While I'm generally loathe to hop on the same train as everyone else, I love to read and am always in search of a good book. When my husband and I went to see Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)we saw an add for a movie called The Help. It was heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time. I wanted to cry during the preview and turned to my husband and said "we are so seeing that." It never even occurred to me until a month later, after I'd signed up for a book club that the movie, and the book that I had seen all over were the same thing. I impulsively bought the book for my kindle. Well, is it impulsive when you've committed to a book club and actually need to purchase the book? I'll give myself a pass on that one.
The Help is a book set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, when an aspiring journalist decides to try to write a book about the complex relationship between white women in the South and their black help. The book is split into three voices, Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Skeeter is a white woman that grew up on a cotton farm with her own black 'help,' and went to college. She came back unmarried, unlike all of her friends and struggles with her desires to be a writer, and figuring out what she is truly passionate about writing. She decides to write this book about the 'help,' and is shocked at the stories of violence, hatred and also love.
Aibileen is a black maid who loves working with children. While many maids stay with one family for their entire career, she moves around and leaves when the children go to school. She works in the house of Skeeter's best friend Elizabeth. Elizabeth however is one of the worst parents I have never heard/read about. She is guilty of neglect of the highest degree. She doesn't love her daughter, pay any attention to her, or even treat her well when she does pay attention to her. She is so caught up in her own world that she doesn't even realize that Aibileen has written about her in the book.
Minny is a large figured, large mouthed black maid who is the best cook in town. Her cooking seems to be her best attribute and the one that allows her to keep jobs after she mouths-off to her bosses. I love her, and I think that most people reading this book will feel a kindred spirit in Minny, not being able to always keep your mouth shut in the face of the pain, abuse and adversity that these women faced daily.
The book is a really fast read, and I read it in two sittings. It has it's laugh out loud moments, and you'll also find yourself reaching for a tissue. The racism is startling, in your face and rarely hidden in genteel Southern manners. People are killed and you will want to scream for justice, but in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 there wasn't justice for blacks. There was jail for supposed thefts, starvation when no one would hire you, and constant judgement for something you had no control over.
When I lived in DC, I went to a college that had gone from a preppy all white college to, when the men's colleges started allowing women in and the admissions fell, a predominantly black school. I wasn't aware of this when I moved to DC, nor did I care. My mother taught me to be color blind. While in college I worked for Americorps teaching in an almost exclusively black school in the southern part of the city. I saw almost because there were a few Latino kids. So many of the inequalities these women face are still realities here. No there aren't segregated bathrooms, and it doesn't matter if they sit at the same table as a white person but many of these kids had never MET a white person. I met women in college that just wanted to touch my hair--they never had touched a white women's hair before. The kids we taught may aspire to be the president, but many won't graduate high school. There is nothing sadder than seeing the thirst for knowledge in a child already gone at ten. Seeing that light in their eyes dimmed by the daily reality of poverty.
My time in DC taught me something important. We aren't so far removed from the civil rights movement. We are only a generation, maybe 2, away from all the segregation and violence at trying to change the status quo. In one class on 'places and spaces' which really turned out to be about the civil rights movement in DC, we discussed what DC looked like in the 30's, 40's, 60's, and now and how that space had changed. One of the women, asked what happened to her generation. That they went from these strong willed individuals that were willing to fight for change to so many complacent kids with an entitlement complex. This issue goes so much deeper than I have time to begin to explore here, but still--where is the equality? Where is the equality when we still have racially segregated schools, not because of laws but because of where the lines of poverty are drawn.
I'm proud to know some smart, strong individuals that have crossed any real or imagined color line to work towards equality, not only in DC but in the whole US. I feel blessed and fortunate to have been their 'white' friend, so they could ask me crazy stereotypes, and vice versa. How can we find our similarities if society only let's us see each other's differences?
This country has come so far in 50 years, but we still have so far to go.