Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Help

I finished reading the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett last night. I was happy to wait on the heating & air guy just so I could have uninterrupted time to finish the book. Although I found the book very enjoyable I must admit that I wasn’t immediately spellbound as I often am by a book. What it did however was take me immediately back to my teenage years during a tumultuous time in our Nation’s history. It made me keenly aware of just how sheltered a life I have led and how extraordinarily na├»ve I was and probably still am.

I watched the civil rights movement unfold on the screen of our black and white television, not in my school. The only time I was exposed to the inequality between those of color and myself was when I watched the six o’clock news. The moment the channel was changed so also ended my exposure. With the flip of a dial I was once again just a kid living in a very white world.

I only had one personal experience in 1957 when I was eight years old. My mother and I were in Oklahoma City shopping for school clothes and we had gone to the Katz drug store for a coke when several black people came in and initiated a sit-in. I didn’t even know that black people were not served in restaurants at the time. I had no idea what segregation was. My mother explained to me what was happening and I remember looking at the faces of everyone as they peacefully demonstrated. I also remember the faces of the patrons. I don’t remember seeing hatred or angry faces but more the faces of people uncomfortable with what was taking place, almost embarrassed. Today I wonder if the embarrassment was for themselves or those trying to gain equal rights.

I also remember being horrified and confused by the hatred so vile and so venomous that escalated to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Again my only exposure was through the voices of the news commentators describing how four little girls were killed including eleven-year old Denise McNair, when a white man placed a bomb under the steps of their church. I was thirteen at the time and somehow drawn to the little girl who shared my first name. I was horrified when the news commentator said she was decapitated in the blast. I remember thinking how vulnerable they were and wondering if they were aware that they weren’t even safe in church.

As I grew up I developed my own prejudices. I became very judgmental of the South and what it had come to represent in my mind. These prejudices were based not on my own personal experiences but only those I witnessed from a safe distance. I have to admit I’m still wrestling with my perceived judgments. The difference now is that I realize I’m as guilty of stereotyping a group of people as they were. I’m also not very proud of that fact.

As a little side note of interest here is a story behind the story so to say. Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old woman who has long worked as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, has filed a lawsuit against Kathryn Stockett. 
In the complaint, Ms. Cooper argues that one of the book’s principal characters, Aibileen Clark, is an un-permitted appropriation of her name and image, which she finds emotionally distressing. 
It is more complicated than that. For the past dozen years, Ms. Cooper has worked for Ms. Stockett’s older brother, Robert, and sister-in-law, Carroll, and still does. 
It’s hard to understand why anyone would have a problem being compared or mistaken for the noble Aibeleen. Alhough the character of Aibileen is portrayed in a sympathetic, even saintly light, she endures the racial insults of the time, something that Ms. Cooper said she found “embarrassing.”

I wonder if she was as embarrassed before the book was such a financial success? Just wondering!


Arkansas Patti said...

I am older than you and unfortunately I discovered racism first hand in grade school in the North which I wrote about. It left a really bad taste in my mouth.
The Help is on my night stand right now in book form waiting to be read. I got my Kindle right after I got the book and just fell out of love with the hard copies. Someday I will read it.

kenju said...

I rather doubt it (the embarrassment). I grew up in a area where blacks were still segregated, mostly, until I was in the 11th grade. I knew no black people and had no idea how badly they were treated when I was young. I've learned a lot since then, of course, but The help was an eye-opener. I can't wait to see the movie.

marciamayo said...

I have to say I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. I figured it would either be so politically correct that it was boring, or just embarrassing to all of us who are black or white. I think she did a good job. There were parts I didn't enjoy as much as others but I think she tried to make the book reasonable. I have a black friend who liked it, which made me feel better.