Sunday, August 22, 2010

Re-reading History (a readerly response to The Help)

I know, I am so late to Kathryn Stockett’s party. The Help, Stockett’s first novel, has been on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for 72 weeks now and I’m just getting to it, after having had it on my reading list for over a year. On top of being late, I’ve also been known to declare that I don’t have a “fiction bone in my body.” Kind of ironic seeing as how I just got an MFA in creative writing (my creative thesis was a non-fiction memoir). But there is fiction that moves me occasionally—and it’s Stockett’s kind.

The Help begins in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi, where “coloreds” and “whites” live on separate sides of towns, shop at separate grocery stores and use separate bathrooms. It’s the era of Jim Crow laws and JFK and the assassination of Medgar Evers and prominent activity of the KKK. In the novel, we encounter race relations on the domestic level, between colored women who work as maids and childcare providers and their white, middle-to-upper class female employers. Through first-person accounts of three different narrators, Stockett enters into what we can imagine is some of the best and worst of racial interactions; she highlights for the reader the paradox of a colored woman so intimately connected to the home of the white woman (an intimacy that can include an almost-maternal bond with the children of the white woman) while, in a million different ways, denigrated by the white racist sensibilities of the time and place.

Over the years, a friend of mine has made reference to an African American domestic worker who would come into her home in the sixties. She lived in the Chicago suburbs, so the racial inequity of the area was not quite the same flavor as Jackson, Mississippi’s (although present nonetheless). Still, as my friend aged, she began to wonder about this woman who left her own family and took a bus or two across town a few days a week to bathe my friend and her siblings, comb their hair, and clean my friend’s house. Stockett, too, had a relationship with an African American domestic worker, and she writes about Demetrie in an epilogue. Here, she draws on a quote from Howell Raines describing the difficulty of describing relationships like these:

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Yet I think Stockett gets the complexity and nuance of this matter across to the reader marvelously, through the accounts of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, as well as Skeeter, a young white college grad who teams up with Aibileen and Minny to push back, at great risk, against the system. Perhaps it is because of Stockett’s success on just this point that her book has been on the best seller list for over a year now.

On a personal note, The Help has caused me to reflect upon the time and place of my birth in our country’s history. I was born in May of 1978, a mere ten years and one month from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But I was not born in the Deep South, and neither of my parents were, either. I was raised first in California’s bay area and then in Iowa. I didn’t hear of lynching or cross burnings or Jim Crow laws until junior high, at least. Still, I was not oblivious to the attitudes and terminology my elders used for people of color (mild, but racist if you looked close enough), terminology that was so different from what I was learning in a post-civil-rights-movement and politically correct educational system in Iowa. To their credit, my parents’ childhoods occurred against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Their worlds were just coming into focus as the movement found its voice in a mainstream conversation. My grandparents were in the prime of their adulthood; their language, attitudes, and stances toward people of color were entrenched and influenced by the generation that went before them.

So even though I don’t come from a line of white supremacists, maybe what I've got is a healthy portion of white guilt. I am so painfully aware, after reading Stockett, of my privilege, of the relative ease of my conduct through the world. I know this is nothing to take to the presses; I am not the first to express this sentiment, nor is it the first or last time I ever will. I know the history of racism in our country is an old story. But don't we need to listen to old stories over and over again, let their truths and lessons wash over us, shape who we are and help us re-determine who we want to be?  

The Help

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