Last Thursday, I wrote about William Melvin Kelley’s “The Only Man on Liberty Street” from his 1964 short story collection Dancers on the Shore. Today, I want to take a moment to look at another story in that collection, “The Servant Problem,” exploring the ways that Kelley addresses the domestic space and sexual policing of black bodies, topics that occur in “The Only Man on Liberty Street” as well. In “The Servant Problem,” Kelley displays the sexual and psychological oppression that Black female domestics experience working within white homes.
Even though it is told in third person, like “The Only Man on Liberty Street,” “The Servant Problem” centers on the thoughts and actions of Mitchell Price, a white man coming home from work on a rainy day. When Mitchell comes home, he sits in the kitchen as Opal, the family’s domestic worker, feeds Jake, the baby, carrots. Mitchell rummages in his briefcase, pulls out that papers that he dropped in the muddy street, and searches for a dishtowel to dry them. However, Opal stops him, telling him to wait till the papers dry because the mud will fall right off. Mitchell questions how Opal knows to do this, and she merely replies, “My job. I got hired to take care of you.” In this moment, Opal expresses knowledge and even authority, even though she remains in her position as a domestic.
Upon hearing Opal’s response, Mitchell starts to look at Opal and he notices her “beginning to put on a little weight around her armpits” and “her white bra cutting into her dark brown skin.” These observations cause Mitchell to wish that Opal would not reveal “so much of her flesh” because it makes “him uncomfortable.” Mitchell worries about his own responses and feelings, not Opal’s here. He places himself above her, and this positioning continues throughout the story as Mitchell’s thoughts move from being “uncomfortable” to being possessive and overtly sexual in nature.
When Opal asks whether or not Mitchell should leave her and Jake alone and go speak with his wife, Mitchell begins to wonder why he lets her speak to him the way she does. They are both in their thirties, with Opal possibly being two years older than Mitchell. He chalks up his willingness to let Opal speak to him in the manner that she does to “her taking care of his baby, cleaning his house, ironing his shirts, and cooking two or three meals a day.” All of these things, of course, are domestic duties that Mitchell would typically expect from his own wife Tam. Opal takes care of everything in the house, except for having sex with Mitchell.
Entering his bedroom, Mitchell finds Tam on the phone. As she hangs up the receiver, Mitchell sees that “[h]er breasts moved under her sweater,” mirroring the same gaze and observation that Mitchell has when looking at Opal in the kitchen. Tam and Mitchell talk, and Tam informs her husband that she feels jealous. The exchange here is important:
“Okay, what’s the problem?”
“Jealous, I guess.”
“Of who, for God’s sake? Opal?”
“No, not Opal. I guess I feel guilty. Maybe I don’t do enough around here.”
Tam’s switch from “jealous” to “guilty” is telling. When she states that she is jealous, the implication is that she is jealous of Opal’s sexual appeal to Mitchell. When she changes and says she feels guilty, the implication now becomes that Opal is supplanting her role as housekeeper in the home. In this exchange, Tam voices her fears that Opal will essentially take over the position of Mitchell’s life, thus removing Tam from the equation all together.
Added to these fears, Tam harbors feelings that she has failed as a mother to Jake. After Opal started working in the home, “Tam seemed increasingly afraid of Jake,” letting Opal handle everything with the baby. Mitchell suggests that Tam spends more time with Jake, at which point she bristles and tells him she has her hands full telling what Opal what to do around the house. Deflecting her feelings, Tam shifts the focus and continues by saying that she must keep an ever-watchful on Opal to make sure she doesn’t steal anything. Tam, and Mitchell earlier, maintain constant surveillance over Opal. Tam says she watches her to make sure she doesn’t steal, and Mitchell watches her with a sexually possessive gaze.
Mitchell returns to the kitchen, and his initial uncomfortable feelings towards Opal begin to move in a more sexual direction. As she dries her hands, Mitchell notices the “pink half-slip under her nylon dress” and “the brown strip of stomach between her white bra and the pink slip.” He also notices the way that the dress “stretche[s] over her buttocks and thighs.” These images match the ones at the beginning of the story, but here Mitchell does not think about Opal showing “too much flesh”; rather, he simply looks. Along with this, the smells in the kitchen of pies, spices, and tomatoes cause Mitchell to want to doze off at the table, making him feel comfortable and secure in a domestic space.
As he thinks about falling asleep, the doorbell rings and Cooley, an African American man, stands in the entryway. Mitchell looks stunned because Cooley does not have a package in his hands, like a delivery man, and he gets flustered because Cooley does not fit his preconceived assumptions of African American life, for Mitchell in the role of domestic, courier, i.e. servant. Cooley asks for Opal Simmons, and she enters the entryway behind Mitchell. (Note this is the first time we see Opal’s last name in the story.) Opal opens the closet to get her jacket, and Mitchell just stands there.
At this point, Mitchell’s thoughts turn overtly possessive.
Mitchell resented the whole situation, the offhand way she thought she could leave him. The least he could expect was a decent report on how she had left the house, and a respectful good-by. He resented, too, this man in his outlandish bowling jacket, slouching in the doorway, luring her away from the job he paid her to do. He could not let her go without telling her he disapproved.
Notice the language here. The verb “resent” rings with a note of possession, jealousy, and bitterness. Mitchell resents the fact that Opal decides to leave without giving him a report of the household affairs, even though he has spoken with her and seen her feed Jake. He resents Cooley for taking her out on a date. Mitchell also views Cooley as “luring her away,” thus taking Opal and possessing her himself. These three verbs highlight Mitchell’s views of Opal as his. Mitchell cannot even imaging Opal or Cooley having a life outside of their work.
Opal nods to Cooley, who steps back, and she closes the door behind him so Mitchell can speak with her. Mitchell tells her that he does not want her boyfriends hanging around the house; instead, she “can meet [her] men on the corner,” correlating the encounter to prostitution. Mitchell doesn’t know why he has gotten so mad at Opal, but from the story, we see that he thinks he has a certain right to control her actions and her life, which he does not have. Opal submits to Mitchell’s demands, but Mitchell feels a hint of subversion in her response. He gets madder, and the story ends with him wrestling her purse from her and dumping the contents out on the table to find what “she had stolen from him.”
Opal did not steal anything physical from Mitchell and Tam. Rather, she supplanted the role of Tam in the domestic space. She, essentially, becomes Mitchell’s wife through her cooking, cleaning, and nurturing of Jake. Mitchell sees her as such, and thus becomes jealous of her when Cooley arrives. Opal does not steal this position from Tam; however, Mitchell perceives it in this manner because she does everything that he would expect from his wife.
Kelley’s story is not the only one that explores the racial aspects of domestic work. For more on these ideas, look at Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood and Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Great, thought-provoking, articulate essay.
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