When I was younger, my daddy and I would play chess and plan my future:
Daddy moves his white pawn to E4, “So, when you get to high school you’re going to need to hit the extra-curricular hard; debate team and foreign language club.”
I move my black pawn to E5, “which foreign language?”
Dad’s bishop to D6, “Any will do, preferably Spanish since we’re in Texas.”
“I wanna learn French”, I say as I move my pawn to F4
He shrugs and takes my pawn, “Like I said, any will do. Don’t give up your small pieces too soon in the game, Osheta. You’ll need them later. Have you figured out what type of law you want to study? You could be a public defender, since you have a soft heart for people in need.”
I stare at the board planning my next move; I so desperately want to impress him. Not seeing a way to capture his piece, I decide to have fun with the game. I move my knight to H3 just because I love to make him jump over the pawns to get to his place. “No, not yet. I’ll figure that out when I get to college. I’ll just stick to the plan and make captain of the debate team for my senior year, ok? When I get into a good school we’ll figure that out.”
Daddy moves a pawn to G5 and nods, “That’s fine.”
I can see that he’s going after my knight and part of me feels like he’s doing it just to ruin my fun. “Daddy, sometimes I get called ‘white’ because of our plan for me go to college and become a lawyer.” My knight takes his audacious pawn. I catch his eye and he smirks.
I wonder if he moved that piece there just so I’ll take it and have a moment of victory in our little game. “Sheeki (my childhood nickname), don’t listen to those fools! Just remember this: when you come back from school with your degree and your high paying job, you can hire them to clean your house and take care of your kids. They’ll be coming to you begging for work, saying ‘remember when we were kids?’ So let them say what they want now because some day you’ll sign their paychecks.”
This was my daddy’s version of “haters are going to hate”. During our chess games, he strategically wove in me a sense of pride and expectation about my future: one day I was going to acquire a successful career, makes lots of money, and be the boss.
Which is why this morning when I decided to take my kids to work with me in honor of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, I despaired a bit that I wasn’t taking them to an office with a view; I took them to an apartment to work through a chore list.
I didn’t show-off the perks of free coffee and pastries in the break room; all I had to show was proof that I earned a family’s trust with their house key.
I didn’t sit around an imposing conference table; I taught them how to intuit a family’s need:
“Fold down the top sheet because it’s super comfy to get into a well made bed”
“wipe under the glass of the coffee table to make it shine”
“fold the clothes a bit neater, ‘k?”
Today, my kids did not see Mama in an illustrious career as a lawyer or even my noble secondary choice of teacher, instead I took them to help me with my Tuesday/Thursday gig of housekeeping for the sweetest, kindest young family.
I, their black mama took them to the home of a white family and for a moment I wondered if I was harming my children more than helping. Should they see me in such a menial role? What messages am I sending them about the world and their worth as bi-racial children? What does it say about my worth as a black woman?
In a culture where every little black girl looks up to Michelle Obama and every Thursday evening we’re blown-away by Olivia Pope, I wonder if I’m I throwing away the liberties afforded to me by the Civil Rights movement. Sometimes, I feel a deep, deep shame when I think about my choice to become a housekeeper.
I’m a black woman—we’ve evolved from this, haven’t we?
Deciding whether or not to bring my kids to work with me today, I questioned my rejection of my father’s carefully thought out plan and my lack of motivation to go to law school. That is, until I unlocked the door, surveyed the apartment, and realized there’s a subversive beauty to not just being a housekeeper, but a black housekeeper for a white family in Cambridge.
Today, as my children worked beside me, I sensed a deeper purpose than teaching a strong work ethic. It felt like Jesus modeling servant-hood at the last supper, strategically showing his disciples the greatest values of the Kingdom.
With every instruction to my children to thoughtfully care for a this family’s home as if our own, I told a new story on race and roles—as Jesus followers there is no Jew or Greek, there is no room for racism; we seek respect, and unity for all people.
As we gathered trash and wiped surfaces I showed my kids that sometimes love looks like sparkling Formica and hard-boiled eggs.
With pictures of this lovely family surrounding us, I explained to them how the mama wanted to do all these things herself but she had to work outside the house and it’s so exhausting to come home to from working to have to cook a meal AND take care of her baby. So their mama comes in to help.
Their mama comes in to help.
Yes, their mama is “the help” and when I weighed whether I should bring my kids to clean house with me today, my daddy’s strategic chess game conversations flooded back, forcing me to parse through a miasma of shame. Conventional knowledge says I should be ashamed of myself, maybe even remorseful for not actualizing my potential, but in truth, I actually love being “the help.”
I love it because for two days a week I can simply love people outside my family with my hands. I get to extend grace over their messy and practice shalom with a Swiffer.
Some may say it’s degrading to get a to-do list of chores like a lazy child, but only if I let it. I only feel degraded by my choice to be a housekeeper when my pride makes me forget the teachings of Jesus, the wise Rabbi who strategically modeled the bedrock ethic of the kingdom: humility, hospitality, love.
After washing their feet he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Master’ and ‘Lord,’ and you do well to say it, for it is true. 14 And since I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow: do as I have done to you. 16 How true it is that a servant is not greater than his master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends him. 17 You know these things—now do them! That is the path of blessing.
We don’t wash feet anymore. Our culture says ‘haters are going to hate and ballers are going to ball and goddamnit, I’ma get mine!” But Jesus says that in his Kingdom, “you ought to wash each other’s feet”. When I go to work as a black domestic, I get to embody this teaching by doing their least favorite chores. Twice a week I humble myself to the lowest position in their household’s structure. Twice a week I feel connected to my Servant King in a profound way.
This black woman is a housekeeper so that at least twice a week I’m moved to pray for a white family and come to terms with my own prejudice. It would be so easy for me to sit in my little apartment and hold a grudge against “the man”. Not only would it be easy—it’s expected! I’m a black woman who has a kickass mastery of the head wobble—angry black woman is my thang! But I’m a Jesus girl before I’m a black woman, so twice a week, I force myself to pray through my prejudices and watch them spiral away from my soul as if soapy dishwater down the drain.
Today, I loved being a black domestic in front of my children because someday when they’re older and choosing their own careers I want them to remember that mama asked, “how can I love” before she asked “how much does it pay? As strategic as my daddy’s chess games and plans for future success, inviting my children to clean house with me was my way teaching them to find success in the kingdom’s economy of love. By practicing shalom with a Swiffer, I’m dusting away the shame of not achieving career success so that my children and I can walk down the path to blessing.
It’s subversive and strategic and so Jesus and this servant cannot be greater than her master.