Labor Division, Not So Black and White

The people we share our garden with had some sheep manure delivered today. I couldn’t smell it from the balcony, but watching the black man spread it around the garden suddenly reminded me of another time and place when crap was shoveled in my home.


When I was in my early teens we lived in a Victorian rental. The basement was semi-finished with a shower and separate little room with just a toilet both circa 1940s or so. I happily took over the basement with its cement floors, low beam-exposed ceilings and unlimited privacy. One day raw sewage backed up into the shower filling it a few inches deep. Just imagine a teen girl coming upon this early in the morning. I probably nearly killed my mother with my screams of disgust. I refused to go to school without taking a shower or I used it as an excuse to cut, either way I stayed home and waited for the guy to come fix it.

The first guy was the fat white guy who did repairs for the rental agency. He came in the front door, went downstairs and came back up all in one stretch—as if he didn’t pause. As if he looked at the mess, turned on heal and came right back up stairs. “No way I’m doing that shit” he scoffed, kind of surprising me because you know, not that I had virgin ears, but I was a child and most strange adults didn’t swear in front of me.

The next guy was some for-hire plumber. I don’t remember him to well, but a similar scenario. He wasn’t touching it. Actually it didn’t need to be fixed, it was just backed up and it needed to be cleaned. And he didn’t do that, he said. So my mom was back and forth calling me and calling the agency and they were trying to find someone and I was sitting on the couch watching videos from the library or game shows as I couldn’t stand soaps, and finally my mom called me to tell me that the office secretary’s cousin was going to come over and take care of it. I vaguely remember her as I sometimes dropped off the rent: a thick and smiley Latina with a little bit of an accent.

Her cousin came over and I led him downstairs since he didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish. He seemed pretty surprised about the mess and pantomimed to me asking for a plunger. I got it for him and went back to the couch. With the furnace being next to the shower in the basement and the big ducts running all through the house leading to enormous and fanciful wrought iron openings in every room I could hear him pretty well. He went straight away to shoveling—the sound of metal scraping cement—and singing. I swear to you. I am not making this up. He sang some opera-ish tune very loudly and very well in Spanish—I think, as if my teenself could tell the difference between Spanish and just about anything else. And he whistled a little too, but mostly he sang.

After a while he came back upstairs and went cheerfully along his way. Now part of this story is about the immigrants that so many people don’t want around, but sure do work ‘em when they need ‘em, and the other part of the story is about color.


We have had several workers come through the yard while I have lived here in Morocco. There were the guys who put up the iron bars on all the windows. And then a couple different sets of guys doing yardwork. More metal workers who fixed the outside door. The painter for the neighbor’s exterior. And then the guy who shoveled the manure today. And you know what I immediately noticed about this guy today? He was black. The other guys weren’t. And this may seem inconsequential to you, but it’s not. And unlike the iron workers and the bush trimmers, he wasn’t served a meal or a snack or even a glass of water—in this—a land of so much diversity and hospitality.

***Elsewhere a friend of mine commented about gendered divisions of labor, which is commonly what we think of when we say “labor division.” So, if you can imagine labor division along a color line, what do you think that looks like for Black women? When I see women panhandling or selling little things on the street here, I do see black women doing this in larger numbers than related to the demographics.

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