The Art Of Cleaning And The Tragedy Of Mess

Cleaning people hold the world together, but our labor falls short of the recognition it deserves. Without us, nations, communities, and social orders would fall into complete disrepair. The people who maintain order through maintaining cleanliness are underpaid and undervalued. Janitors, maids, and sanitation workers ensure that the world everyone is used to gets to continue on every day. Be it people, messages, or movements: states have a tendency to dispose of what they see as unsightly. If there’s one thing many can agree on, it’s that garbage needs to be discarded. What’s incredibly distressing however, is that the same way that rubbish and filth are removed and forgotten, so too are the people who dispose of the mess. We carry ourselves away with the dust, dirt, and filth that societies seem to think magically disappears on its own every night. For this reason and more, we are martyrs.


In 1942 when Gordon Parks became a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), he took what might be his best-known photograph, American Gothic, Washington D.C. This photo shows Ella Watson, a Black cleaning woman, holding a mop and broom while standing in front of an American flag. Watson’s image would become a strong symbolic piece used to illustrate the struggle of Black Americans across the United States. The expression on Watson’s face, the tools of her trade, and the flag as a backdrop cast a direct line into elements of this country’s Black past.


Whether it was in the house, field, mine, factory, or elsewhere, Black people have often been seen merely as bodies and receptacles to perform unrelenting messy jobs. We have been viewed as receptacles to receive burdensome labor deemed too unsavory for those who often view Black skin like something dirty or unclean itself. I grew up doing this work just like my ancestors, and to this day, I still do it regularly. I am a janitor. Cleaning up after people is not undignified work. It’s hard and often unsightly, but not undignified. The way cleaning people are treated as disposable is what’s undignified. And we carry the weight of both of these reasonings.


In my youth I was extremely embarrassed about coming from a family of janitors. Both my parents did this work together and I thought it was something to be ashamed of. Growing up in the South was oppressive enough because Blackness is so intricately linked to enslavement, existing in what Saidiya Hartman calls, “the afterlife of slavery.” This created a spirit of coexistence with this past in me. Though enslavement as the US originally intended it “ended” with the Emancipation Proclamation, white oppression and disregard for Black labor has continued well into the present. What bodes in the atmosphere of those who clean up, carry, and remove rubbish is the same white entitlement that has existed since Black people were first forced to clean up the blood, sweat, and trash that madeAmerica.”


It’s there in the side-eyed stares, assumptions, and the advances that affront cleaners daily. I cannot count the negative experiences I had as a Black person in this industry, but what you put up with often becomes a part of one’s labor whether one likes it or not. One of the most frustrating experiences of the cleaner is being either unseen or extraordinarily visible. You’re either ignored or you find yourself so visible that you are subject to the whims of a perpetual gaze (one that carries all the prejudices, oppressions, and inconveniences you would hope to avoid in a workplace). Being seen is something that can be oppressive or possibly genial depending on who’s doing the looking.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973.


Years ago, I was somewhat surprised the first time I came across artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her maintenance artwork. Her Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969 was originally conceived as a proposal for an exhibition called “CARE.”  Ukeles tackled the complexities of housework labor and states in her manifesto:


“Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)

The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.

The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs =

minimum wages, housewives = no pay.

clean you desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor,

wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s

diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the

fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking

garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what

shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t

litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets,

go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—

he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to

work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again,

flush the toilet, stay young.”


The gendered nature of housework as unpaid labor in the United States is tedious. Ukeles recognizes the low wages or no wages that come with this category of labor under which janitorial work falls, and what our societal culture confers onto it. Ukeles declared that the menial labors of everyday life must be considered an art. I connected with Ukeles’ work coming to understand that this was true to my life and my ancestry. It was the cooking, maintenance, cleaning, child-rearing, and more of enslaved Africans that created the United States. This should be multiplied in significance when you take into account that enslaved women were doing this work for those who enslaved them as well as for their own households. In particular, I was intrigued by Laderman as a white woman seeing this janitorial and sanitation labor. Though the performance and manifesto alone does not encompass the racialized history of this labor, I find myself interested in it nonetheless. However, I do feel a more thorough racial analysis and interrogation of what she was recognizing was lacking.


As Ukeles performed cleaning work inside and outside of galleries and museums; she was also doing this work outside of her home life. She began to take on the burden in these performances of maintaining a society. This is what janitors, street sweepers, sanitation workers, maids, and the rest of our ilk are faced with daily. Anyone who’s ever seen the amount of trash hauled off from New York City on a daily basis knows that if the sanitation services stopped, the city would very quickly fall apart. It’s this understanding that led Ukeles to shake the hand of every sanitation worker in the city for her piece Touch Sanitation. Over two and a half years she shook the hands of the thousands of people making the largest city in the USA keep going.


It’s fascinating how people willfully neglect and ignore the service of people who are the foundation of everyday life. It’s as if they think the places they work, travel, and even live are  maintained through some sorcery. Even in the most radical and progressive spaces this behavior shows up regularly.

When I attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of the march in Selma, Alabama a who’s who of politicians, celebrities, and activists were in attendance. There were thousands of people everywhere in the very small impoverished Alabama town for this event. I walked around quietly observing the interactions people were having, the events, and the work that was going on. As a cleaning person I always see what will ultimately have to be picked up, put away, and hauled off. I see this labor even before it happens because I do it regularly. It was for this reason I couldn’t help but stop and take a picture of a pile of trash in the middle of a sidewalk people had made that was slowly blowing away in the wind. I posted it on my social media with one of my favorite quotes by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” Here, the question was applied literally. As people crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, trash blew into the river beneath and I lamented seeing a progressive event relentlessly littering.
Knowing what’s usually left for me and my kind to clean up makes me empathetically consider my waste and my mess. Every glass you touch; every piece of trash you throw; every mark you make; and every drop you splash has to be cleaned up by someone. Every mess you make has someone else’s name on it. And just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. If you so choose to consider changing the world and want to commit a revolutionary act, be considerate about the messes you make and those who will clean up after you.

William C. Anderson is a freelance writer. His work has been published by the Guardian, MTV and Pitchfork among others. You can read many of his writings at Truthout or at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College where he’s a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration.