The USA: Freedom to Look

June 29th, 2012 § 0 comments

Chaika (later Anglicized to “Ida”) Kopkind Freeman, HG’s Mom, was born (late 1880’s, precise date vague) in the tiny town of Plestyanitz in present day Belorussia. When she was a little girl, a traveling circus came to town. The star was a black African. You had to pay extra to see him and for an additional tiny sum you could rub the man’s arm to prove the ebony color wasn’t painted on. Mom arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. She and her female roommate would often leave their tenement for a stroll on The Bowery, then a lively entertainment center. “What a country!!,” Mom would marvel,” Here there’s no charge for looking at black people.”

Many years later, Mom lived in The Bronx with husband and three children. The energetic woman cooked, cleaned, mended, washed and, blessed with nimble fingers, made shirts, scarves and dresses. During the last stage of the Great Depression (around 1938), African-American women from Harlem would line up on major Bronx streets in middle class neighborhoods and be hired for a day’s domestic work. Their pay was very modest and angry leftist newspaper columnists derided it as “Bronx Slavery”. At some point, HG’s older brother persuaded Mom to hire a woman for a day so she could have some rare leisure time. Mom was a Socialist and an early union member. She had friends who died in the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Suffice it to say, she was very uncomfortable with the idea of hiring a house-keeper (even for a day). Before the cleaning woman began her work, Mom cleaned house. “You want a stranger to think we live in a dirty house?” Mom didn’t quite get the idea. Filled with guilt, she made the bemused African-American woman a sumptuous lunch. Tuna salad and salmon salad. Lots of fresh vegetables and bread. A big fruit cup for dessert. “Bronx Slavery” ended as the war boosted the economy. That was Mom’s last experiment with having a servant or “help.” To little HG’s distress, when heavy cleaning was necessary Mom called on HG. Left HG with a lifelong aversion to domestic labor of any kind.

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