The following post was originally published on Medium.
Whenever my 20-year-old son comes to visit me in California, the third thing he does (after requesting his favorite home-cooked meal and rolling around with the dog) is drive over to Target to buy a new mop.
The kid has never once seen me wash a floor. Because I never have. Neither have my mother and grandmother.
Mother and Gran were awesome cooks, haphazard launderers, and one-step-ahead-of-the-health-department housekeepers (like me) — but their vigilance about making us kids wipe our feet or remove our shoes before we entered the house wasn't about cleanliness. It was about race. And gender.
When my mother graduated from high school in 1955, it was Gran's fervent wish that she find a job where she could "sit on her ass" all day long. She didn't want her daughter stuck in a factory, on her feet for hours, sweating out the Summers and freezing through the Winters, tolerating white men's wandering hands and white women's racist jokes.
And factory jobs were plum! Gran's older sisters were all maids, nannies, and washerwomen for affluent white ladies on the west side of town. I remember my Aunt Beulah, well into her sixties, standing outside in the snow, waiting for the bus to take her to her "day work." I remember my Aunt LaVerne coming home in tears about something I didn't understand — the mister "being mannish" — and being warned not to tell the uncles.
No, Gran wouldn't have that for her daughter. It was bad enough to put up with constant racial and sexual indignities, but actually having to wash their dirty dishes or clean their toilets? In her mind, scrubbing the floor was the worst of these chores. It exemplified degradation and subservience as a black person and a woman. Getting down on your hands and knees was the Line That Would Not Be Crossed.
One day, Gran came home from work and Mother was excited to tell her she'd spent the day with one of the aunts helping to clean some lady's house. She showed Gran how she'd helped Auntie in the kitchen. "Get up off that damn floor!" Gran yelled, "and don't you ever get down there again."
That"s how the story came to me, decades later.
Gran made Mother take typing and shorthand in high school. "It's going to get better for colored girls someday," she'd say. "And you'd best be ready."
Although my mother went to college much later as an adult and became a professor, after high school she worked as a stenographer and secretary. She landed a government job — helped in part by her light skin and straight hair. She put my father through law school by "sitting on her ass" and typing.
"A man who expects a woman to scrub his floor will expect her to kiss his ass."
When they got married, the story goes, Gran pulled my father aside and said, "A man who expects a woman to scrub his floor will expect her to kiss his ass. My daughter won't be doing neither one. Best you know that from the git."
At the time, the concept of work was vastly different for black and white women. These were the '60s and '70s — the era of The Feminine Mystique and the rise of Ms. and NOW. The work of black and white women remains an unresolved point of tension, a flashpoint of entitlement and class warfare, privilege and economic equity.
Historically, black women have rarely had the luxury of choosing to be a homemaker; their husbands were systemically prevented from the education and training necessary to become high earners. Labor unions were closed to blacks. Few fields were open — ministry, for example, or enlisted military service. Black men who built their own businesses were targets of harassment, violence, or outright lynching. For black women — and poor women of every race — working was a matter of survival. Too often, this work was menial, unsafe, and underpaid. It wasn't even close to the fulfilling careers black women dreamed of.
"Feminism is for rich white women who have black maids cleaning their toilets and too much time on their hands," my mother would say, well into the '80s. "Black women have always worked. When did we ever have a choice about it?"
Mother never once called herself a feminist — even while she demanded entry to all-male academic associations and fought for equal access to science and math departments for women students at her college. Not even as she exposed gender-based pay scams at a local union and joined the picket line protesting gender-based hiring at the police department.
Back at home, my father washed the floors and then my brothers. After my divorce, Dad or my youngest brother would come to my apartment just to mop the kitchen. My sons took over the job almost as soon as they could hold a mop.
My only daughter got married a few weeks ago to a kind and thoughtful man. When they moved in together last year, I pulled him aside. "My daughter does not wash floors. Ever." He gave me a hug. "Oh, Mom," he sighed. "I'm well aware."
When my son went back to Chicago after his last visit, he left me a newfangled cool mop thingy that sprays the cleaner out and sucks it back up. "You know, Mom," he said. "It's not 1955. You don't have to get down on your knees to wash the floor. You don't even have to get your hands wet."
I just shrugged. I don't wash floors. And neither will his future daughters.