Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Marguerite Clark
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States of America
This is an article about the life of Marguerite Clark, an African-American woman who lived in Louisiana during the Great Depression, and related social issues.
Marguerite Clark, born Marguerite Wilson, was an African-American woman living in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Clark was born sometime between 1888 and 1892 on Sixth Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana to a single mother, also named Marguerite Wilson. Clark's mother worked as a cook in the homes of wealthy white people. Clark attended McDonogh Number 24, a local school, until the third grade. Clark was a very religious woman, and was a regular attendee of the Zion Travelers Baptist Church. As Clark reached adulthood, she was romantically pursued by a number of men, but married an African-American man named Buster Clark, because she found him to be the most “satisfying”. Marguerite Clark considered Buster Clark to be an incredibly lazy man since he was infrequently employed throughout the duration of their marriage. Clark also suspected Buster of having numerous affairs, but the two remained together regardless. In order to support her family, Clark worked as a cook for rich white families, most notably under a Mrs. Jacobs. Clark was able to work for Mrs. Jacobs because Clark’s mother, who had become too ill to work and soon after died, had worked for Mrs. Jacobs beforehand. During the Depression years, Buster worked under the Works Progress Administration, causing Clark to call him her “W.P.A. man.” Clark and her husband had no children. She was interviewed at age forty-seven as a part of the Federal Writers Project. Little is known about her life after this point.
The Role of the Domestic Servant
For much of American history, hired domestic workers were viewed as “help,” not domestic servants, by their white farmer employers. However, because of the Industrial Revolution, the previous farming based lifestyles were replaced with the middle class lifestyle. The middle class lifestyle was centered around ways of expressing one’s wealth and leisure. White women and men had before worked together on their farms but now had very distinct gender roles. Men would work outside the home while women would maintain the household. These white women, with the whole of the household to take care of, needed more workers in order to keep up with the demands of the ideal middle class life. “Employing domestic servants enabled middle-class women to strike a balance between the reality and the ideals of domesticity.”1 This transition also brought the change from viewing workers as “help” to viewing them as domestic servants. “’Employers demanded longer hours and more stringent work discipline from domestics than they had from help and delegated more of the work to them’; these changes made the work ‘more demanding and demeaning’”2 Because work became more demeaning and menial, this work could not be expected from women of the same social and racial identity as the employer, which is why white, middle class women so commonly hired poor African-American women to especially highlight the social distinction. “In the rural South’s low-wage economy, the central problem of most African-Americans’ lives was making a living. In search of better pay and working conditions, a high proportion of agricultural workers left their employers at the end of each year, often without paying their debts.”3 The hardship of plantation work and its low-wages caused many African-Americans to pursue other jobs like the many black women who became domestic servants. “Black domestic workers were subjected to explicit and constant messages that reminded them of their inferiority and their alleged suitability for the domestic role.”4 Black domestic servants did not “help” their white mistresses, as the helping girls of the past did, they served her and made her middle-class lifestyle possible.
Role of African-American Christianity
When Africans were brought over as slaves from West Africa, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world, these people had no common language, no common religion, no common cultural traditions, and, furthermore, no common group identity. This reality made it difficult for this diverse group of people, who had been forcibly grouped together, because they would need to create a new culture and identity from their new environment. “The enslavement of the [Africans] not only destroyed the traditional African system of kinship and other forms of organized social life, it made insecure and precarious the most elementary forms of social life.”5 The need for a new group identity was filled with religion, Black Protestantism. With special emphasis on the passages of Exodus, the African-American community drew parallels between their own suffering in slavery and that of the Israelites. Many whites did not want blacks to become Christians, mostly because it would make slavery more difficult to justify. Black women in particular played a large role in social cohesion within the African-American community. “No matter what roles women served, ‘whether in their roles as soloists, ushers, nurses, church mothers, Sunday school teachers, missionaries, pastor's aides, deaconesses, stewardesses, or prayer warriors, women are at the core of the Black Church, which could not exist without them.”6
African-American English has played a similar role as that of Black Protestantism in creating cultural unity in a community that had been unwillingly grouped together through slavery. With no common language, the African-American community unconsciously created a new dialect of English, which has become a source of solidarity amongst African-Americans. “[African-American English] resembles other vernacular or nonstandard varieties – like Cockney or Appalachian English – in the sense that while it's important for self-expression, and for marking group identity and solidarity, it can also trigger discrimination in the workplace, housing market, schools and courts.”7 The dialect shows many similarities to that of Caribbean English-based Creoles, which are language varieties created through the mixing of different languages over time, in this case being West African languages and English.8 Many of the differences in grammatical structures of African-American English are a result of the influence of the grammatical structures of these West African Languages.9 A large number of mostly white speakers of other language varieties view African-American English as not just different, but as “wrong” and “ghetto-talk.”10 Many African-Americans are discriminated against as a result of having their own systematic language variety that has existed for centuries and is a cornerstone of African-American identity.
1. Hannah Branch Enobong, Melissa E. Wooten. "Suited for Service: Racialized Rationalizations for the Ideal Domestic Servant from the Nineteenth to the Early Twentieth Century." Social Science History 36, no. 2 (2012): 169-189
2. Ibid., 169-189
3. Greta de Jong, “"with the Aid of God and the F.S.A.": The Louisiana Farmers' Union and the African American Freedom Struggle in the New Deal Era”. Journal of Social History Oxford University Press (2010) p.105–39
4. Enobong, Wooten, “Suited for Service,” p. 169-189
5. Ayanna Demetris Lenard, "Hallelujah to the Lamb: Perceptions of the Roles of Laywomen through their Experiences in the African-American Baptist Church." Howard University (2006)
6. Lenard, “Hallelujah to the Lamb”
7. Clifton B. Parker, "Neighborhoods Influence Use of African American Vernacular English, Stanford Research Shows." Stanford University. Stanford Report, 10 Sept. 2015.
8. Mariama M. Changamire, "African-American English: Structure, History and use." The Journal of Race & Policy 11 (1): (2015) 59-65.
9. Rosina Lippi-Green, English with an Accent Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. Vol. 2. London: Routledge, 2012. p. 188
10. Ibid., p. 188