Dear Brooklyn Readers,
It seems only a few weeks ago that we traded in our winter coats for shorts and sandals, and then… just like that, Labor Day arrived. Our sweet little summer is taking a short curtsy before the final bow.
If you’re like most people (myself included), Labor Day generally means, really, two things: a day off from work and the coming of fall. But actually, the holiday is an important one to recognize, particularly in today’s economy where more and more workers are finding themselves overworked and underpaid.
Initiated by labor unions in the late 19th century, Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Forty years later, the fair labor laws enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortened the work week and work day, mandated minimum wage payments, ended child labor and more. To read a great historical overview of Labor Day, go here.
Still, today, another 75 years after Roosevelt’s legislation, the holiday resonates differently in the 21st century. We have entered an age of automation and information decentralization where far fewer people are needed in the workplace, and far more are working independently from their laptops or mobile phones. The idea of labor reads differently in an era when you can earn a living from Instagram “likes.”
Then there’s the segment of the 20 million or so Americans who are dealing with the stress of underemployment or unemployment. All of these changes, coupled with employment insecurity can make one question, who and what exactly are we celebrating?
Well, I say, let’s honor Rosie! Who’s that, you ask? Rosie the Riveter! She’s probably the biggest symbolic icon you don’t know that you know. She’s the 1950s lady with the red-and-white polka dot bandana tied forward on her head, sleeves rolled up, muscle showing. (Yes, her!)
Actually, the Rosie we all recognize is a 50s replica reimagined from an illustration originally drawn in 1943 by Norman Rockwell. The Rockwell image was a magazine cover depicting a muscular woman sitting in overalls and goggles, holding a riveting tool in her lap while eating a sandwich and stepping on a copy of Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
The image exemplified the American can-do spirit and illustrated the notion of women working in previously male-dominated manufacturing jobs while the men fought in the war overseas.
The image was redrawn in the 50s as the one we know now and has endured for 70 years as a symbol of the strength and fortitude of the working woman!
Yes, we can say it: Rosie was designed to prop up white women. There were no parts of the black or brown labor force in the minds of “working Americans” during Roosevelt’s NLRA signing nor Rosie’s coming of age. In fact, although black men were also serving in that same war, simultaneously, they were being lynched routinely by the KKK, while a large number of black women not only were raising their own families, but also working as “the help” to raise the families of those same women sanctified and canonized for “rolling up their sleeves.”
This is history. This is true. But what I am suggesting is that, it’s 2017, and that we– as a more informed populous of men and women– have the right to reimagine Rosie once more! “We all can do it!” this Labor Day by paying special tribute to the number-one “Rosie” in our lives: our mother.
And why not? Being a mother is the most important, most exhausting job in the world, especially if you are a single mother! But as hard as that job is now, it was even harder for our mothers “back in the day!” Whether you’re black, white or brown, I’m certain at some point, you’ve pondered how your mother did it… held it all together with fewer resources, lower wages and far less respect.
I remember when I was in middle school, my own mom– a single mother– worked part-time at K-Mart and full-time at a center for children with physical deformities while taking evening classes at The College of DuPage working toward her nursing degree.
I was embarrassed when the kids at school would snicker under their breaths and say, “I saw your mama at K-Mart yesterday.” I resented that my mother chose to work that second job at K-Mart, two blocks from my school. I resented she made my siblings and me sell snow-cones in the summer to pay for our band lessons (the snow cone machine she rented surely costed more than what we earned that entire summer).
My mother worked so much herself that I, the eldest, was responsible for preparing the messy dinners we ate each night and for putting the sloppy braids in my sisters’ hair each morning before school. We had daily chores, no allowance, and we were still expected to bring home straight A’s.
But guess what? She was our first example of what it means to sacrifice, to work hard, to earn without complaint. Today, my mother has been working as an R.N. for 33 years. She got all three of us through college. My sister, a state assemblywoman; the other one, a university professor. And me? Well, I can cook virtually anything from scratch and cornrow hair like a champ!
Mothers are our first teachers; our first doctors; our first advocates; our first loves! Mothers are resourceful. Mothers are tough. Mothers are tenacious. Mothers are strong. Mothers are the unrelenting laborers that have served as the backbone of this country’s very existence. At age 67, my mother is still working. So, if there’s anyone more deserving of a labor day off, it is our mothers.
As long as there are mommas, there will always be Rosies.
Happy Labor Day, Mom!
C. Zawadi Morris, Publisher, BK Reader