"Be curious, not judgemental."
I open this blog with the above quote from Walt Whitman, because it was out of my curiosity that this post was born.
Several days ago, I happened upon a discussion of The Help on Facebook. The status of my friend was simple: The Help: I'm pissed. That began an enlightening conversation between several people on Facebook.
At first, I'll admit I was very hesitant to add my own comments, because I did not want to offend anyone with the fact that I enjoyed the movie and felt it had some benefit to showing viewers a piece of history. But I decided to add my comment, and I am happy I did, as I have made some new friends, but more importantly, have seen their perspectives.
I was intrigued because in various discussions on television and radio, I'd heard that some in the Black community were not happy about The Help, and I wanted to know why that was.
Also, Broken Dolls, deals with the theme of prejudice during the Japanese-American internment. In my book, prejudice threatens to destroy Nobu (Japanese-American) and his friend, Terrence (African-American). Yet, it is friendship that changes the lives of Sachi (Japanese-American) and her friend, Jubie (African-American).
I'll admit, I originally read The Help to try to get "the voice" of a Black person, after being told by some in my writing critique group that my Black character didn't sound Black. But I became engrossed in the book beyond the "sound" of the voices - I was drawn into each character.
I watched the movie and felt even more sorrow for that era, when Black people were treated with such disrespect. That women could trust their children to the care of women they couldn't even share their bathrooms with--so sad.
Yet, it wasn't until I read the Facebook posts that I realized I had no real concept of just how sad that history is. Honestly, I have never really had an open discussion with anyone in the Black community about what kinds of prejudice they or their families have experienced. I've only read about it in history books. To hear what prejudice is like from people I know was a real eye-opener.
In The Help, I also watched the destructive power of peer pressure in the actions of Hilly and her friends. At the end of the movie, I saw in the eyes of Elizabeth Leefolt that she knew what she had done was wrong, yet she couldn't bring herself to stand up against her friends. In many ways, we've come a long way, but in the way that peer pressure makes us to do things we know are wrong, we still have a long way to go.
So, though this is a long blog entry, I believe it is an important one. I hope you will read each person's perspective, and I hope you will feel free to leave your comments.
Thank you, Donna, Cyndie, GPhillipD, Edward and Michele for your open and honest discussions of your perspective.
Before viewing the movie, I was full of anticipation fueled by my sisters and niece who raved so much about the book. When the opportunity arose to see the movie, I initially watched with no "real" feelings one way or another. As a matter of fact I was more amused by the script than anything. I guess subconsciously, I was picking up on subtleties, but primarily, I just thought, yes, they probably did ignore a lot of what was being said until they got together and laughed at their employers behind their back.
It wasn't until the bus scene where a weary Aibileen and friend were told to get off the bus because “some nigger" had gotten killed that I suddenly became emotionally upset. That nigger turned out to be Medgar Evers. A respected figure from the 1960's Civil Rights Movement, not just ole Bubba from down the street. It hurt me to think that all Black people were and are cast into the same pot, indistinguishable from a slave to an educated War Veteran who had fought valiantly for the United States, only to be executed by a White Supremist.
I cried, not because I was sad, rather because I was mad…Pissed is the better word. I’m pissed off because of all the hate filled attacks on churches, homes and businesses and on people who through no fault of their own look, or think, or worship differently but who know and accept that life is not ours to take or hinder, rather understand vengeance belongs to God. I cried for all the mothers whose sons and husbands were murdered, children and wives raped, for the verbal and physical abuses Black people have had to endure for the sake of having a job, being able to go to school, shop in a store, or simply walk on a street.
I remain upset enough to cry because sometime after seeing the movie, I remembered a scene from my own life. I often say I have not been exposed to such overt racism during my lifetime, but I remembered being in second grade living in Amarillo, Texas where my father was stationed in the United States Air Force. I had befriended a little white girl who had come to my all black Parochial School to act in a Play. Our friendship was instant and she asked if I could come over one Saturday to play in her Doll House. A real Doll House. Are you kidding? I begged my mother who agreed and the little girl’s mother picked me up. We had played for several hours and were only interrupted by her Maid who came to gather her for lunch. As I tried to follow behind, I was told, “Oh, not you honey, you have to eat out here”. I was confused…but I ate my lunch and waited for my “friend” to come back to play. I don’t recall if I ever mentioned this to my mother back then but I do know it wasn’t until I was an adult those memories came back and I asked my mother how she could have subjected me to such treatment. I don’t know if she truly didn’t recall the incident, thought it privilege that I had been invited to a rich white person’s home, or was embarrassed that the event took place at all.
At present I am trying to read the book. Good as everyone says it is I am struggling to pick it back up after having read just a few chapters. I’ll get through it I’m sure, but the history is getting in my way. I can’t take it as fiction, embellished or not.
I recently saw the film 'The Help' at the suggestion of a friend who read the book, which I did not. On the surface, I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable film, perfectly cast, and in whose subject matter I have taken a keen interest throughout most of my adult life in my pursuit to somehow, in my own small way, influence the collective consciousness on issues of social justice and human rights.
Aside from the authenticity of the characters and the (IMHO) superb acting, the film affected me on two levels. First, I was reminded of my one and only experience of having 'hired help' in our young family during our father's service at Hamilton Air Force Base in Bermuda in '61, '62, and '63. For some reason, I remember more about my life during this brief period than almost any other time in my childhood and I can honestly say I attribute this to the joy brought to our lives by our maid Cinda. I didn't know much about her life outside of her time spent at our home, but remember her to be such a source of lovingkindness and laughter in what was an otherwise unstable home life, with my mother left to her own devices to raise her four young daughters, my father gone much of the time hunting hurricanes and conducting other weather reconnaissance missions for the U.S. Air Force. I remember looking forward to the days she came to our house, knowing that for those hours she was with us, we would be showered with her attention and affection, and I still recall being left with a feeling of loss at her leaving us at the end of her work day.
There was a purity to Cinda that even at my young age I could sense - she was bound by her duty to all of us, seemingly completely accepting of and fulfilled by her simple lot in life. She showed up to work always with a smile on her face and a willingness to dispense with unconditional love for me and my sisters. Her smile and laughter were contagious and I recall being drawn to that life-giving energy that was absent from our household when she was not there. I saw this as an innate characteristic in all of the 'maids' in the film - their pure love for the children seemed not a mask they wore to fulfill their job description, rather a truly felt emotion for the children as though they were their own. Throughout the film, the joy and presence in these women's faces toward the children brought home the visceral feeling of that same love I felt from Cinda.
Second, the film made me reflect on my recent and ongoing experience of life in India, with the remnants of the caste system there still leaving its ugly mark on many aspects of society, for both locals and foreigners. While the caste system was formerly outlawed just after the time of Partition and liberation from the British in 1947, and its demise adopted by the Constitution of India in 1950, there are still many aspects of Indian life that have not shed the affects of this long-held belief system. This social phenomenon touched me profoundly vis-a-vis my relationship with our driver and his family. Initially an employee of my husband's company, Sitaram originally hails from the low-caste Hindu Konkani region in Southern Maharashtra. He has spent the better part of his career working in simple jobs as a driver or office clerk, subjected to the wrath of high-caste businessmen. I was appalled on countless occasions at the way the lower caste people are treated by their bosses. Sparing you the distasteful details, suffice it to say that despite caste having been outlawed over fifty years ago, a much harsher version of Jim Crow is still very much alive and well in India.
My husband and I were invited to spend the evening with Sitaram and his family on the eve of Diwali, one of India's most celebrated festivals. When our employer found out we had gone to his house, sat on his floor and ate his food, he asked 'How could you stoop so low as to share a meal with these people'. I will share here a post from the journal I kept during my first year in India:
I am still trying to come to grips with why this experience (dinner at Sitaram's for Diwali) has so profoundly touched me. Upon seeing more of their very simple (and speaking only materialistically, poverty-stricken) lives, I am awestruck by Sitaram, who shows up every morning, on time, with clean pressed clothes, a smile on his face, and in whom I have complete faith and trust and absolutely no doubt in my mind he would do anything and everything to take care of and protect us. He takes a total of three buses over an hour and a half to get to our house in the morning, then proceeds to do his job dutifully and with a smile on his face, never expressing any anger or impatience toward the IMPOSSIBLE Mumbai traffic. At the end of the day, he drops us off then takes another three buses and often 2 hours to get home – working sometimes an over 14-hour day, six days a week – for a mere Rs. 8,000 per month paid by Hayden’s employer. That’s less than $175.
P.S. Much like Cinda in Bermuda as a child, Sitaram and his family provided me with a sense of peace, comfort and belonging which is rare within my own family. I am happy to say that he is no longer 'my driver' rather he and his family have become my friends and in a way, my family in India.
So, Sitaram and Cinda are two people in my life whose character, honesty and sense of duty have validated my belief that human decency and worth is not defined by one's color, financial standing, education, job ranking or amassed fortune. Just as these two individuals have inspired me in my life, I believe the characters in the book/film 'The Help' in their own small way have altered history. In their courage to step forward and speak their (anecdotal) truth, they joined the ranks of my heroes Gandhi, Evers, Edelman, King and others who have fearlessly and unceasingly championed the causes of social justice and human rights. Fearing the repercussions of their actions, and believing it impossible that their efforts alone could possibly affect any sort of change, these brave women took the risk to share their story and in doing so opened our eyes and thus ever-so-slightly shifted the collective consciousness.
The Help: A Reenactment of Black and White Stereotypes
I spent many summers from 1965 through 1970 in Biloxi, MS and I witnessed and experienced Jim Crow racism in its rawest form. Mississippi during the ‘60s consisted of two entirely different social realities and the movie brought back memories of my childhood. My father’s family lived across the railroad tracks which, in Mississippi during the ‘60s was a common reference to the black community. Funny thing was that my cousins and I had the opposite perspective. Crossing the tracks meant we were going to the white part of town and we were not allowed to meander across the tracks without adult supervision. I understand now, without having to watch a movie, that in Mississippi during the ‘60s it was an accident of birth that a person was destined by social decree anyway, to be “The Help” or destined to be a socialite and employer of “The Help”. A scene in the movie that makes mention of Mississippi’s determinate social structure was when Cicely Tyson’s character said to Emma Stone’s character; about her mother… “She didn’t choose her life, her life chose her”. For me that one scene summed up life’s circumstance in Mississippi during the ‘60s.
In my view the movie itself is not about “The Help” as much as it is about the superficial relationships and goings on of the so called white social elite and specifically white women in the Jim Crow south. There was some degree of lamentation provided that gave us a sample of the callousness in which “The Help” was treated and if one watched carefully it was quite obvious that “The Help” was depicted as described in Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man. The movie supported the reality that the employers treated “The Help” like ornaments in the back drop and similar to pets they expected them to fetch and serve quietly. In the end, the movie provides a rather myopic perspective on the social invisibility of “The Help” and instead gives a macro view on the frivolous endeavors of a few socially elite white women. The movie seems to feign that “The Help” would have no substantive meaning to their life if they were not somehow being caretakers of white households. The movie should make one consider the illogic of someone that can despise an individual while at the same time entrusting them with the care of their children. But then again, the racist mentality has never been rooted in logic.
I can’t emphatically say that the movie is a flop. The actresses executed their roles with compelling prose and stereotypes are on full display for black and white characters. I believe the movie missed in a rather major way by not having a single significant black male character other than the invisible and assumed black male whose presence was associated with abuse, abandonment, and profanity. It’s a stretch to consider that the absence of a significant black male character in the movie was meant to further the notion of the social invisibility of black folk in Mississippi during the ’60s…but I suppose it’s conceivable.
On a 4 star scale, I give the movie 3 stars for its entertainment value and 2 stars for its inaccurate depiction of the social realties in Mississippi during the ‘60s. It’s not a total waste of two hours but far from an accurate depiction of the ugliness of the Jim Crow era. Overall “The Help” serves up a few slices of humble pie.
I put off going to see "The Help" for some time because I thought it might be painful to watch, and indeed it was. I expect many of us who grew up white in the south in that era have regrets they didn't speak out against the injustices. Holocaust scholars talk about the "banality of evil." If it's going on all around us, it
seems normal, just the way things are.
I thought it was a good movie, but fell somewhat short of being a great movie. Seemed like the film was sold (or bought) to be more than it actually was. The latter part touched upon civil rights, the murder of Medgar Evers, etc., but more as a peripheral issue than a central theme. The film was apparently intended to be light and funny, but was too grim to quite bring that off. However, that the movie generated such interest suggests there's an audience for serious treatments of race matters.
Interestingly, I experienced a similar situation to Donna's when I was a kid. I was in the first grade and our school at the time was very integrated -- mostly emigrants (India, Brazil, Russia, Asia, etc.). My friend at the time was Sophia. She was white (Russian). We were best friends (as best of friends 1st graders can be). I sometimes walked her home since she lived so close to the school. I lived a little further away and caught public transportation home. Anyway, for the first time, she invited me in her house and we had a really great time until her parents came home. When her mother saw me in her house, she went berserk. She began yelling at me to get out of her house. Now, I thought she was yelling at me to get out because Sophia didn't get permission to have company -- until... she turned to Sophia and yelled, "I told you no niggers are allowed in my house." Her mother grabbed me by the arm and physically put me out the house. At 6 years old, I shrugged it off. I didn't understand what had happened. I felt bad. My feelings were hurt. But it wasn't until I was a little older (at 13) that I understood Sophia's mother's behavior and why Sophia subsequently severed our friendship (stopped speaking to me and sitting next to me). By 13, I had experienced other similar incidents. However, when I was 13, I was in the 9th grade and at an all white school in Georgia. It was hell for me but there was one white girl who befriended me. Then one day, we couldn't be friends anymore. I always wondered why she never invited me into her home but then my father finally explained it to me. Then I understood. Then I became angry. Then I began to question everything.
People make it seem like Black people are just whining or overreacting. But until our critics have walked in our shoes, they will never know what we've had to endure as a race. My mother and father had to sit in the back of the bus, eat in separate restaurants, get educated in separate schools, use separate restrooms and water fountains. Did you hear that? My Parents. I am the first generation to be protected by the civil rights laws of 1964. The first. And still, I had the experiences I just shared. My grandparent had it worst than my parents, and my parents had it much worse that I, and my son will certainly have it better than I did. With each generation, I am hopeful that we will find equal footing as a race -- the human race.
So, I finally watched the movie yesterday. I found it to be an enjoyable movie. Lighthearted and funny at points. It certainly doesn't depict the true hardships of blacks, but it gives an entertaining story about a few lively characters.
I re-read what I wrote and realized that I brushed over my perspective about the movie. Sometimes, some emotions are just too difficult to translate into words. For example, when I watched Schindler's List, Roots, Mississippi Burning and other similar movies -- I'd walk away too angry for words because of the inhumanity and violence against a race or group of people. I recently watched the movie The Hurricane, about the boxer -- and I was infuriated by the injustice he suffered.
There were points in The Help where I became quite angry -- when Abileen's son was killed, when Evers was murdered, when Hilly was blocking opportunities for each of her maids and those of her minions. The unfairness can be fought but the inbred ignorance about an entire race of people, i.e., can't use the same toilet because blacks have more pervasive diseases, is a bit harder to ameliorate. That kind of indoctrination perpetuated from generation to generation. The legal rights of blacks were nonexistent. One only had to be accused to be arrested -- no proof was necessary. These were the "realities" that the movie lightly touched which caused me to become upset -- not at the movie but about the realities for my parents, grandparents and their parents and their ancestors. For a black person, just lightly touching the subject can reopen the wound -- because the wound has never truly been healed. Sure, we've poured a little peroxide in it and patched it with bandaids; we've even tried to staple and stitch the wound at times, but the wound just keeps getting infected generation after generation.
Now, with a Black President, some claim we have "arrived" and the first-aid kit has been put away. No more salve or bandaids or disinfectants -- it is expected that the wound has healed. Yet, I still read of our elected President being referred to as Tar Baby and photoshopped to look like a monkey. So, while I enjoyed the movie, The Help, for it's much deserved entertainment value, it only scratches the surface of Blacks' true reality during that era -- and that's okay. The author wanted a story about "maids" not about the wider social injustices and the civil rights movement. So in that vain, I found the movie quite entertaining.
Thank you again, Donna, Cyndie, GPhillipD, Edward and Michele!