Historian Emily Bingham teaches CentreTerm class based on themes from “The Help”
This year, a CentreTerm class titled The Help is bringing a long silenced topic to the forefront. Louisville historian Emily Bingham, author of “Mordecai: An Early American Family,” used her own personal interest and connection to the subject to lead in-depth discussions on the “difficult and still-sensitive chapters” of domestic work in American history and culture.
The class incorporated a number of sources, including readings such as Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, “The Help,” which examines the relationship between maids and their employers; films like “The Butler” by Lee Daniels; field trips; and visits from outside experts. Students had the opportunity to study the political, economic and cultural aspects of private labor, as well as survey the evolution of the domestic service from the times of indentured servants and enslaved laborers in colonial America to the current global market for in-home workers in the 21st Century.
“I have studied and taught women’s history and Southern history for years, so the popularity of “The Help,” followed by its film iteration, caught my attention,” Bingham says. “The history of domestic work and relations between employers and employees had been addressed to a limited extent by historians beginning in the 1980’s, but the controversy around “The Help” made clear that many wounds remained raw.
“At the same time, the runaway BBC hit “Downton Abbey” suggested an appetite for revisiting these very different times when many households contained full-time employees as well as families.”
The class was tasked with “thinking like historians,” discussing questions about how technology has altered the work of laborers over time, what role government has played in their treatment and how experiences of workers in the state of Kentucky may be distinct from other regions.
Bingham addresses the topic from a unique perspective.
“As a child, I grew up with a series of live-in and live-out workers who helped maintain the household and helped feed and raise me and my sister,” she says. “The last of these was a white University of Louisville pre-med student from Eastern Kentucky (she taught me to make buttermilk biscuits), but the others were African-American women. I now recognize that I lived through the period of declining participation of black women in this occupation, as federal EEOC anti-discrimination policies opened up other jobs previously shut to them.
“As a parent, I have also employed caregivers and others and found it challenging at times, perhaps in part because the history (and legacy) of exploitation in this realm of work haunted me,” she continues. “How much had things changed? Was I reproducing conditions that made domestic labor problematic in the past? Faced with such questions, my instinct as an historian was to read and study and try to figure it out. But reading and planning and teaching a course are very different: the questions and concerns my Centre students have brought to this subject have been incredibly instructive.”
The class also visited Helm Place, an 1850’s historic home on the south side of Lexington owned by Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, where they were able to consider the production of public history narratives in homes where domestic labor (and slavery) were often major components of daily life.
Bingham emphasized the importance of class collaboration and participation writing.
“Learning and working are rarely solitary,” Bingham says. “Each discussion offers the chance to learn from one another.”
To wrap up the term students completed a Domestic Labor Character project, breaking up in to groups of two to research and create a biological sketch of an employer, employee, reformer, or activist involved in the domestic service or public household labor industry.
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by Cindy Long