Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Help

The movie of the summer has turned out to be The Help. I read the book when it first came out and when I found out they were making it into a movie I saw an opportunity. I really think this is the kind of movie that is best viewed by a group of friends of different races. The movie just begs for discussion afterwards. It goes a long way in understanding the struggles of the civil rights era in the late 50’s and early 60's. Enough time has passed for healing. It’s time to talk to each other about it.

First, I needed a negro. So I invited Cosalind to go see the movie with me. We are comfortable enough with each other that if the movie stirred up difficult feelings or memories we would be able to deal with it in love.

Cosalind is a friend of Emily’s, who has actually become a friend of our whole family. When my granddaughter Essie first started going to kindergarten at Kinder Care, Cosalind was her teacher. Essie came home from school one day talking about Frida Kahlo. Who was this child’s teacher, I wanted to know, who was giving four year olds an education that included the great painters of the 20th century? Frida Kahlo for four year olds? Cosalind Frank was who; an extraordinary teacher.

I have another fantastic connection with Cosalind. She and I share the same birthday. And since the day usually falls around the long Thanksgiving weekend she can come out and spend a day or two with us. She loves my pecan pies and I can usually bribe her to come visit by promising her pie. My kids have long since stopped making a fuss over the fact that I do, in fact, make the best pecan pie on earth. But Cosalind will drive 90 miles to eat it.

Maybe I made a miscalculation in inviting someone born more than 20 years after the major portion of the civil rights movement. It turns out she doesn’t have any “difficult” feelings from the civil rights era. Not only did she go to a mostly white high school, most of her friends were white. Her grandmother did work for a white family in Louisiana but they had such a good relationship that her grandmother entertained the white family in her home on occasion.

So, if she didn’t experience discrimination first-hand, I wanted to know how the history of the civil rights movement was passed down to her. Did she learn from church? Neighborhood friends? Family? She did seem to know a lot more of the historical figures in the movie than I did. Emmit Till was a vaguely familiar name to me but only vaguely. I was starting to think maybe she did pick up some personal knowledge of “the struggle”. Then she admitted she had taken African American History in college.

Clearly what I had here was a defective negro.

It almost made me want to ask for my money back. Because I had insisted that I pay for her ticket and popcorn. A gesture on behalf of my ancestors to her ancestors, you might say. Making historical amends.

I have other black friends I could have invited but most of them are in Mississippi. I met them when I spent several months working on rebuilding houses after Hurricane Katrina. Pearlington, Mississippi has plenty of black people and I became pretty good friends with some of them. I installed Shirley Thompson’s toilet, for goodness’ sakes. You gotta be friends after a thing like that.

My friends in Mississippi probably have better stories than Cosalind. They’re older, for one thing. They have seen Jim Crow in full bloom.

Pearlington is so tiny that I don’t think they have room for a black part of town or a white part. Everybody just lives where they live. The town is so undeveloped that huge plots of pine trees sometimes separate houses.

A volunteer asked me one day whether we were helping more white families or blacks. I had to think a while on that one. I ended checking a list I carried in my pocket of the 14 houses we were working on that week. I went down the list and counted. I had to stop a couple of times to think who was what race. The tab ended up 6 white families, 6 black, one mixed marriage and one couple I honestly didn’t have a clue what race they are. I had face to face conversations with them at least six times. I knew their kids’ names, what church they went to and where they lived before Pearlington. But I didn’t really know what race they are. I guess I could have looked it up on their paperwork if I wanted to.

And that’s another point worth making here. I can tell the whole “race” blank will soon disappear from information forms in the future simply because we will become so diluted and inter-married that people won’t be able to keep track of it.

What I wanted to find out from Cosalind was her own experience or her family’s stories. I’m about as white as you can get. But I watched the civil rights struggle unfold on my television screen as a teenager and I felt very invested in the need to change things. It was all played out on television right there in my living room. I saw the fire hoses turned on people, the attack dogs snarling at little children, the burned out busses. And I saw all this while the news was fresh, while it was happening and you didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. I wanted to know if a white person like me is more aware of those struggles than a black youth of today, 40 years removed. I wanted to ask Cosalind how much the average black youth of today understands about the movie The Help. Did they have a full appreciation of what their parents and grandparents had been through?

But you know what? We got off the subject and started talking about something else and never got back to the topic. We just started having fun with the evening and forgot about history.

However, the movie also touched on another topic that we talked about: women who raise other women’s children then have the children leave their lives. Women who spend more time with children than their own mothers do; then the time comes and the children disappear never to surface again.

Cosalind has worked at Kinder Care for six years now, long enough that the kids who started out in her kindergarten class began their last year of Kinder Care this week. She has kids she’s “raised” and worried over every day for the last six years. She doesn’t have biological children of her own; instead, every child she encounters becomes her own and she loves each one of them like they are her own. Some of them will leave Kinder Care in May and she’ll never see them again. I gained a greater appreciation of that plot line by talking to my non-civil-rights-struggled friend.

I do have to say one more thing about the movie. It sure will make Cosalind look at my pecan pie differently this Thanksgiving.

That’s an inside joke. You gotta go see this movie to understand it. It’s hilarious. It’s more hysterical laughter than history lesson. And, thank God, so was my evening.

1 comment:

virginia said...

Haven't seen the movie yet, but thoroughly enjoyed the book. Thanks for your comments.