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Disorganized Labor

Studies of African American poverty from the Moynihan Report to the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson have asserted that “when work disappears” from Black urban communities, so does the chastity of teenage girls, the work ethic of young men, and any hope of reversing the downward spiral into the clutches of teen pregnancy, gangs, drugs and violence. High school dropouts, infant mortality, single motherhood, indeed the corrosion of the urban landscape itself, have all been repeatedly attributed to high male unemployment rates in Black communities. The specter of jobless Black men who turn to criminal activity (or worse, leave behind welfare-dependent Black women and children who sap our tax dollars) continues to haunt white people as well as middle-class Blacks who want to reclaim comfortable, cosmopolitan city lifestyles. Black leaders embrace the virtues of work with open arms. Organizers of the 1995 Million Man March purported to refute the negative stereotypes associated with Black men, and yet they seemed to accept the basic premise that lazy Black men who’ve failed in their roles as husbands and fathers are the real scourge of Black neighborhoods. Minister Louis Farrakhan and others led Black men in ritualistic “atonement” for their sins, telling them to hit the streets and get a job. Plenty of Black women also buy wholeheartedly into fantasies about men in gray flannel suits. Many times I’ve heard single friends recite their dating mantra: “You’ve got to have a J-O-B if you want to be with me!”

There are two crucial assumptions behind the onslaught of moralizing about Black work ethics and family values: that a man ought to be at the head of any household, and that work is inherently linked to leadership, morality, and inner strength. Now, it’s one thing to dream of a man who’ll bring home the bacon and wipe your tears away, but when he starts telling you what to buy and what to wear and what to cook for dinner, a lot of my single friends will probably draw the line. But what makes the obsessive focus on returning Black men to work all the more ironic and pathetic is that the kind of work Black men are supposed to do while regaining the “terrible authority” of the father (as Christopher Lasch would put it) is more often than not demeaning, miserable, minimum-wage work. Hardly employment opportunities conducive to building confidence, leadership qualities, or self-respect. In fact, if Black men dared to demonstrate their “leadership” while on the job at the Post Office, they’d be flat out of a job.

Few studies have examined in depth the actual occupational experiences of working-class Black men, and representations of African American men’s struggles on the job are rarely featured in the mainstream media. Television shows like Good Times, Roc, and even the trite new Cosby sitcom are among the few programs that have explored work-related issues in Black urban life. The spate of Hollywood “hood” films have also made some superficial observations about inner-city Black men’s work experiences. However, a handful of independent African American films, such as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), have treated the struggles of working-class Black men with more depth and insight. Actor/director Bill Duke has also been involved in projects that detail working-class Black men’s experiences and that challenge the idea of a restored Black patriarchy under a benevolent capitalism. Two films, The Killing Floor (1984) and Car Wash (1976), deal explicitly with the conflict Black men face working dead-end, low-wage, lousy jobs while striving to be self-sufficient patriarchs. Although these films are not recent, they are perhaps more timely than ever. Merely putting Black men to work, they seem to suggest, is not in itself the solution to restoring their self-image, let alone the salvation of Black families and communities.

These films have received very little critical attention, The Killing Floor because it is rarely seen, Car Wash because it is rarely taken seriously. They are extremely different in style and tone—The Killing Floor has a semi-documentary quality, while Car Wash is structured like an anecdotal comedy—and they are set at remote historical moments. Each features three distinct types of Black workers: the untrustworthy Uncle Tom who kisses up to the white boss and sells out his Black co-workers; the revolutionary, dangerous Black man who refuses to play the game and is ultimately unemployable; and the man in the middle of these extremes, the character who wants to be a good worker and provide for his family but is also painfully aware that he is being exploited and that he must constantly compromise himself on the job. The latter type occupies the central position in both narratives. What is so compelling about The Killing Floor and Car Wash is that both end on painfully ambivalent notes, suggesting that working-class Black men should attempt to improve their work conditions, but that ultimately they cannot achieve any kind of meaningful fulfillment on the job or in their personal lives unless larger structural changes take effect.

Languages of Labor

The Killing Floor’s Frank Custer (Damien Leake) is a Black man who migrates to Chicago in 1917 and quickly gets caught up in the politics of the stockyard organizing movement. A quasi-historical film based on real-life people and events, The Killing Floor features lots of documentary footage of the Chicago stockyards. It also deals with the bloody race riots of the summer of 1919, which serve here as a wake up call for Frank, alerting him to the fact that the union cannot achieve true interracial solidarity, nor can it secure his employment and ability to support his family.

Only the “lucky” would be ushered in, to work for fourteen hours amid the stench of blood and offal.

Chicago’s meat packing plants circa World War I were nightmarish, bloody, stinking abattoirs. Every morning thousands of workers, the majority of whom were not even citizens, would crowd outside the packinghouse doors; only the “lucky” would be ushered in, to work for fourteen hours amid the stench of blood and offal, while the rest would disappear into nearby saloons. In spite of the terrible conditions, insecure employment, and low wages, the packinghouses provided some of the best employment for Black immigrants to Chicago. The packinghouses employed Black workers in skilled positions in a conscious strategy of supporting Black workers so that they would be more loyal to the companies than to their frequently racist white coworkers. Meat packing companies funded Black philanthropies, paid for anti-union lectures, and set up hiring halls in the middle of Black neighborhoods whenever there was a strike. The packers carefully appealed to Black men’s desires for individual self-advancement, precisely in order to manipulate the hatred of the white workers and sabotage any attempts to organize.

The Killing Floor chronicles Frank’s deepening participation in such an attempt, one which ends in disillusionment and failure. The film contrasts Frank’s work within the union to his work within the plant to show that his labor in both these institutions is not enough to change his situation.

Frank’s changing relationship to language serves as a metaphor for his deepening involvement in the union. On his first day on the job—mopping blood from the cutting room floor—Frank hears many languages as Slavs and Poles work side by side with African Americans. Frank’s initial reaction is confusion: “How was you supposed to work with folks you couldn’t understand none?” But at Frank’s first visit to a union meeting, he learns that there are some words all workers understand. Here speeches are delivered in Eastern European languages, and then translated into English. All around him, white men and women work themselves up into a frenzy, alternately cheering in their native languages and chanting “Union!” Their enthusiasm reminds Frank of prayer meetings back down South, and he comes to feel a solidarity with his co-workers across racial and cultural lines as he observes them “testifying,” “getting happy,” and “speaking in tongues.” Eventually, Frank enters into the multi-lingual family of the union.

The union meeting is one of several moments in The Killing Floor in which the transformative power of language is emphasized. Early in the film Frank seeks out the services of a “professional” letter writer, Miss Lila (Mary Alice), to whom he dictates correspondence to his wife back home in the South. During their first meeting, Miss Lila consistently alters Frank’s words, transforming his crude, matter-of-fact phrases into florid, descriptive prose. After a while, Frank begins to assert his own personality more and more, and he insists that she write his letters as he dictates them.

Miss Lila encourages Frank to join the union, and slowly he rises to a leadership position. Union leaders assign him the task of convincing skeptical Black workers to cross the formidable color line and join the union. Frank must learn how to translate union rhetoric (which is coded as “white”) into a language his Black co-workers can understand and embrace. As Frank grows into his new position as a Black union organizer, he is transformed from someone who needs translators to someone who can perform his own translations and speak in his own voice. Union membership betokens individual development; Frank’s work in the union lends him dignity, self-respect, his own language, his own powerful voice.

As Frank gets more involved in the labor movement, he is challenged at every turn by resentful white bosses and fearful Black co-workers. Frank’s biggest Black enemy is Austin “Heavy” Williams (Moses Gunn), a middle-aged worker who is being paid off by the stockyard bosses to create racial tension and prevent Blacks from joining the union. Heavy repeatedly tells Frank that the white union members could never be his “brothers.” But while Heavy may be a union-busting troublemaker, during the riots his words begin to ring true. Roving white mobs prevent Black workers from walking safely to their jobs, causing them to lose weeks of wages. In one scene, a group of Black men gather at a community center to pick up food baskets provided by the stockyard bosses. As Black workers’ families suffer, white union members seem to be doing nothing to help. “Where are your brothers now?” Heavy asks, and Frank has no answer. One after another, Frank’s Black recruits turn in their union buttons.

Frank’s belief in interracial union organization is also challenged by his childhood friend, Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford). Thomas and Frank migrated to Chicago together, but their lives take very different directions. On his first day working at the stockyards, Thomas is beat up by a group of white men. Labeled a “smart mouthed nigger,” Thomas decides to join the army rather than put up with hellish packinghouse labor and the taunts and insults of racist co-workers. When he returns to Chicago after serving in World War I, Thomas is unable to find work—even at the stockyards. His inability to get a job and the disrespect he constantly encounters despite his military service leads him to join a group of armed, radical Blacks during the riots. Frank refuses Thomas’s offer to retaliate against white violence, and soon after learns that Thomas has been killed.

Frank’s disillusionment following Thomas’s death reflects how difficult it is for Black urban working-class men, then and now, to maintain their jobs and their self respect at the same time. Their options are dismal: They must either turn their backs on each other and their white co-workers, risk losing their jobs if they unionize or endanger their lives if they try to buck the system altogether. At many moments The Killing Floor comes across as a vehemently pro-union film. The fervor of the union meetings and the portrayal of white union men as color-blind good guys suggests that an interracial alliance might have been formed. And in the 1930s, the CIO was able to organize the packinghouses by explicitly appealing to Black workers, using Black organizations to build the union. But in his individual labor—either in the union or the packing plant—Frank cannot maintain his dignity. He cannot change the consciousness of his community or even ensure his family’s subsistence. In the end, Frank does get his job back, but as a scab. He pins on his union button, but on the inside of his shirt—driving his political beliefs underground until they can safely re-emerge, through other voices, decades later.

Labor and Style

While The Killing Floor offers an extremely pessimistic view of the Black laborer’s position, Car Wash, presents a more subtle representation of Black men’s experiences on the job. Although Car Wash is probably best known for its soundtrack (particularly its disco theme song performed by Rose Royce), it also offers one of the very few, and very best, cinematic representations of working-class African American men. The comic premise of Car Wash turns upon a popular, long-standing stereotype about African American men—that they have no “work ethic.”

Car Wash features a multiracial cast of characters who work at and patronize a Los Angeles car wash. The film goes to great pains to represent a full working day in detail—the workers arriving at the car wash, changing into their work clothes, washing cars and dealing with customers, engaging in lunch hour antics, washing more cars, changing back into their street clothes, closing up, and finally heading home. The panorama of personalities who work at the car wash (about 16 cast members) spend as much time goofing off as washing cars, demonstrating constantly that this is a job they cannot take seriously for very long. Their work environment is chaotic and infantalizing; at various moments the boss has to remind them that they are at work, not on a playground.

Who needs a union when you have a pig-ear hat?

Although Car Wash is usually considered a superficial, Blaxploitation-era comedy, the film’s humor has a double edge, demonstrating the variety of techniques the characters employ to overcome the frustrating, exploitative nature of their dead-end jobs. The cast includes a variety of eccentric personalities, including Sly (Garrett Morris), a con artist who takes bets on baseball and horse races; Lindy (Antonio Fargas), a wisecracking transvestite diva; and Floyd and Lloyd (Darrow Igus and DeWayne Jessie), a duo who spend the day rehearsing their R & B act. Although these characters may seem foolish, it becomes clear that their preoccupations with various individual styles (hair, clothes, side jobs, hobbies, etc.) are more than mere attempts to express their individual identities; they try to distance themselves from the menial work that they perform. For example, Tall Chief (Henry Kingi), the Native American car washer, wears a pig-ear hat that he refuses to remove. T. C. (Franklyn Ajaye) wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his self-designed alter-ego/superhero character, “The Fly,” and occasionally “buzzes” at his enemies. The seductive yet ultimately futile individualism in The Killing Floor appears to be a new mode of rebellion in Car Wash. T-shirts, slick dance moves, and jokes appear to have taken the place of organization. After all, who needs a union when you have a pig-ear hat?

The workers in Car Wash mock the notion of organized labor through their antics on the job. Irwin (Richard Brestoff), son of the owner, Mr. Bernstein (Sully Boyer), is an annoying college student who quotes Mao and spends the day trying to bond with the disinterested workers. Instead of using his college education to help his father with the bookkeeping, Irwin smokes pot in the men’s room and proclaims, “I want to be one of the working class. Workers of the world unite!” The working men’s response is to run an unsuspecting Irwin through the car wash, dousing him with soap and water.

Having dismissed Irwin and his shallow communist shtick, the film offers a more appropriate leader. Lonnie (Ivan Dixon), a middle-aged African American man, is by far the car wash’s most diligent employee. An ex-con, Lonnie must work extremely hard to keep his job and support his wife and two children. He’s the first character to arrive at work, and we learn that Mr. Bernstein, or Mr. B, gives him extra cash for opening and closing shop. Throughout the film, Lonnie’s seriousness contrasts with the behavior of the other workers, who spend the day playing pranks and spraying each other with cleaning fluids.

Although Lonnie clearly stands apart from the other workers, he does not claim superiority over them, as does Earl (Leonard Jackson), the sell-out of the crew who avoids all hard, unpleasant labor. Earl appears to have some seniority in the car wash, and he assumes a managerial attitude toward the other workers. Earl refuses to get wet, and spends the day offering special detailing services to affluent white customers for big tips. At the film’s end, Earl is humiliated by the other workers, who place a pile of dog shit, which Earl had refused to clean up earlier, on the hood of his car. Not quite as malicious as Heavy, the compromised Black worker in The Killing Floor, Earl is nonetheless disrespected by his fellow workers and parodied by the film itself.

On the other end of the spectrum is Abdullah (played by none other than Bill Duke, the director of The Killing Floor), the Black militant character. The other workers ridicule Abdullah’s embrace of Islam and a Black Nationalism and continue to call him by his given name, Duane. Abdullah has lost tolerance for his “slave job,” and walks through the film with a chip on his shoulder and a disgusted expression on his face. At the end of the day, Mr. B fires him.

Lonnie sympathizes with Abdullah, but the precariousness of Lonnie’s position as middle man becomes evident when he tries to talk to Mr. B on Abdullah’s behalf. Mr. B is too frustrated to listen to Lonnie’s arguments. He also refuses to discuss Lonnie’s request for a raise and his ideas about how to make the car wash more profitable. Lonnie’s attempts to distinguish himself on the job appear to have largely been in vain.

Lonnie has a great deal invested in his job; not only must he fulfill his parole conditions, but he must also financially support his family and maintain his dependents’ respect for him as the hard-working head of his household. At one point, Lonnie’s son and daughter visit him on the job and his daughter presents him with a crayon drawing of him working at the car wash. At this highly sentimental moment, the film seems to support the notion that as long as a man like Lonnie works hard, he can overcome the troubles he faces and succeed. Indeed, after their talk, Mr. B finds Lonnie in the locker room and earnestly promises to have a serious discussion with Lonnie about everything on his mind.

Just when it seems that Car Wash works out the tensions between a Black working-class man and his white employer a little too neatly, a crucial complication arises. After closing, Abdullah returns to the car wash with a gun as Lonnie is counting up the day’s cash. Abdullah accuses Lonnie of being too concerned with protecting Mr. B’s property, and threatens to shoot him and steal the money. After a few tense moments, Lonnie convinces Abdullah to hand over the gun. Abdullah begins to cry on Lonnie’s shoulder, repeating, “Everything’s falling apart.”

Here the film recognizes that the pressures that have pushed Abdullah to such extremes are felt by other Black men as well (both within and outside of the film), whether or not they possess the language to express it. When Abdullah says that he can’t stand the “clown show” atmosphere of the car wash, he is explaining the film’s comedic pretense. The workers’ games, jokes, and slacking, now appear as stubborn, if finally ineffectual, attempts to maintain their individuality, disguising the deeper frustrations they share about being trapped on the job at the car wash, prisoners of the workplace.

Like the workers in Car Wash, many struggling inner-city African Americans still cling to the false promise of the American Dream. Black leaders, for the most part, have failed to challenge this myth, choosing instead to uphold traditional notions of self-sufficiency and male-dominated families. But, as these films assert, when working-class Black men buy into the ideals of patriarchy and individualism, they act to benefit their bosses—not themselves—and they ultimately remain frustrated and disappointed with their lives. Both Lonnie and Frank work to support their families, but the fate of their more radical friends only shows them how trapped they really are. The myriad oppressions they have inherited cannot be surmounted simply by working hard at one’s job. Sure, African American communities need good, well-paid jobs, but they also need new housing, better schools, affordable health care, and real political representation. Providing “legitimate” employment for Black men will not, in itself, lead to the magical restoration of Black communities. But still we march along, led by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and with Minister Farrakhan bringing up the rear, blithely ignoring the fact of exploitation, and condemning the inner city to even further corrosion.