If stats are to be believed, you’ve read the book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, or seen the top-rated movie. Perhaps you’re waiting for the DVD, but even so, you probably know the general subject matter: the cruel realities of 1960s life for African American housemaids working in Jackson, Mississippi.
In any format, Ms. Stockett has written a powerfully compelling story that has generated controversy and discussion across the United States. The bad news is that The Help offers a highly sanitized version of the life-threatening racism subjected upon black Southerners for generations. And when the story ends, it’s clear that the real heroine of the tale is former Junior Leaguer Skeeter, and not “the help” at all.
The good news is that Ms. Stockett’s opus has white Americans thinking and talking about their country’s troubling racial ugliness, disparities and inequalities, past and present.
I’m proposing another topic for the book clubs and movie-going groups of girlfriends: the NotMom factor.
Ms. Stockett writes, “Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.”
Further, the character of Skeeter asks the maids how it feels to leave their own children at home alone while they raise a white woman’s children. The maids describe loving adorable little toddlers who grow up to despise them as they learn about their exalted (White) status in Jim Crow society.
It’s certainly a painful concept to envision, but I thought of another that’s just as wrenching and hinted at in the story. The maid Aibileen had one child who died. But what if she’d never had a child at all?
When I think of women who desperately wanted children but couldn’t conceive, or had no husband (a social requirement for parenthood during those years), my heart breaks thinking of how attached she would become to the little ones under her care. Nevertheless, the relationship hangs on fragile threads, able to be severed without notice at any time.
Gone With the Wind (below), Imitation of Life, Jezebel…The Help is the latest of many movies and books that claim to share white adults’ misty-eyed memories of the black women who raised them, even though that woman’s use of shared silverware, bathrooms and the front door was limited by both their parents and later, themselves.
Make no mistake, there are laughs in The Help, and in the movie, the stellar acting cannot be dismissed. But, anyone with the strength to face the truth knows that it’s only a story.
The South got the headlines, but the truth is that from Mississippi to Ohio, every real-life maid of the time, Moms and NotMoms alike, exhibited strength in the face of pain that today’s women can barely imagine. Smart, kind and important, every one.