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 invited readers to describe “the worst jobs they ever had” for a Labor Day feature, she wrote about her childhood work at a local resort with fishing cabins. Her job was cleaning latrines and what some might call chamberpots (in her case galvanized pails). This was in early 1950s. She was fourteen years old, too young to work at a local vegetable canning operation as my mother did. As she wrote,
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 in its Sunday Life section:
My aunt’s race and gender are ambiguous in this rendering. This is not even close to what she looks like—blonde and Swedish-American with a round face. Why does she look so different? Is the point that she is an everyperson—or perhaps an everywoman but, if so, far more androgynous than in real life? Could there be an implication—at least an unconscious one—that terrible jobs are only legible at at glance when they involve racialized Others? Or that she wouldn’t be a proper everyperson if she was too white? Or that making a white woman less white emphasizes the terribleness of the work?
I don’t ask these questions because I think I know the answers. I just think it is interesting.
Maybe it is OK to represent terrible jobs as ambiguously racialized and gendered, given that far more raw numbers of whites than non-whites are impoverished, but meanwhile non-whites are far more likely to be impoverished. In any case it is interesting that they drew Carolyn this way.
It’s also interesting to relate this case to my last post about “rememberers.” College kids today are further removed from the 1970s (when I started college) than I was removed from the 1930s (my mom’s childhood) when I started college. At that time, the 1930s seemed to me like a remote past and I was sadly ignorant about what had happened between those olden days and whenever my direct experience began to pick up the slack.
The seasonal grunt work that my mom did at a canning factory as a teen, shortly after World War II—work that Latinx immigrants largely do today, and which my aunt was too young to do so she buried fish guts instead—is not far removed from the life that John Steinbeck dramatized in the Grapes of Wrath. Indeed my mom’s family was poor enough to have been characters in that book. They lost their farm to foreclosure in the 1930s, although they did not migrate. (My aunt repurchased the above-mentioned farmhouse, minus the cropland, much later.)
I am amazed to think that my father, born in the 1920s, farmed with horses until the 1940s, and that his family did not have indoor plumbing before 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 only two generations. If we add one or two more, we are talking about things like life before electricity even in big cities, or about very poor Swedish peasants traveling on steamships to North America, where they could only make the last leg of their journey by walking on trails through the woods. (This book and this one by my aunt tell some of the stories). If we then push back just another one or two generations, this was mainly Ojibwe country plus a few Euro-American fur traders. The changes are mind-boggling.
I’m not trying to make one unified argument in this reflection. There is extremely much to think about if our topic opens either toward terrible jobs considered comprehensively, or trying to remember all the important changes over the past few generations.
But one part of the point is to notice how poverty, terrible jobs, and a lack of class privilege were and are a non-trivial issue for many white people. Of course It is extremely important not to forget white privilege—especially, in the story of my family, how how this relates to the dispossession of Ojibwe people, as well as the question of differential access to middle-class professions especially before the 1970s—but if such shorthand loses track of class relations, so that being “white” reduces to being affluent and exploitative, and never to suffering and aggrieved, it can badly misfire.
If an illustrated story about my aunt helps us think about poverty having a white face just as often as black one, or if conversely 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.
MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it. If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.