Friday, May 27, 2011

The Help

I don't know if anyone else has read the novel The Help which has recently been made into a movie. It's written by a White southern woman but told largely from the point of view of two Black maids. It's set in Jackson, Mississippi in the sixties right in the middle of the civil rights struggle. I had been circling this book for a long time. It came on my radar earlier this year and seemed interesting but I just didn't want to read another tragic Negro story. Then I saw the previews for the upcoming film and thought I might want to see it. I do not read books after seeing the movies, I like to read them before. So I thought about the book once again, but hesitated. Then a few nights later my Zumba instructor, a Black Northern woman in her mid to late twenties was raving about it. She said it was really an uplifting book. So I bought it. It's 4am and I've just finished it. I started reading several days ago and had to stop.

I don't really know what to say. I had to stop reading halfway through because it was just too hard to take. I can certainly see why my Zumba teacher thought it was uplifting, but I found it very disturbing in the way I found Schindler's List disturbing. At first I figured that it was just that I couldn't see the"triumph of the human spirit" because I was mesmerized by the ugliness. And that might be partially true. But it's more than that.

When I teach the fourth graders at our school about the first Thanksgiving I start by introducing the Social Studies theme for the year. I tell them that we are going to be history detectives and work on various cases. To start, I define the difference between history and the past. The past, I tell them, is what actually happened, and history is how we talk about what happens. The past is always the same, but history changes across tellers and time.

I think that's why my instructor and I essentially were reading two different books. She sees what happened between 1958 when I was born and the 90's when she was born as history all neatly packaged and tied up with a ribbon. I see it as the past. I lived parts of it. I knew women who worked those jobs. My grandmother was a maid and laundress before finally becoming a restaurant cook. I remember the stories. I remember White ladies being condescending to me assuming that I would eventually clean their houses. And I remember the point at which I realized I never would. It's not history to me it's my past. History is written in books, the past is etched on your soul.

My Zumba instructor's inability to feel the way I do about this book gives me immense joy. I am happy that she can't quite get where I'm coming from. I'm happier still that my twenty year old daughter cannot even fathom why I would be upset over a book about some maids. My daughter has a White Jewish father and a Black Southern mother. She became a bat mitzvah at 13, and at 18 chose to go to a selective Black college after being accepted at an equally selective White one. She is just as comfortable working with homeless black children as a volunteer in DC as she is helping wealthy White Jewish kids learn their Hebrew as a camp counselor.

I am happy about all this but it frightens me too. I can imagine now how scary it must have been for my mother and grandmother to watch their children sail off into a racial landscape they never thought they would see. Even though they helped create that landscape, they must have worried about us just like my great, great grandmother (a former slave) worried that the slave catchers would come and get her family. We worry because we can't quite believe it's over. We worry because we still see the traces of the old ugliness everywhere around us. Our president tells us that those people are on the "wrong side of history" and I believe that to be true. My husband, with the supreme confidence of a White man with a Ph.D., tells me that there's only so much that crazy people will do. I wonder if he realizes that his own history tells him that's not true. But of course he doesn't. The Holocaust is history for him, and past for his parent's generation.

So here I stand on one side of the great divide watching my daughter with relief and fear. I am so happy that the children I teach are mystified later in the year when we get to the Great Migration and I try to explain why there were colored toilets. I am thrilled that my daughter's friends look like a UN delegation. I'm happy my Zumba instructor thinks this book is just an uplifting story about things that happened a long time ago. I wish with all my heart that I could jump across the abyss and live where they do, but I can't. I can't anymore than my grandmother could jump to my side or her grandmother to hers. I hear Dr. King's mountain top speech in my head at times like this. I understand the reference to Moses in a different way. People say he was predicting his own death, and perhaps he was. But I've learned by now that the people who build the bridges often can't cross them. We are stuck with the baggage of the struggle. Once people have sunk to a certain level of ugliness toward one another, you can never truly fix it. You can't, as my husband says, unring the bell. That's why I'm careful in relationships. I know how ugly sticks. And that's why I've come to see the continuing struggle for racial equality in this country as so vital. I get angry when I hear Black people making rude comments about Asians or Latinos; or when they make those comments about us. I want to grab them and shake them and tell them they are tying chains around their legs that they will never be able to get off. That they will look up one day as their sons and daughters move to other ways of being and know that they cannot follow them. I want them to see how terribly sad that is. In the end that's what makes The Help worth reading. Depending on where you are on the timeline (and the color line) you may find it uplifting or disturbing; infuriating or depressing; or some combination of those things. But it will make you think about that divide and which side you want to be on going forward.

I'm going to bed now. Thanks for listening.