Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Alice Childress

First published: 1956

Genre: Novel

Locale: New York City

Plot: Social realism

Time: The early 1950's

Mildred Johnson, a thirty-two-year-old African American woman, originally from the South, now living in a three-room apartment in New York City and earning her living doing housework for white families. Her character is developed in a series of one-sided conversations, primarily with her friend Marge. Many of these conversations concern Mildred's experiences as a day maid in a variety of white homes. Mildred encounters many stereotypical assumptions about African Americans in these homes, but her responses are not what one would expect of a domestic servant in the mid-1950's. In the first conversation, from which the book takes its name, Mrs. C. has been holding forth to a friend on Mildred being “like one of the family.” After delivering a litany of the ways in which she is not “like the family,” Mildred notes that after having worked herself into a sweat all day, “I do not feel like no weekend house guest. I feel like a servant.” She then asks her speechless employer for a raise. At other times, she is less direct but no less effective. In “The Pocketbook Game,” she holds her peace “for months” as Mrs. E. keeps her handbag close to her whenever Mildred is in her apartment. She finally has her opportunity when Mrs. E. sends her on an errand. Mildred reports to Marge that she had waited in the hall a few minutes, then frantically rushed back into the apartment to get her own purse. When the embarrassed Mrs. E. says that she hopes Mildred does not think Mrs. E. distrusts her, the sassy Mildred cuts her off, saying that she understands, “ 'cause if I paid anybody as little as you pay me, I'd hold my pocketbook, too.” Mildred's interests and assertiveness are not limited to her job and her employers. A number of her one-sided conversations with Marge focus on civil rights, especially the integration of schools in the South and the resulting violence and tension. Perhaps the most memorable of these is “Let's Face It,” in which Mildred gets the better of a visiting Southern racist whom she calls “Mr. Alabama.” When her employer's best efforts to keep this houseguest away from Mildred fail, Mr. Alabama regales Mildred with concerns about the efforts at desegregation and with tales of the “really fine Nigras” he has known. Mildred astounds Mr. Alabama by sitting down with him, whispering what she would do to his “Uncle Toms,” given the chance, and then delivering her message, “Yes, we're gonna go to the schools, ride the buses, eat in the restaurants, work on all kinds of jobs, sit in the railroad stations, and do all the things that free people are supposed to have the right to do.” Some conversations deal poignantly with Mildred's personal life. “Dance with Me, Henry” focuses on Mildred's hurt and loneliness when friends at a party ignore her in favor of “glama-rama chicks.” “All About Miss Tubman” is Mildred's conversation with nine children from her apartment building, in which she tells them stories of Harriet Tubman. She becomes so upset with the children's lack of knowledge about black history and their inability to believe that the black heroine she describes could exist that Marge has to intervene and calm her down. The final conversation, “Men in Your Life,” describes the unsatisfactory relationship between Mildred's friend Tessie and her boorish husband, Clarence. Mildred's observations about this relationship and her unpleasant date with Clarence's “cheap” brother Wallace lead her to decide that she will marry her friend Eddie even though he is a poor salesman without the economic stability of men like Clarence and Wallace. This is not a surprising conclusion because Mildred, a sassy black woman, is not ashamed of or worried by poverty or hard work.

Marge, Mildred's friend and best listener. She lives in the same building, and her apartment is a regular stopping place for Mildred. She is supportive of Mildred even though Mildred sometimes takes advantage of her. Marge is no push-over, and their relationship at times seems more necessary for MildredthanforMarge.

Categories: Characters