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Maid in the USA

A series about the domestic labor that makes all other work possible

Project Credits and Info


Dr. Shana A. Russell earned her PhD in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. She is a scholar of black women’s labor and the daughter of four generations of domestic workers. She is inspired by black women who write, sing, shout, disrupt, and persevere.

Maid in the USA

A series about the domestic labor that makes all other work possible

The best stories are about ordinary people.

My love of stories started with Josephine Emma-Bell Weldon. She was my maternal great-grandmother. Everyone called her nanny. She was a preacher’s wife. She took care of just about everyone in my family. And she was a domestic worker.

I never met her. But my mother said once that Nanny would have known how to love me better than she did sometimes.

As a break from researching I spent hours on the phone with my mother asking her questions about Nanny. What she did. What her work was like. Who she worked for. What she did for fun. It’s a bedtime story that isn’t quite finished yet. One that I hope never ends.

When people ask me about my research I should tell them that I study literature and women and blackness and class. Sometimes I give them this cocktail speech. But most of the time I tell them about Nanny. And other women like her. Aunts and grandmothers of friends or strangers I met at bars. The everyday women of the  Montgomery Bus Boycott who were interviewed in newspapers. All black women who worked as domestic workers and whose names no one knows.

I tell their stories. And people smile. And laugh. They are surprised and intrigued. Occasionally relieved. Relieved to know that the women they revere, the ones that make them who they are, were not passive victims of history.

I wondered if I could write those feelings down. Facts reserved for scholarly writing. Feelings here. Both things that make me who I am as an academic and a writer. So, allow me to (re)introduce myself: I am Shana A. Russell and these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.

Introducing Maid in the USA

Five years ago, I serendipitously stumbled upon the history of domestic worker organizing as the subject of my dissertation. In the beginning I was haunted by the image of the mammy figure, which dominates our collective national imagination when we think about domestic labor.

Generations of Labor

I encounter the children and grandchildren of Nannies and Gran Grans and Matties in Newark every day. From where I stand we are all living histories, walking libraries, and maids in the USA.

The Ironbound’s Portuguese Nannies

I thought I knew every narrative there was to know about domestic workers. Black women in postbellum Atlanta. Or on street-corner markets for domestics in New York City. Late 19th-century Irish women. Latina, Caribbean, West African, and South Asian immigrant women, products of the post-1965 era immigration wave. Portuguese women were nowhere to be found in the narrative I knew. 

The Mysterious Dennis Okin

At first, to Greg anyway, Dennis Okin was just a name. It was etched into many of his t-shirts and collared shirts. Greg thought Dennis Okin was some sort of exclusive designer that no one in Newark had discovered yet.

Migration Blues

As an historian, I have to say, the greatest achievement of the Great Migration is the blues. There’s something both haunting and charming about the itinerant worker who rides the rails to personal and individual freedom. 

Meanwhile in Brasil…

. . . people are protesting. Millions of people. But the internet is focused on these people in particular.

The Unwelcome Return of Mammy

I had a pretty bad day yesterday. Like mercury in retrograde bad. So my good friend came to the rescue with a two piece and a biscuit and her hulu plus password so we could watch Empire. Don’t judge me…

So, this happened…

The above … is a recent advertisement from Hong Leong Bank in Malaysia. The ad was aimed at domestic workers in Hong Kong (most of whom are Indonesian or Filipina). I tried in vain to find a translation but basically its encouraging employers to get insurance. It didn’t go over so well…

Domestic Workers: The Mysterious Women of History

In January 2015, The New York Times asked it readers to help the publication uncover the mystery of this Gordon Parks photo. Not much is known about the picture. It shows two women in the Atlanta airport. One white. The other, black, presumably her domestic worker, holds a white child. It was taken in the spring of 1956. Other than that, it’s a mystery…