Updated: Oct 5
Sitting on Dora’s lap in our small Brooklyn apartment kitchen, I asked, “If the white people are so mean to the black people, why isn’t there a war so the black people can fight back?” Granted, it was an idiotic question, but I was five and a white privileged child sitting on the lap of Dora, an African-American housekeeper who took a bus to our apartment several times a week. My mother was mortified, but I remember not being to comprehend what I had said wrong, only that these kinds of questions weren’t to be asked.
I had forgotten about this until I was walking out of The Help, at first thinking how I was different from the white women in the movie because I was raised in the North without a maid. Then I remembered Dora. Within a few minutes, I remembered Jemma too, a Black woman from Trinidad who lived with my stepfamily full-time for years, taking care of my younger step-siblings, cooking and cleaning. Although I was 16 when she moved in, I obviously benefited from her presence and work. We said and felt she was part of the family, but I also talked with her on occasion about what it was like living here and helping raise my younger step-sibs while she had a daughter back on the island. I understood she didn’t have a lot of choice, but I didn’t understand just how little choice she had.
When The Help hit the movie theaters, I first was excited to go see it even if I hadn’t read the book. Then I read some of my friend’s comments on facebook about feeling uncomfortable about it. I also read the open statement from the Association of Black Women Historians.
When it comes to cultural appropriation, an issue I as well as many of you struggle with for years (and surely will continue to struggle with since there’s no clear answers to so many complex issues it raises), I can see how the movie didn’t address the sexual, physical and verbal abuse in any full way when this abuse was a constant source of trauma and terror for most African-American domestic workers. I can see how parts of this film reaffirmed the loving Mammy stereotype, but I sure didn’t see this film as revealing “…. a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.” I saw in the movie the pure hell of having to clean, cook and raise children for other people at the expense of your own. Additionally, the ending of the movie shows a very different vision, at least to my eyes: that of a an African-American woman deciding to step into a new vocation, one fueled by the power of her own story.
The statement goes to on say, “The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.” True, it is a coming-of-age story of a white main character, but there’s another main character too: an African-American domestic worker who found her own life transformed.
Is the one who comes of age the one who gathers and shares the stories or the ones whose stories are recorded, witnessed and shared? Having spent years facilitating workshops for many populations, including people who are marginalized in this culture because of race and gender, I think the answer is more like both/and than either/or. The ones who have their stories strongly witnessed often do find greater power because they can now feel the strength of their own voice. The one who facilitates this witnessing often feels a greater sense of purpose also.
I know it’s not my place to say what’s cultural appropriate to another groups. I’ve felt stung at times when I’ve seen Jewish traditions or symbols used out of context in churches, and I know what I feel is a drop in the bucket compared to what many who faced wholesale annihilation or generations of enslavement feel when seeing their stories, symbols and traditions used out of context or for some other agenda. So I’m not saying anyone offended by this film or book should “get over it,” only that what’s raised here for some people, like me, is important.
Leonard Pitts wrote a very interesting column about The Help, one that I was sure was heading toward a condemnation of the film. Instead, he ends with these words, reflecting on emails he received from white Southerners discussing how a Black nanny was part of the family, “Almost.” He continues, “I wonder if those folks understand even now, a lifetime later, that that woman did not exist simply as a walk-on character in a white person’s life drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life, and dreams and dreads of her own. It is Kathryn Stockett’s imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too. I think mom would have appreciated the effort.”
I realize, to my shame, that I didn’t fully understand how Jemma was only part of our family — almost — at the price of being with her own, or how Dora, back in the early 1960s in Brooklyn, cleaned our apartment because she didn’t have the kinds of options a five-year-old girl living in that apartment would have. For me, this film wasn’t about African-American domestic workers as walk-on characters, but rather about how they were often forced to act as if they were. Even writing this, I feel nervous that I may be offending someone or not owning up fully to my part of living with more privilege than many people of color. Yet one thing I learned long ago from an African-American friend is that it shouldn’t be left just to the people oppressed to speak about the oppression. Having seen this film, I’m a little less blind although, like most white people in America, there’s still so much I don’t yet see that I don’t yet see.