Dealing with “The Help”
“You-all afraid if we take over we might treat y’all like you treated us. And you might be right.”
It sounds like something Minny, one of the characters in “The Help” (either the book or the new movie), might say to one of the white women who treated their African American servants with such little respect.
But the quote comes, not from “The Help,” but from another book set in 1963 that also explores the changing dynamics of relations between whites and blacks in a southern town. I will give you that book’s title in a minute.
“The Help” and its story of black maids and how they had to kowtow to their white employers has been a best-selling book for more than two years.
What explains its popularity? A good story, sympathetic main characters, and evil villains who get put in their places are part of the answer.
Another reason, I think, is that it has given whites a pathway to understand, confess, and be exorcised from guilt for their part in an exploitive system in which black women lovingly raised white children while their own children and families were left to their own devices.
The book and the movie have not been so popular in the black community.
Last year, I tried to persuade a black pastor to organize some older women in his congregation to discuss “The Help” with whites. He made inquiries and reported to me that he could find no interest in his congregation in such a project.
Recently, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts helped white me understand the mixed feelings that blacks have about “The Help.”
“As Americans,” he wrote, “we lie about race. We lie profligately, obstinately and repeatedly. The first lie is of its existence as an immutable reality delivered unto us from the very hand of God.
“That lie undergirds all the other lies, lies of Negro criminality, mendacity, ineducability. Lies of sexless mammies and oversexed wenches. Lies of docile child-men and brutal bucks. Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin with sanctimony. Lies that pinched off avenues of aspiration till “the help” was all a Negro woman was left to be.
“I think of those lies sometimes when aging white southerners contact me to share sepia-toned reminiscences about some beloved old nanny who raised them, taught them, loved them, and who was almost a member of the family.
“Reading their emails, I wonder if those folks understand even now, a lifetime later, that that woman did not exist simply as a walk-on character in a white person’s life drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life, and dreams and dreads of her own.”
Nevertheless, Pitts concedes that “The Help” is a triumph, an “imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too.”
Two recent books by North Carolinians set in 1963 can also help us understand Pitts’s “this” as they explore the relationships between blacks and their white employers. One of them, Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train,” is a compelling read.
It is the source of this column’s opening quote.
The other recent book set in 1963 is UNC-Chapel Hill professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen Of Palmyra,” about a young white girl and the trials of the African-American woman who is her family’s servant. It is even deeper, richer, and better than the “The Help.”
Another new book, “The Dry Grass of August” by Anna Jean Mayhew, takes us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and the poignant story of a young girl who loves her family’s African American servant and does not understand the brutal racism that ultimately destroys the person who was the center of her family.