"The Help"

The HelpGrowing up in and out of the south during the 1950s and 1960s, I was extremely attuned to the disparity between the lives of whites and blacks.  Everyone was.  Even though my Quaker family supported the Civil Rights movement without question, we still lived in what were, to all intents and purposes, segregated neighborhoods (in Atlanta, certainly).  Though some whites would have had us pretend that black neighborhoods didn’t exist, we all knew they did, and that they were not the same.  Where blacks lived wasn’t just different (the myth of separate-but-equal), but qualitatively different.  The houses weren’t nearly as elegant, the cars not so new, not by a long shot.  The white neighborhoods showed clear signs of wealth and more to come; the black ones–and I even recognized this as a child–spoke of nothing but dead ends.  The white neighborhoods were places to aspire to (for those who did not live there–for those who did, well, that’s another story), the black ones to get out of.  The only blacks who did make it into the neighborhood where we whites lived, however, were never welcome to move in.  They worked for the white families–as maids, as gardeners, and as nannies–and then went home.  Few whites ever went into the black neighborhoods–except, perhaps, to collect money.

This was not unusual.  In fact, it was the standard for middle-class white neighborhoods in the south and the black neighborhoods that served them.  It was also standard where we lived (a somewhat more liberal area than most) that the blacks who worked there were treated a little more humanely than they were elsewhere–but as employees, not as equals, and not as people who would be welcome to move in down the street.  No matter how much my parents, for example, wanted to treat with respect the man who killed the snakes down by the creek and did other chores occasionally, they could not ignore the barrier the culture of the south placed between them.  Their own contribution to integration was a move the other way, to a Brooklyn, NY neighborhood on the edge of Crown Heights, half of which was made up of middle-class blacks, the other half by middle-class whites.

What made me think of that was the movie The Help, based on the long-popular novel of the same name.  At the end of the movie (I haven’t read the book), the main white character, Skeeter, heads off to New York for a new life.  This was one of the bits of realism in the movie: for all but the extraordinary few, the only road to success in the south lay through the north.  This was true for both whites and blacks, for the poor as well as those of the rich who wanted to be something more than abettors of a corrupt and immoral system.  Since World War I, this has even been one of the key motifs of southern literature, no matter the race involved.

What’s fantasy about the movie is that black maids would unburden themselves to a young white woman, a product of the very system that oppresses them, who still lives amid that system, to one still taking in its largess as one of the lucky.  That’s not a horrible conceit: There’s no way the story could unfold through realism, for there’s no way the story of ‘the help’ could have been told publicly at that time, as happens in the novel and movie.  The culture of oppression was way too strong for that.  However, without this bit of fancy, what truth there is in the novel and movie would not be accessible to most Americans.  Something was needed to make a relentlessly abusive system understandable to people with absolutely no clue as to how horrible it was.  Something was needed that would allow them to read and watch without rejecting the whole of it.

When I returned to New York City in the early 1990s (after four years living in West Africa), I was a little surprised by the revulsion I felt on seeing more and more black nannies shepherding white children in neighborhoods like Park Slope and Cobble Hill.  I would try to explain it to friends, but they invariably told me I was over-reacting, that I just didn’t like people using nannies, that I was only noticing those because of the racial distinction between nanny and child.  It’s true: I was reacting to an increasingly divided America, where once again we are moving towards a system of masters and servants, something we had been moving away from since World War II.

But there was that ‘other thing,’ too.  Something northerners just don’t understand, and that many white southerners from middle-class backgrounds don’t want to look at.  Though I recognize the class issues at stake, they are not what bothers me when I see a black nanny with a white child.  What bothers me is that the family involved has absolutely no understanding of the resonances of America’s greatest failure, and of using women of an oppressed race to raise its privileged children–children who should have known better by the time they grew up, but who then continued the same oppression.  All I can think of as I watch is that the parents should know better, too, but don’t.

I’ve heard all the excuses: Hiring only same-race nannies is itself a type of oppression, keeping skilled and able people from work they desperately need.  The difficulty of finding nannies who are not black.  Etc.  But none of these can erase the legacy of racism and abuse that is still ingrained in our culture.

The Help, whatever its naivete might be, does try to show those who did not see it first hand (though without, in my case, having had a nanny myself) just how colossally horrifying the situation was in the American south, even up into the 1970s.  Even if just for that, its fantasy aspects should be forgiven.

Perhaps it can even help northerners understand my gut revulsion when I see a black woman pushing a white infant’s stroller.  If it can manage that, even partially, then I have absolutely no problem with the fantasies in The Help.

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