"The Full Matilda" by David Haynes

Photographs from the collection of SMU's DeGolyer Library.


What will a reader gain from reading The Full Matilda?

Matilda is an amazing character. I hope she shakes readers up. I hope she haunts people, sticks in their minds for a long time.

In 1950, 77 percent of African-American women who were employed held service jobs, according to the 1950 U.S. Census. Based on your research and experience, do you feel like families today understand and value the contributions of their grandmothers, mothers and aunts?

Many people today have forgotten the work their grandmothers (and fathers) did to sustain the family. This book is a reminder of all of that. And of all the things we carry forward from then.

Is there a historical basis for your book?

The history of black people in America during the last half of the 20th Century is one of constant turmoil and change. The Full Matilda moves through those times and shows us just how recent they were.

Many groups in America, such as the Irish, started up the ladder of success through domestic service. Today many Hispanics are in service roles. What can readers of all backgrounds relate to in the business success of Matilda’s bother and nephews?

I hope that everyone will think a little more about the person who serves our food, washes our car, cleans our carpets. The invisible people.

Does every family have an Aunt Matilda? Who did you model Matilda after?

Yes, every family has an eccentric aunt or grandpa. Someone. Every family also has those members who hold them together, who pass along the family treasures. I modeled Matilda after many people in my own life, but no one person specifically.

Do you look upon The Full Matilda as an African American book?

I don't like to think of books as falling into such categories. Many readers, I believe, read to find out about things in the world that are new to them. So, yes, The Full Matilda may have particular appeal to black readers, but I know that readers of all stripes will enjoy it.

The Full Matilda is a story of hope. Is the American Dream still possible for people who are in service today?

I think we'd all like to believe this is true, but I think the world has changed since Matilda's family left domestic service. Sadly (as documented in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed), it is difficult if not impossible for service workers to ever get ahead.

Can you explain why – for Matilda’s father – service was a high-status job? Should people feel proud or ashamed and even resentful of their own family’s history of service?

Because opportunities for African Americans were so limited in the early 20th Century, Matilda's father would have been privileged to have the job as the head of the domestic service staff. As opportunities increased for blacks, traditional careers lost their luster -- some even became ashamed of this legacy. But shame or pride are beside the point. Everyone just needs to remember that it all came from somewhere -- all of the ways that we live today.

You have observed that people in service were often beloved and appreciated but still remained anonymous. How do you feel that invisibility affected them?

Like any perverse behavior, invisibility has its costs. It warps the mind a little. (Or a lot.) But that's what the book is about!

You have written several books about middle-class African-American families. Why is it important to you to write about this group?

It's not that I'm interested in particular in the middle class as I am interested in class in general and in the things that happen when you approach all kinds of boundaries: class, gender, race, etc. When you mix two usually unmixable things, you're bound to get something interesting.