Monday, August 22, 2011


And to this very present day, I have a visceral response to a white woman with a southern accent. It puts me on alert, makes me immediately suspicious and mistrustful. We rehearsed the lessons and rules of the system daily, and especially with my brother. The southern white woman--any white woman, actually, represented the threat of death to any black boy or man. One scream, one lie, one misinterpretation could be the cause of his death. Emmett Till didn't know the rules.

That sweet, sugar-coated smile and that slow drawl were dangerous weapons. We learned to beware, be cautious, do anything they asked and say absolutely nothing. Head down.

You may argue that I've been wandering in worlds of whiteness for my entire adult life. I should "get over myself." That was a very long time ago. I feel certain, however, that I am who I am and have achieved what I've achieved because I've kept every slave, every victim of Jim Crow at the forefront of my life and vision. I owe. I owe. And while the past doesn't oppress me or restrict me, it does make me acutely conscious of my gratitude to women just like those in that film--the mothers who pawned a found ring to send her twins to college. I owe.


Jim Crow was not cute or funny or pleasant. There's nothing about Jim Crow that will make you laugh if you lived through it. There was no comic relief or poetic license. Jim Crow was all too real, and despite the "fiction" and whatever "good intentions" the filmmaker had, seeing those "colored only" signs, hearing the disrespectful and degrading words "The Help" endured was painful. Living Jim Crow made the world an inexplicable place. How could I be human and not? "Why did that boy spit on me? Mama, why can't I play at the playground with the other children?" I watched both my parents weep as they tried to make sense of nonsense and hatred and vulgarity to my brother and me. It was and is not funny.

I stood in the theater on yesterday. I was moved to stand. I somehow wanted the audience to know I was there. I was the sole person of color--no African American in a very full theater. I felt shame. I, and I speak here only for myself, should not have supported what that film intended to do: Racism, sexism, Jim Crow and all its horrors were balanced with doses of rescue, salvation and laughter. Anyone who lived Jim Crow would know that Minnie would not have DARED knock on Miss Hilly's FRONT door, much less admit that she'd made a pie from her own shit. That one act could have caused Minnie's death and/or the deaths of those closest to her. What nonsense. What utter nonsense.

I didn't cry. I groaned. I shook my head, closed my eyes and remembered every, single indignity I, my parents, friends and family suffered under Jim Crow. No one white woman, no matter how well-intended or literary, could save us from that horror. There were consequences for being a "nigger-lover" like Skeeter. Mississippi, people. Mississippi.

I want to know why, in this tiny predominantly white, working class town, the theater was full of silver-haired and middle-aged white folks. And oh, they cried. I stood and listened as they filed out of the theater moved by what they had seen: "Oh, that was such a great film." Though I suspect I understand the motivation, I'll refrain from giving you my take on that.

I'll stop short of criticizing the beautiful, black actors who played the primary roles. Then, as now, work for black women of a certain age, skin color and body type is limited, especially in the glamor of show business. Those women had tough jobs, and they gave whatever dignity and respect to the film that it had. As to the book, I'm a teacher. I'm going to read it because my students are reading it. I need to be able to speak to them honestly about it. The shelves are clean in northern New York. I couldn't find a copy of THE HELP to purchase. Didn't want to anyway. I rarely find Toni Morrison or Hurston or Naylor on the shelves of these bookstores. These are black women who tell black women's stories. Their stories don't feel so good. Their stories are "hostile," defensive" and "angry." Why can't we just all love each other and forget the painful past?

I have written elsewhere about the probability of love between blacks and whites during slavery and Jim Crow. Humans are capable of love under the most extreme conditions. I imagine many black women genuinely loved the children for whom they cared, and I'm sure the children loved them. It was, however, a peculiar kind of love. It allowed white children to do what no black child could do, and that was to call an adult (someone old enough to me your mama) by her first name. That was, in southern black culture, a sign of respect for one's elders. Black women didn't receive that respect from their white charges. Was that love? Was that a love that accepted and understood inequality and oppression? I just don't know.

I'm a Mississippian; my mother was born and bred in Mississippi. Much of my family resides there still. THE HELP hurts. There isn't enough laughter in the universe to ease the horror of that time. More on this. Still thinking. And still sorting it out.