Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Defending The Help


photo: Dale Robinette


The Help was one of those books I literally couldn’t put down (and it’s been a long time since I felt that way about a book).  Then I saw the movie, and was so moved by it. So I am saddened to see such heated controversy surrounding it.

In the book, Stockett tells her story through three characters, one white woman, and two black women. Many are angry that Stockett, a white woman, had the nerve to write from a black woman’s perspective. But, as a writer, I have to defend her. You must step into your characters shoes and tell their stories. You have to find their voices somewhere inside of you. Men write in women’s voices, women in men’s. If you didn’t step into other voices, a writer could write nothing but memoir. It made me wonder, does anyone question Spike Lee over the white characters he writes?

Some complain that The Help is yet another story of a white person saving a poor black person, like The Blind Side. It makes me wonder if they actually read the book or saw the movie. My view was that these strong black women inspired courage and changed the lives, perceptions, and culture of an entire town. Ultimately all of the characters, both black and white, helped each other in different ways. In the book (which goes into more detail) Minny and Celia saved each other’s lives, and Aibilene and Skeeter propelled one another to new heights in both their lives and careers.

But I think the controversy is deeper than that. Watching the film, I went through a myriad of emotions. I felt shame for being part of a race that had first enslaved and then suppressed blacks (although I want to state for the record here that my ancestors fought on the right side of the civil war, thank God.) I felt empathy and worry for the African American man that sat in front of us in the theatre, alone, watching in silence. I felt deep pain, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I watched these beautiful, strong capable black women so terribly mistreated. Finally I was moved to happy tears, and wanted to jump for joy at the end as the main character Aibileen stood up to claim her life and dignity. I left the theatre stirred, inspired, hoping I could be as strong a woman as these characters Minny and Aibilene, also known as “The Help”.

Although it was at times painful to watch, I was grateful to have the truth put in our faces, as this is a time in our history that needs to be remembered (and is still alive and well in some places). Segregation happened in my lifetime, and although I would later learn about it, it was foreign to me.

You see, I also grew up in the sixties, but in Los Angeles, far far away from oppressive, racially segregated Mississippi. I was raised in the flower-power era – “Make Love Not War”. Mine was the racially integrated world of musicians and artists. My step dad Gene was the only white guy in Little Richard’s band- “Uncle Richard” to me. Ironically, Gene was raised in rural Mississippi, and began his career playing the blues with black artists. In our world, Uncle Richard was the king, the one we all deferred to. When I started kindergarten, I knew no one, so naturally I gravitated toward the one person who looked familiar: the only little black boy in school (Dennis Barnett, who is still one of my closest friends to this day).

I did not grow up witnessing racism or segregation, so the film really brought home for me what the history books did not – the humanity, the reality. But, as with everything, we all view the world through our own unique lens. Our perceptions are filtered through a lifetime of experiences. And that is perhaps why there is so much controversy and pain around this film.

If I were African American, and my ancestors carried this history, I can imagine The Help is exposing a wound that is too fresh, and it’s just too damn painful to be reminded. But on the other hand, this film is opening eyes of many, people of other races who didn’t know what it was like in the segregated South, and isn’t that a good thing?  And if we can step beyond the color lines for a moment, this was really a story about friendship, courage in the face of adversity, and redemption. Ultimately the film shows us that, despite our differences, and how society or the world may try to divide us, we are all part of the same human race, and we need each other. The characters in this story provided a beautiful example of love, courage, and compassion. In a very tense pressure cooker situation, they reached out tentatively, learning to trust, and to “help” one another.

The Help offers some very painful reminders of America’s shameful history, and maybe that’s where the anger is really coming from. Anger is a mask for hurt. It HURTS to witness the terrible mistreatment of others. I know my Jewish friends feel deep pain watching holocaust movies. But so do I, because I am human. But this story is about humanity, and the way we humans treat each other. It’s about how some will bury their own feelings of inferiority by oppressing and abusing others. It’s about how generations of African Americans who have been enslaved, oppressed, had their hearts broken again and again, watched their heroes fall at the hands of hatred, have still held their heads high with dignity and courage, and what’s more, they overcame.

Today, Barack Obama is the President of the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of our great American heroes, and Oprah Winfrey is the most influential woman in the world. And all because of courageous everyday men and women, like these characters Minny and Aibilene, like Rosa Parks, like the Freedom Riders…every day people who rose above, and in doing so, changed the world. I applaud Stockett for showing us how, much like Nelson Mandela, the suffragettes, Ghandi, the human spirit can withstand the most horrific treatment and still maintain dignity.

I thank her for bringing these brave characters Minny and Aibilene to life, for in doing so, she showed me who I want to be.

4 comments:

  1. Well said, Hollye!

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  2. Speechless. This was truly inspired writing!

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  3. hooray...wonderful...we live to learn and learn we must if this world is to be a more suitable place for all the generations to come.
    thank you...

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  4. We had an African American women who worked for our family for over 30 years and lived in our home. We lived in Los Angeles and we have amazing memories of Amelia, She raised my sister from 6th grade, came to our weddings as a guest and was counted as part of our family. She went to weight watchers with my dad many times over the years. She did had the mentality of someone from the south who was totally uneducated, had a child with no father, and felt more comfortable in uniforms than regular clothes. She wanted to be of service, she didn't enjoy eating with us and wanted to serve us. As hard as my parents tried she wanted to eat in her room and only sat with us when we begged. As I look back I realized my parents felt she was part of our family but she didn't feel that way completely. Her only daughter worked and was much more educated but every man in her family were truly not providers. Amelia's daughter had 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 girls, The girls worked and their husbands were educated and they all did well. The boys were shot and ended up in prison or dead. The son-in-law also ended up being a deadbeat. The women carried this family. My dad helped Amelia with her family in many ways. He helped them get jobs, financed cars for them, offered educational funding and helped a grandchild get a liver transplant. I think the south was really a very different area than out here in California. When Amelia retired my dad helped her get social security that he had contributed too and made sure she had a place to retire to. He also sent her money every month until she died and then he helped her family with her final resting place. My sister was asked to speak at the funeral and for her she had lost a confident and someone she totally trusted. Looking back I think my parents did all they could and in the end Amelia thought of us as family. I like to look back and see the love we felt for her and her family and how much they respected my dad as a role model for all of them. When we talked later in her life she felt good about her life and felt blessed that she learned to read enough to read her bible and felt her life had been successful. Her values were high and she tried so hard to impart them to her daughter and her kids and she did the best she could and I believe she was happy and fulfilled. She was very old school. The Help portrayed the way it was. I never doubted that this was a true story and I was glad that someone wrote a book that would draw attention to a very deeply troubling time in our history. I think the way people treat "workers, help" and anyone in that area depends on how confident they are in their own skin. Old money I think would be more old school and new money more willing to treat a "nanny, housekeeper" as a member of the family. I would like to think that someone who lives in your home and takes care of your kids would be as close to family as you could find and treated with love and respect.

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I love hearing your point of view- thank you for taking the time to comment and be part of the conversation!
love,
Hollye