Friday, August 26, 2011

A Few Thoughts on The Help

The film The Help has generated lots of publicity recently. I have not seen it, nor do I have much inclination to do so based on the way I've seen it portrayed in reviews. The sensitive topic of black maids harkens back to the pre-Civil Rights days that both of my parents remember. Here, it is smoothed away to a fanciful rendering of a saccharine truth. The major complaint has been that the African-American hired help must rely on a white woman to be treated as though they exist on the same level.

Along with this tired trope are several others which are offensive, but mostly long past their shelf life. I've been compelled to write because I can provide a perspective which I believe to be unique amidst every critique I have read. This premise is not an unfamiliar one to me. In those days, which in this context means the 1950's, being a maid was about the only work a Negro woman could find. In the Deep South, segregation was still the law of the land. My parents recall a series of maids, none of whom worked for the family for very long. Even the poorest white person could afford to pay a black maid, who were often used for inexpensive childcare.

Despite the inequality, both races did interact, and interact frequently. My Grandmother, for example, grew up largely without a mother. A black maid taught her how to cook. Both of my parents were supervised by black maids starting at the youngest of ages. The maids hired by both sets of grandparents were not treated badly, though I'm sure they were underpaid for their labor. They were second-class citizens according to the laws of the day, of course, which doesn’t excuse this belief. Nor were they members of the family, but they were nonetheless treated with basic dignity. And they shifted considerably. There wasn’t one trusted maid present for years and years. The reality was nothing like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. As an aside, McDaniel's most famous quote is quite applicable here. "I'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid."

An older man who has sadly passed away recently told me a different story. He and his wife decided that separate but equal would not be observed in their house. He would often recount how nervous the young woman was in their company, extremely uncomfortable with the arrangement. They invited her to have dinner with them at their kitchen table, not to eat a meal apart from them in a different part of the house. I know that problems still exist between white and black, but I'm glad that they rarely take the form of this anymore. What The Help neglects to consider is that it's possible to tell stories like these without the use of heavy gloss or by filtering it through the eyes of someone else. The painful truths present in bunches where I grew up, that being Birmingham, Alabama, have been avoided by way of collective amnesia. The horrors and shame dare not be mentioned. Those who were there remember, yet no one brings it up. Efforts to soften and revise history like these must not be allowed, but what really happened must also be shown in multiple dimensions.

Some voracious criticism has sought to attack the affectionate feelings between white and black. Such a debasing practice could never have been pleasant, they say. On one level, yes, but not necessarily to that degree. My father tells a story about coming home from college. He lived in a dry county where alcohol could not be legally purchased, which is the still the case in many Bible Belt states. One of his high school friends claimed to know the location of a bootlegger. They wanted to drink and were prepared to resort to illegal means to do so.

So several people piled into a car and eventually found the bootlegger’s house which was way on the outskirts of town. After being deemed “safe”, and allowed to enter the front door, they were escorted back to the kitchen, which apparently was where business took place. As it turns out, the woman in charge had been one of my father’s maids growing up.

She recognized him and called him over for a hug.

My father asked how she was doing. She got a triumphant look on her face and said, “I haven’t cleaned a floor in ten years!”

Trauma to any degree can easily be repressed. I've noticed that myself, as I myself am in therapy to address my own painful past. When it becomes collective, rather than merely individual, a vacuum results. Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, so often legends, myths, and half-truth fill that space. There is an effective way for us to stare down the legacy of a shameful past, and in ways that do not make us recoil from the agony. We should not be faulted for our impulses, but instead held to a higher standard. Our great strength can be measured in how we address the pain and suffering to find a suitable resolution.

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