When Octavia Spencer won her Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her role in The Help on Sunday, she made a unique acceptance speech in which she didn’t just thank those who supported the film. Instead her speech also recognized the contributions of domestic workers with a quote by Martin Luther King.
“With regard to domestics in this country, now and then, I think Dr. King said it best: ‘All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.’ And I thank you for recognizing that with our film,” Spencer said as she accepted her award.
Spencer’s statement in support of domestic workers might have been inspired by critics of The Help who objected its the depiction of African-American women in servile positions. By giving dignity to domestics in her speech, Spencer underscored the humanity of the character she played and the real women who fulfill this social role everyday.
Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told theGrio that the domestic workers’ community was overjoyed that Spencer won the award, and accepted it with mindful appreciation of their contributions.
“There were domestic workers gathered in living rooms and offices around the country rooting for her,” Poo said. “To have someone like Octavia Spencer bring attention to the dignity of this workforce means so much — especially since it is a workforce that has been undervalued for so long.”
Many are unaware of the fact that domestic workers were excluded from New Era legislation that was enacted during the ‘30s to grant workers many of the basic protections that we take for granted today. Legal scholars postulate the motivation for this was the fact that many blacks held these professional roles. Southern politicians used this exclusion to keep African-Americans oppressed while others gained more workers’ rights.
Poo helps guide the National Domestic Workers Alliance the organization works to reverse this lack of protection to bring power, respect, and fair labor standards to domestic workers. Although Spencer’s Golden Globe award was a huge win for her, Poo asserted that the win meant even more for domestics.
“Millions have read the book and watched the film, so for us it’s a tremendous opportunity to connect with audiences and bring attention to the fact that there are two million workers in America who are taking care of our homes and doing the domestic work that makes things possible for us,” Poo said.
In the film, Spencer played Minny Jackson— an African-American domestic working for whites in the south. Based on author Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, The Help focuses on her character and other African-American maids living and working in the 1960s during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
Jessica Chastain was also nominated for a Golden Globe award for her supporting role playing a maid in the film.
Sixty-one-year-old Barbara Young, who works as an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and is a domestic worker herself, said Spencer’s award speech intelligently connected the issues of domestic workers with the dream that MLK shared for all people.
“For me, Dr. King meant justice,” Young told theGrio. “We as domestic workers are seeking justice and respect. I only say this, because as domestic workers we are excluded from protection by the major labor laws in this country.”
Young also said Spencer’s mention of King alluded to the fact that a high percentage of domestic workers are women of color. “I was so proud to hear Octavia speak — to see that someone understands domestic workers, and the importance of the work we do.”“Because this work has been done predominately by women of color — whether we are from South America, the Caribbean, or Africa,” Young told theGrio.
Young came to America from the Caribbean in 1993, and later started working for families caring for children. Her connections with the children in her care (who are often white) have deeply impacted her life.
“I think a lot of people don’t know what we do as domestic workers as well as the love connection we have to the children we care for,” she said, holding back tears. “I am ‘The Help.’ When I viewed the movie, and saw the young lady come back from college and search for her caregiver, it made me think of the kids I’ve work with and the bond we had.
“I wish that people would know that when you take a baby in your hands, and that baby is six weeks old, and you take care of that baby and watch it take its first steps, say its first words, and read its first book, you are experiencing a great joy,” Young elaborated. “You are bringing up an individual.”
Domestic worker Jennifer Bernard, who is also a member of the Alliance, said she feels the same as Young.
“I came to America when I was 22-years-old with the notion of going to school to better my education,” she told theGrio. “I met someone who introduced me to his daughter and thought that I would take care and be of good company to her. I fell into the idea of loving other people’s kids, teaching them what I know. It felt like the warmest, loving thing, because I was fortunate to work for loving people.”
Bernard realizes now that she is lucky.
“When I started hearing stories of how some domestic workers were treated, it was hard to believe,” Bernard asserted. “It was hard to know that an employer would be so unkind. Everyone had stories that would make you so sad. I then joined [the National Domestic Workers Alliance]. I wanted to help people who were not as fortunate as I was.”
A better fortune would be for all domestic workers to receive the same rights as other working people. “We should be equal to every working person,” Bernard said. “We are hardworking people, and work under difficult circumstances. For example, the isolation of the job makes it difficult. It is just you alone and two employers. You are extending yourself so much from within.”
While the federal government does not grant protections to domestic workers as a group, more states are beginning to. For example, in 2010, Poo, Young, Bernard, and other activists helped pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that grants certain employment protections to household domestic workers New York City.
They are currently working to get the California legislature to pass Bill Ab889, which seeks to remove the exclusion of domestic workers from rights provided to all California workers under Wage Order 15. This would provide California’s domestic workers with the same rights as other workers in the state.
These women hope that Octavia and others who are part of The Help will join them in Sacramento to help pass this law.
Although the actors have not played a major role in helping them, Participant Media — one of the companies that produced The Help — has created a series of videos on domestic workers to showcase their circumstances. Bernard participated in one of the videos, which are on the media company’s web site.
There is still much work to do to increase awareness of domestic workers’ importance to society, but there has been progress.
“I was fortunate to do a video to try to bring light to the people within my industry,” Bernard told theGrio. “We are taking baby steps, but we are going forward, and there is hope.”