Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Hoopla Around the Help

After first reading the book, then seeing the film and now reading the various articles popping up about The Help, I must confess that I don’t share the sentiments of those strongly speaking out against the film. There’s the chorus of why another story of a black woman as a maid, the chorus of a white woman telling our story, and the chorus of it being stereotypical int its one dimensional protrait of the maid as "mammy" and its lack of historical depth. The Help, based on the bestselling novel of the same name written by Kathryn Stockett, is a fictionalized account of the lives of domestics in the turbulent 60s in Mississippi.

All the hoopla around The Help rips off the post-racial band-aid America has been wearing since the election of President Obama. This movie that is stirring up controversy and raking in millions reminds us of the raw and real pain of our racist past. And I welcome it. In his critique of The Help, Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald says, "As Americans, we lie about race…Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin with sanctimony."

Pitts shares the story of his mother who worked as a domestic for a doctor in Memphis in the late ‘40s/early 50s. One day the doctor’s daughter came up and began rubbing the woman’s skin because the child thought the woman's skin was dark because it was dirty. Seems that when the little girl asked her grandmother why the maid’s skin was dark, the little girl was told that the darkness was dirt. "Years later, Mom’s voice still mixed anger and humiliation when she told that tale." Pitts describes his own irresolution with the film. "I suspect it traces to nothing more mysterious than the pain of revisiting a time and place of black subservience. And, perhaps, the sting of an inherited memory. That episode cost my mom something to tell — and even more to live."

In L. Lamar Wilson’s piece, Wilson complained that the director had an opportunity to show love to the maligned black women in our society and she failed. Wilson wondered why Abilene couldn’t recite the words for self that she spoke to Mae Mobley. And while I fully understood what Wilson was getting at, I was blown away by words of a reader whose response to the article appeared in the comment section following the story.

“I am a fifty-six year old black man whose mother was a maid, a servant, and raised little white boys and little white girls . . . As I write this; the hurt of being devalued soars into my chest, just as it did when watching the movie. . . I couldn't say them to myself when the world around me was saying, "you are dumb, you are ignorant, you stink, you are ugly, you are bad." THAT VOICE was too, too loud and there were no volume control."

The reader goes on to say how his mother's teachings affected him when he watched his mother put on her uniform and assume her subjugated positon in society.

We need to stop acting as though were are not a nation in pain. We need to stop lying to ourselves because the lies that we've all been told about race "pinched off avenues of aspiration till “the help” was all a Negro woman was left to be," Pitt said. "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. Almost. It is Kathryn Stockett’s imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too. I think mom would have appreciated the effort."

The multitude of voices speaking out both for and against The Help need to heard if we are to heal our hurt.Perhaps through these dialogues and debates we can come to some understanding what it was like to stand in and walk around in the shoes of the hired help. We will never know what it was like to live in their shoes, but through our conversations with each other, we can move from sympathy to empathy and outrage to understanding so that we can appreciate and celebrate these unsung heroes.

We need the balm of couragerous conversations to heal our wounded souls.

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