Betye Saar: Keepin’ it Clean

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At first I thought Betye Saar didn’t have much to offer. I had heard but didn’t really hear of her. If I would have known, I would have come before the last day. But, hey, at least I made it! And, I finally met the work- the Wash Boards. The mammy’s revolutionized.

My Grandma cleaned. That’s how she made her living. She cleaned homes. She smiled a lot. She was a kind person, her clients said. But, she was also scorn. She was also taken advantage of. She was given the shorter end of the stick. Not a life of sweetness at all. That’s whom I thought of mostly, Grandma.

I never used a washboard. I am almost willing to bet that my mom did. Maybe around her house as a child. She’s not here for me to ask her. There was one in my house while growing up. It was a musical instrument to me. Mom had purchased a white washing machine that we all loved. So, we played with the washing board, until we forgot about it.

The washing board suggest the memories of the African American women who did cleaning for others and their life style. Their characteristics that came with it. “They had a certain cleanliness about them”. That, they did, Ms. Saar. And there are some of those women who are still around.

When I am around my aunts, church mothers and Grandma. I am all of a sudden conscience of my white tee and I would beg my brother not to wear ripped jeans- they look extremely  out of place around them. I am conscience of the white blouse I have and cherish but messed up in the washing machine. Knowing of them, makes me always want rid my closet of old, stain clothes. And of the stylish ripped Old Navy jacket.

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I take a step back and witness the art on the walls. The walls are of the color of water. The lights are dim. The wash boards hang on the walls evenly.  Using a washing board starts the process of metamorphosis. Your body turning into a machine. There is nothing even about using a washing board. Your arms move up and down, your hands back and forth, your back is bent, and your legs are steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Trying to keep the washing in the offish rhythm. Even your neck is steady. And the pain, it comes steady, too.

I came across the white dress in the corner. The baby’s christening gown. A beautiful dress. But, adorned with racial slurs sitting atop is a child’s photo. It’s the slurs that await her. The slurs that can’t seem to be washed out of the dress, no matter how big the washing board, because they can’t be washed out of the tongue of society.

I came across another assemblage. The ironing board. Another board. This time requiring one to stand and press. Within the board are the slaves who were forced to aboard the ship, 1619. Boards. There is a chained iron and behind the ironing board is a sheet that was just pressed. And, ingrained into the sheet in small letters, but there for the world to see are the frightening letters KKK.

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Blacks cleaned their sheets too?

I wonder if Saar ever thought about extending this idea of boards? With all that is going on now in black communities, we can take a step back and look at the homes the wash boards are found. Look at the boarded up windows and wooden doors of these homes or shacks. Those who could barely keep a roof over their heads. I think of Grandma again. That’s what happened to her home.