Every young child is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Something crazy ambitious is usually the response. Presidents, lawyers, police officers and doctors are all pretty common. Those industries were never too enticing for myself however. After spending some time in Girl Scouts of America as a Brownie I aspired to one day land the menial entry-level job as a cashier at Meijer. I thought nothing could be better then scanning the barcodes of the food labels in just the right way so that the red light would “ding” and that food item be accounted for. I knew from watching the current cashiers I wouldn’t have to be bothered with the bagging, to my relief. I could just scan food and collect money all day.
But then I grew up. After my parents divorce when I was six, my father got custody and because we didn’t know each other well initially, he’d engage Ty and I in small talk to incite conversations and discussions. Whenever Ty was asked what he wanted to do, it was always whatever our father was doing. At this time, Ty wanted to be a police officer. We’d all smile, “Aww, that’s so neat Ty!” and he would beam back and just be pleased that he’d said the “right” thing. Next up was me. After serious contemplation and realizing how simple and basic a cashier was, I responded confidently, “I want to be a maid.”
“What!?” my father exclaimed. It was as if we were at a party and the record abruptly quit spinning. “Did you just say a maid!? “ He continued, “What kind of daughter of mine wants to be a maid!?” I quickly realized he didn’t approve, but I didn’t understand why. Maids wore cute uniforms that were comprised of dresses, tights, an apron and a cute little hat, and wore their hair in simple, yet elegant chignons. They were the nanny to their employer’s children and kept a tight schedule. Maid’s would cook nice meals, keep the home neat and uniform and overall exhibit much control and orderliness. What was so wrong with that? “Yes, I said a maid. That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” I retorted. I was careful to keep my voice in check because it was obvious my father’s disbelief was quickly turning to anger.
Apparently EVERYTHING was wrong with that! For the first time EVER in my life, my father made it a point to discuss race and its implications on my life-past, present and future. Up to that point I had a very innocent, naïve and ignorant stance on race-in my head it didn’t exist. While I was aware that I had brown skin and coarse hair, I never saw blonde hair and blue eyes as prettier or better. I saw it as different. I had a circle of friends that included several Whites, an occasional Black and my best friend was Latina.
The first place my father took me was to Mr. and Mrs. William’s house the same week he learned of my career aspirations. Mr. and Mrs. William’s were Ty and mine’s older, Black neighbors when my parents were married. Because they were like surrogate grandparents to Ty and I, my father would still take us over there occasionally for months after the divorce. It was in Mr. and Mrs. William’s basement that day that I learned of the African American experience in the United States. I learned that slavery in the USA was VERY real, I learned that there were people that had issues with race to that day and I learned of the historical Civil Rights Movement. Lastly I learned why me aspiring to be a maid was so problematic.
Mr. and Mrs. William’s explained to me how difficult it was for Blacks to get legitimate, well-paying jobs after slavery. Because of racism, Blacks were lowest on the totem pole and could only secure the worst paying jobs with maids being at the top of the list for Black women. Maids weren’t respected, weren’t paid well, were oftentimes abused and were not appreciated. They had to clean toilets and any other dirty things and most certainly did not run any schedules. I learned my ancestors worked very, very hard to ensure that future generations, myself included, could get nicer, higher-paying, jobs so that we wouldn’t have to experience those hard, difficult times.
After that conversation I GOT IT. I understood why my father was disappointed and then I became embarrassed that I’d aspired to be that. I realized how important it was that I desire to become a lawyer or astronaut or the President. I immediately changed my tune and amended my life’s plans. Unfortunately, it wasn’t soon enough. My father NEVER wasted an opportunity to remind me of why desiring to be a maid was unheard of. He began to announce it to EVERYONE it seemed-I began dreading being in a room with him and a bunch of adults because it never failed. “Hey guys, hey! I got somethin crazy to tell y’all! Ashley, come here! Why did she tell me she wanna be a MAID when she grows up!?!? HAHAHAHA! I ain’t lyin either!!! I can’t believe it!!!”
All of the adults’ mouths would drop incredulously. They couldn’t believe it. I’d try to defend myself as my face turned beet red from embarrassment. “No! You guys, not anymore!!! I already heard the stories, I know the history, I don’t anymore!!!” I would plead. I would beg. It didn’t matter. I would be lectured again. And again. And again. This torture continued for at least a year. Never again did I say I wanted to be a maid. To this day, at large family gatherings, if it’s gotten late and we’re all reminiscing, I can always depend on a cousin or aunt/uncle to lightly chuckle before exclaiming, “Hey y’all! Who remembers when Ashley wanted to be a maid!?”