There Is Dignity In All Work

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

                                                                         – Martin Luther King Jr.

Three days ago I was privy to a conversation that a pair of men in my community were having about a middle school aged boy. He was a sullen, despondent slip of a thing, and became even more so as the discourse about him carried on. He stood motionless, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor.

Finally, the two men stopped talking about him when the more rotund of the pair deigned to address the boy.

“So you want to stop schooling, eh? Why? Do you want to become a flagger by the road side?”

The boy shook his head no, as the men laughed in light mockery. This – I suppose – was some form of male “tough love”: inducing shame as a panacea for a multi-dimensional problem. The boy had confided that he wanted to drop out of school now, rather then return at begin his first year of high school this week. Neither of the men had bothered to investigate how they might resolve the reasons for that decision.

“You are stupid.”

“You will never pass.”

“You are wasting everyone’s time here!”

These were the constant messages that had been drummed into the boy’s head for as long as he could remember; a verbal assault so relentless that it had caused him to give up hope on a future in education. There are very few choices available to a young Black man in South Africa, even with the benefit of an education. The unemployment rate hovers at 26.6%. Without a matric certificate, one’s prospects become even grimmer. Becoming a casual day laborer, a parking attendant, and yes, a roadside flagger in order to earn a wage is a reality for many people in this country.

Is this something to be ashamed of?

When the current president to the United States made his controversial comments about narrowing the number of immigrants from what he called ‘shithole countries’, a fair number of Africans were quick to jump to his defense, eager to demonstrate their rabid endorsement of his statement. A common line of reasoning was that the statement had to be true, because after all, it is only Black Africans and people from other “shithole” countries that travel to the US with all their credentials (or none at all) in order to clean toilets for a living.

One woman – who later admitted that she has never lived or travelled anywhere outside of Ghana – brazenly declared that no American “has ever left their country to go and do menial labor (i.e. clean toilets) in another country. That is not just categorically false, it’s hilariously absurd. But then, that’s the way it generally is, isn’t it? The people who are least informed are the most confident in the space of public discourse and give their uninformed opinions liberally and without hesitation. The aforementioned woman’s uninformed opinion – that an African who travels abroad and for whatever reason is compelled to work in sanitation in order to make ends meet is a lesser person – is not one that exists in a vacuum. In fact, most people harbor similar thoughts about work and wages: That there is an established hierarchy to the type of work one performs for a living, replete with a direct relationship with the respect one ought to be given. In other words, the “lower” the perceived significance of one’s job (like a street sweeper or a flagger), the less respect society affords the people who hold those positions.

This is why the question “What do you do for a living?” is such an uncomfortable one for many people to answer. The sum of our human existence is often judged by three main factors: What we do, where we live and how much we earn. These three things determine our worthiness in the eyes of others. This is why when a confused and disheartened boy confesses a desire to drop out of school, our visceral response is to present him with the horrific notion that the worst consequence of that choice is that he eventually gain employment as a man hired wave a red flag to caution motorists about construction up ahead. That the wage he may earn doing that job offers him enough money to meet his basic needs is inconsequential. He ought to seek to be better than that.

What we often forget while dispensing this type of damaging messaging is precisely what Martin Luther King (and Gandhi) says about labor.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

The simple and indisputable fact is that we need sanitation workers. We need people to clean toilets in public spaces and sweep our litter-filled streets. We people to wash windows, and haul our garbage – and * gasp * – swing a red flag to warn of dangerous driving conditions ahead. These people make civilized life possible. Can you imagine how your local bus terminal would look without them?

And yet…

How often do we advise beggars, loafers and deadbeats to “Go get a job… Any job!”. And as we admonish them to get off their butts and do something, we impute a sense of shame about accepting jobs meant for unskilled workers. It certainly explains why so many graduates are lounging at home, waiting for something “better” to come along. As a society, we do not encourage the idea that there is dignity in all work, and no one willingly debases himself or herself without extreme cause.

Speaking as a parent, I would like to see a shift in the way we hold these conversations with our children. We can’t continue to shame the honest toil of others as a means of a cautionary tale. I don’t know what will become of this boy. Before that day, I had never seen him before and I doubt I will see him again. I do hope that he receives different messaging about his intelligence and his capacity. I do hope that he begins to earn a sense of self-worth. I hope that when he is grown and begins to take responsibility for his personal welfare, he will somehow come across this quote by Dr. King and perform his duties with a spirit of excellence and pride.