Viewing “Women's Liberation Talking Mask” (1973). American People in the galleries of the de Young Museum. Faith Ringgold Celebration at the de Young. Novemeber 22, 2022. Photo by Gary Sexton
Feminism Mentors Poetry Recording The Memory Palace Work

Ironing, Ironing

Nellie’s reading of “Ironing, Ironing” for American People: A Celebration of Faith Ringgold at the de Young Museum featuring Faith Ringgold’s artwork and accompaniment by harpist Destiny Muhammad.

IRONING, IRONING (For Tillie Olsen)

Like a drunken fool I pick out the wrinkles linen and shirt,

the foam-green dress, the black, long sleeve T

and I drink ice cold glasses of lemon tea

as the temperature lingers at 90 plus degrees.

When I ironed as a 12-year old, I listened

to the radio. Imogene Coco and Sid Caesar battled

in their boisterous humor, the Lone Ranger

and his faithful companion, Tonto,

rode in clouds of dust,

but I liked his real name better,

Jay Silverheels. “The Inner Sanctum,”

“The Whistler,” and Jack Benny

with his arms akimbo,

and his sidekick Rochester.

I can see Tallulah Bankhead,

her heavily mascaraed eyes.

I hear her deep-throated voice

and smell her cigarette breath.

These radio characters were good company

as I ironed and ironed my father’s pants,

my mother’s dresses, my sister’s blouses

and my own pajama tops and bottoms

that Ma Ma sewed just for me.

No, these were not PJ’s for sleeping.

I felt ashamed because I was a girl

and had to wear pants which were not in style.

I wanted to wear flower-print dresses

with crisp, peter-pan collars

like my sisters and girlfriends,

but couldn’t because my eczema

had a field day with ripe, red hives

blossoming onto my skin, conquering

the body that I thought I owned.

When I was young, I thought that ironing

was drudgery, only the work

that poor Chinese or black girls did,

not for pin money, but for money, period.

When I ironed at midnight, Bah Bah fried

his golden pork chops in a cast-iron pan

and drank his V.O. in our kitchen.

He already worked a long day and evening

at our Great China Restaurant.

And we became companions,

father and daughter, staples in the kitchen,

using our hands to cook and iron,

silent with our unexpressed dreams.

“Marriage, hmphh!” blurted Bah Bah one night

and I said nothing. I only ironed and ironed,

thinking the hissing of the steam iron

was noisy enough for both of us.

Now I practically dance as I iron

because I’ve had so much practice.

Retrieving from my woven Japanese basket

the postcard reproduction of a painting

called “Ironing” by Jacob Lawrence

who now resides with the world’s dead painters.

In the painting, three Black women, tall and angular,

in white cotton cloche hats and sleeveless white dresses,

hunker down with heavy black irons.

They had no steam irons, just their muscles

and grit finishing up some mistresses’

blouses, aprons and tablecloths.

They dig and lift, push and slide and lift again,

their thoughts submerged into the irons

as their fingers maneuver on the ironing boards

as expertly as ice skaters on a rink.

These ironers (this word has dignity)

ironed on hot nights, cold mornings, doing the work

their white employers paid them little to do.

Jacob Lawrence didn’t paint the ironers’ eyes,

their noses, their mouths. I don’t know

if they were smiling or gossiping, if they were worried

about the day’s meager wages, if there was

enough milk or cereal for their children.

Technology cannot give us digital ironing.

Who’d want it? You mean flicking a switch,

pointing the arrow at an icon

and your ironing’s done? Astronauts swallowing

pills for honey-baked ham and chocolate éclairs?

Ironing is honest work, ironing is what

Ma Ma’s brother-in-law from China did,

a handsome laundry man we addressed as Ah Chenk

with his own laundry

at the mouth of Stockton St. Tunnel

entering Chinatown. Here, Chinese men ironed

and pressed white linens, men’s dress shirts,

women’s dresses, even rich folks underwear.

I probably will never stop ironing

even though it’s smart to look wrinkled

these days. Savoring the rhythm, the honesty,

on this, the hottest night of the year,

I stand here, ironing, ironing.

Ironing, Ironing by Nellie Wong was first published in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Volume 3, No. 1, 2002, Wesleyan University Press.

The poem is dedicated to Tillie Olsen. In 1983, Nellie traveled to China on the first U.S. Women Writers Tour to China sponsored by the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association with Tillie Olsen, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, among others, the only Chinese American woman to be included.

Nellie read Ironing, Ironing on Saturday, November 19, 2022, accompanied by harpist Destiny Muhammad, in response to Women’s Liberation Talking Mask (1973) and “Mother’s Quilt (1982) by Faith Ringgold for The Last Hoisan Poets & Friends “American People: Celebrating Faith Ringgold” at the de Young Museum.

Nellie’s poem also references Ironers (1943), a work of art by Jacob Lawrence.

Nellie Wong at the Faith Ringgold Celebration writing workshop held at the de Young Museum with The Last Hoisan Poets on November 22, 2022. Photo by Gary Sexton.