“Of Maids and Ladies”: Dr. Ayesha Hardison on Living Jane Crow

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[by Creighton N. Brown and Simone Savannah]

On Thursday, October 30, 2014, Langston Hughes Visiting Professor Ayesha Hardison examined the oppressive situation faced by women of color after the Civil War and through the Jim Crow Era in a talk entitled “Of Maids and Ladies: The Ethics of Living Jane Crow” at The University of Kansas.

Working from the decline of the mammy in postbellum America to the rise of the domestic worker during the 1940s and 1950s, Hardison explored the ways that black women writers attempted to critique their condition and reimagine black femininity in juxtaposition with oppression by white women and black men’s gender privilege. Hardison explored this double bind faced by black women through Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), and cartoonist Jackie Ormes’s newspaper serials Candy and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.

 

Of particular interest was Hardison’s discussion of Candy, which ran in the Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper. Candy presented a maid who was slender, confident, and contemptuous rather than the sturdy and quiet shadow of the mammy trope. During her discussion, Hardison deftly explicated the subversive and affirming content of this single panel series.

According to Hardison, each new Candy cartoon features the title character flouting audience expectations by showing Candy’s contempt of her oblivious female employer. For example, in one panel Candy borrows her employer’s sweater, which is returned with the imprints of Candy’s shapelier chest. Inherent in this panel, Hardison argued, is the tension between white domesticity and an imagined black women’s sexual threat, a tension Candy confronts and destabilizes through her seemingly supercilious behavior.


Moreover, Hardison asserted that Candy disrupted the romanticizing of the hierarchical relationship between black women and their white employers. While Ormes challenged the mammy trope through the character of Candy, Hardison noted that the stereotype of mammies being trusted members of the family and a necessary presence in the domestic scene persists on the page and in film, such as in the 2009 novel The Help and its 2011 movie adaptation.

In addition to undermining the power and sexuality of white female employers, Candy interrogates black men’s gender privilege in a panel where Candy challenges the male gaze by squarely returning it. Candy is depicted leaning forward, out of the panel, toward her audience with one hand resting on her hip and the other on her raised knee. Flanking Candy is a statue of an Asian woman. Candy’s body language and insistent gaze, Hardison suggested, aggressively contest the subjection experienced by black women.

Through her inquiry into Jane Crow experience, which captures black women’s gender, sexuality, and race, Hardison exposed radical critiques by black women writers that questioned a system designed to render black women sexually vulnerable and racially invisible at the intersection of white domesticity, black male privilege, and the trope of the mammy. 

Hardison, an associate professor of English at Ohio University, currently serves as Langston Hughes Visiting Professor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at KU. She is working on Specters of Segregation: The Post-Civil Rights Literary Imagination, which will examine the Civil Rights Movement through depictions in contemporary black culture, and which follows her first book, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literary (University of Virginia Press, 2014).

The Langston Hughes Visiting Professorship was established in 1977 in order to bring prominent or emerging minority scholars to the University of Kansas for a semester.

Thanks to Mary Ellen Diotte for sharing pictures she took at the event.