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BY JOHN BERRY
Third World Cinema, 1974
It has been well over a decade since welfare was a major political issue, regularly debated in public policy arenas and the media—and used as a wedge issue by Democrats and Republicans alike. But with an organized white mob movement called the Tea Party, who cloak a project of reasserting white national/global authority underneath a call for states’ rights and fiscal prudence, and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act coming up for re-authorization this year, we are bound to hear more rhetoric about welfare's validity and the need to forcibly compel more Black women into “appropriate” and “responsible” work, sexual, and reproductive behaviors.
This would be a great time to go back and watch the 1974 film Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones and directed by formerly-blacklisted and exiled filmmaker John Berry. The film features music by Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight & the Pips, including the songs “On & On” and “Make Yours a Happy Home.” Carroll (who received an Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category for this film) plays the title character—a poor, unmarried Black woman in Harlem with six children, who (it is implied) do not have the same father. Claudine is on welfare and struggling to make ends meet when she meets Rupert (“Roop”), a sanitation worker played by Jones.
Though Claudine is on welfare, she works. She has to keep this hidden from her white social worker, Miss Kabak, who routinely makes “home visits” to police whether or not Claudine is breaking any of the rules that would mean a reduction or termination of her welfare checks. This includes searching for “luxury items” like a toaster or TV—and making sure the family’s food items and clothing don't look too rich. Miss Kabak also searches closets and the bathroom to make sure that there is no presence of a man—that is, someone able to provide more economic resources for the family, which would also jeopardize their welfare status.
So, Claudine not only has the pressure of raising her children with very little money, but also must contend with this policing and surveillance in the name of “social services” to control any sort of pleasure that she may have. Knowing this, Claudine and Roop initially make a decision not to marry, because the loss of welfare (even as they both work) would be too financially devastating to the household. Economics continue to plague the relationship and Roop becomes depressed, missing work and even skipping the Father's Day party that Claudine's previously-skeptical children throw for him. After some time, the couple eventually decide to marry at Claudine's home. In the film's final scene, Claudine's teenage son Charles (played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is being chased by the cops—who follow him inside the house, disrupting the wedding. Roop and Claudine try to intervene. As the son is arrested, the family all jump into the police wagon to follow Charles.
While the film’s narrative might be guided by some heterosexist and patriarchal assumptions, what is interesting is that it points out that even when poor and working-class Black people try to build heteronormative families or have such desires, they are still impeded by the state. The state shows up in multiple forms—like welfare, labor authorities, and the police. While police violence against Black men is often named as the primary mechanism of state violence and control of the Black community, Claudine also illustrates how “social services” function in much the same fashion for Black women. And even when they have desires to conform to the prescribed heterosexual family values, the state still tries to control the conditions under which that might occur—in some instances, perpetually undermining Black peoples’ ability to participate in that form of normalcy. I don't think Carroll or Jones are very convincing as Black working-class people; both come off as a little too upper-class to be believable. Their bourgeois affectations actually help reiterate the point that Black aspirations to respectability don't always take one out of poverty or lead to a person being treated with any less indignity by state entities or in one's job.
Just two years after this film premiered, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan painted the now-infamous portrait of Black women as scammers undermining the US economy. The so-called “welfare queen,” as Reagan put it, "has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."
Twenty years after Reagan's famous “welfare queen” speech, President Bill Clinton made good on his election promise to “end welfare as we know it,” resulting in a reduction in the number of women who are able to access welfare, limiting the number of years one can receive benefits, and making work a compulsory requirement of the program.
Claudine is an important contribution to an understanding and critique of the welfare state—and is useful when considering the terms of what is likely to resurface as a debate this next election cycle.