I often sit across from Grandma at her kitchen table and listen to her talk about her life in between CNN news segments, game shows or country music. We break bread with breakfast subs from Hollins Market (if you know, you know) or whip out a deck of cards.
Aside from her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she lives for a good card game. Grandma’s 78 years old and her memory can be a bit like a scratched CD at times. I can tell you from experience the part when it sorely skips for me — when she talks about needing a job.
It’d be one thing if financial reasons were influencing her thoughts about working. Her West Baltimore house is paid for and she’s lived there for almost 30 years. She also has five kids and a dozen grandkids that would do or give her absolutely anything she needs, even if she’s too proud to ask.
Combatting boredom is a factor, I’m sure, since she’s retired. But, a part of me condemns the societal pressures and perceptions about labor and the way a person’s profession is linked to who they are. And, how much a person does somehow validating purpose and existence. Grind culture is normalized, and if people aren’t tired, stressed and taking bubble baths or sipping alcohol as a form of self-care, they’re not believed to be really working or earning their keep. I’m not excluding myself from the crippling thoughts that marry production and validation.
A co-worker brought it to my attention that the emphasis on labor is so engrained our culture, it’s an instant centerpiece in conversations. How many times have you followed up a “what’s your name” with “what do you do for work?” Is it low-hanging fruit for small talk? Maybe, but it’s so instinctual and it’s likely an approach to size someone up to better understand how to navigate them. Or worse, categorize them in a mental Rolodex, rotating on classism’s spool.
Working is a part of the American dream. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80.1% of the 83.8 million families in the U.S. had at least one member employed last year. Yet, many places and professions are experiencing labor shortages.
The intersectionality of race and gender can have a role in how labor’s perceived and pursued.
Research shows that Black women are often the breadwinners in their family, which segues to an entirely different conversation about the gender pay gap in the United States. Grandma prides herself on making her own way, especially after separating from my Pop-pop, who in more ways than one didn’t always make life easy for her. I’ll let that rest alongside him because it’s not my story to tell.
Grandma’s worked at a bar, a restaurant, a picture-framing business, as a caretaker and even babysat while she tended to five kids of her own back in the day. She had a small stint handing out programs at Ravens games. For much of her life, she didn’t drive. She got her license in her 60s, so she navigated Baltimore’s public transportation system, even for jobs with early start times.
Grandma was born 80 years after slavery was abolished but nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. She didn’t face slavery firsthand, but who’s to say she isn’t experiencing the lingering aftermath of exploited labor and structural racism. Kaye Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland, said slavery has “long tentacles” that extend beyond the actual practice of legalized slavery.
She added: “It has permeated every aspect of our being and the ways in which whiteness responds to us in this country.”
Black bodies were once deemed property in this country, and so much of Black people’s value came from how capable they were to work and for how long. For Black women, even their womb was a form of exploited labor because they were the pipelines for continued slavery, a well-oiled and oppressive moneymaker.
Whitehead said there is also a trope that has been introduced and accepted as part of the stereotype around Black people. That is, that they are lazy, don’t want to work hard and want something for nothing. It is a lie, she added, that has been turned into a fact and pushed onto Black people, which causes some Black people to work even harder.
Grandma sometimes talks about how she doesn’t want to be viewed as lazy because she has the option to be home as much as she wants. Her variation of carpe diem is, “The only thing I’m turning down is my collar,” because she worked so much previously and said “no” to plans a lot.
She’s always trying to find a way to be of service. More than once, I’ve seen her find something someone needed even though she doesn’t have a ton. Every day, especially on the hot ones, she gives the three trashmen bottles of water for their route. It’s not a payroll job, but it’s a little fulfilling duty she assigned to herself. She also makes a point to go on walks. Her calves are stronger than mine will ever be.
I probably don’t tell her as often as I should, but I enjoy hearing about her life, the way she views the world and how much it changed since she’s been around. She made due with the cards she was dealt like a birthright, and doesn’t bluff about all it took to get to where she is.
I need her to know that all that she’s done is more than enough. And so is she.