Friday, August 13, 2010

Life after "The Help"

My cousin Fern (second of 4 Marjories) and her family's maid, Mitty in 1983. I am guessing that Fern's relationship with Mitty was much like the children in The Help. 

My (great) Aunt Madge (the first of 4 Marjories) for whom Mitty cared until Aunt Madge died around 1980.


Last week, a member who could not be here approached me. “I was at the tail end of this… we had a Black housekeeper,” she acknowledged.

“So did I,” I told her.

That got me wondering: how many of us could identify directly with the stories told by Kathryn Stockett? I would assume that in Jackson, MS or the deeper South, the numbers would be legion. I know that for me, growing up in NJ but with a mother from the South with old-fashioned values. I was the only person I knew who had what we then called “colored” maid.

Emma Clayton was with us from birth but she became our full-time caregiver after my mother died. I have exactly one picture of her, standing alone by the kitchen sink, wearing her uniform of navy blue skirt and pressed white blouse, apron and sensible shoes. I also have one picture of George, the gardener who worked for us during those times.

As I did my final preparations for today’s homily, my daughter was out with her very best friends. Two of them, her intimates since first grade, are identical twins. They are African American. It’s less than no big deal. My first packet of fifty pages was returned by my mentor on Friday: detailed line edits of two short stories that I read with trepidation and awe at her incisive mind. She’s way younger than I, and she’s African American. Again, not a big deal. But it gives me pause as I contemplate the lessons of The Help.

At age 55, I span with my lifetime the changes that have occurred since people treated their Black employees with a paternalism and sense of propriety that can be called, must be called, demeaning, insulting, even evil. The layers of irony that are stripped away by this rather simple but engaging tale are many, but at their core lies a single startling truth. Women who were allowed into the most intimate places in the homes and lives of white families as their “help” were expected to prepare the food, raise the children, and nurse the sick and dying, but were not allowed to sit at the table, keep their brought-from-home lunches in the same refrigerator, or use the same toilets as the families they worked for. And the most enormous lie at the center of this complex yet common story consists of four words: part of our family.

What this novel reveals is that these women were in no way “part of” the family; nor, in many cases was the love that flowed freely from the children to the Black caregivers necessarily reciprocated. Kathryn Stockett reports that at one appearance in NC, she said that she knew that her own childhood maid loved her. A Black woman in the audience stood up and said, she didn’t love you. You just think she loved you. (Interview with Katie Couric)

In my case, I would never use the word “love” for my relationship with Emma. She was stern, authoritative and yet often warm and sometimes funny. She was trying to keep three very spirited young children whose mother had died suddenly and whose father was preoccupied by his grief and his executive position with the US government from becoming hellions. It’s clear to me now that she took this seriously.

(picture of Emma coming soon; it turned out to be a slide!)

When I think of Emma now, I can remember her far more clearly than I can my own mother, of whom I have dozens of photographs. My overwhelming feeling is shame. Shame that she was summarily let go when my father married my stepmother about three years after my Mother’s death. Shame that we never saw her again. Shame that even as an adult, I did not attempt to find and visit her. I was in my thirties when my Aunt Ruthie was confined to a nursing home and we discovered that Mary, Emma’s oldest daughter who had sometimes filled in for Emma, was a nurse there. She was delighted to see me and to meet my small boys... but she told us that she was so sad because her momma had died just that year. She was sad because she knew that Emma would have loved more than anything to see us. It is not so much, in my case, the way Emma was treated as an employee as the disregard we had for her as a human being and as a huge force in our lives that makes me feel ashamed. Because ashamed is the word Stockett uses when she discusses these things in print and in person, I believe that a healing is now at hand.

As we enter this new church year, we’ll be using literature, poetry, movement, visual arts, crafts, music, drama and film to examine and contemplate the intersection between the spirituality and what I am calling very inclusively “art.” By intersection, I don’t mean places where God is mentioned or where there are explicit references or depictions of churches or established religions. I hope to pull from the arts samples of works that make us more human, more humane, and that heal us, because for me that is spirituality.

There are a few scenes in The Help that take place in the Black church. I actually found those to be some of the most contrived and least effective sections of the novel. (But they will make great film scenes!)

Indeed “God” does not play a large role in The Help. Aibleen’s spiritual practice of writing out her prayers is almost like a Buddhist meditation or a new age journaling practice. What makes the book a fit topic for a discussion of spirituality are these things:

* It tells a truth that must be told. The author repeatedly stresses that while the book is fiction, it is "true." Even today, she has been met with criticism and rejection from her own white community, and some scorn from the Black readers. Nonetheless, the book reveals a truth that is new, in that it has not been made this clear in this engaging a way, by such memorable characters, before. Hard truth and facing truths along with the shame and doubt they engender, is the core of spiritual growth.

* The book is healing. Ultimately, we will all face and come to terms with the truths of our lives. Those which go unspoken cause illness, mental, physical, and societal. Just electing a Black President, UUA President, or having a child whose best friends are Black does not undo the painful and shameful truth that I was born a white female, born with certain privileges, and that I benefitted from a racist system. One of the biggest problems we liberals have is that we don’t want to face our own collusion in systems of injustice and inequality, so we never completely heal.

* And while there is much healing to be done on race, we face a new and massive divide that worsens daily: the immigration issue. Interestingly, Hispanics, who comprise the bulk of undocumented immigrants, are today’s “help.” Working as housekeepers, gardeners and day laborers, they fill many of the roles and are treated with much of the same dehumanizing and demeaning racism that Blacks were (and in some places, still are). What is called “illegal” immigration gives the white majority a basis for blatant and overt racism. I am delighted and humbled to report that UUs have taken a strong lead in protests in AZ, making up the majority of those arrested and traveling long distances to do so, in a gesture that is reminiscent of our response to the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s. Even now, there is debate about whether or not this is right for us. But this is a strength of our people: we have the courage of our convictions. We are people who will stand in solidarity with the marginalized, the victims of injustice, and the downtrodden, no questions asked. There is something very Jesus-like in our witness, and I think Standing on the Side of Love is a perfect place for us.

Noam Chomsky wrote:

There are two sets of principles. They are the principles of power and privilege and the principles of truth and justice. ..the credo of any true intellectual has to be, as Christ said, “my kingdom is not of this world.”

I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions… Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom… Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted.

Genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive.It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to elevate ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And it makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.

Deep discomfort can be the beginning of a new life of the spirit. Indeed, almost nothing else ever has been. To the extent that The Help makes us uncomfortable, it will contribute to our wholeness and humanity. And, since people are far more likely to read and talk about The Help than about Noam Chomsky, that’s a good thing.