.
The seasonal grunt work my mom did at the canning factory shortly after World War II—what is more often done by Latinx immigrants these days, and what my aunt was too young to do so she cleaned latrines and buried fish guts instead—is not far removed from the sort of work that John Steinbeck dramatized in the Grapes of Wrath not much earlier. Indeed my mom’s family was poor enough to be characters in The Grapes of Wrath; they lost their farm to bankruptcy in the 1930s, although they did not migrate. My aunt repurchased the farmhouse much later.
I am amazed to think that my dad (born in the 1920s) farmed with horses into the 1940s, and that his family didn’t have indoor plumbing into my childhood in the 1960s. Meanwhile my students are amazed that I did not have a computer of any kind, much less a cell phone, until the late stages of my Ph.D work around 1990.
That’s two generations. Add one or two more and we are talking about living before the everyday use of cars and electricity—indeed about people traveling on steamships from being peasants in Scandinavia, moving to where I now write by walking on trails in the woods. (This book and this one by my aunt tell some of the stories). If we push one or two more generations further back, this land was mainly Ojibwe country with a few fur traders. The changes are mind-boggling.
There is not just one point to this reflection, but part of my point is to remember how poverty, terrible jobs, and a lack of class privilege were and are a non-trivial issue for many white people. It is very important not to forget the analysis of white privilege—but if such shorthand loses track of class, so that white presumptively reduces to oppressor and racialized reduces to oppressed, it can easily misfire.
If this “picture” of my aunt helps us think about poverty having a white face just as often as black one, or if it helps us put a face that “looks like us” on hard-working immigrant families (whether in the present or the past) maybe it can do some good for a Labor Day reflection.
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