Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Help: Let's Talk About It



When one person says I should blog about a particular topic, I nod my head politely and say, "Hmmm. That would be a good topic." When another person says I should blog about the same topic, I nod more affirmatively and seriously consider blogging on the topic. When a third person mentions that same topic to me, I sit my rear end down, open my laptop, and start blogging.

So here I am with my rear end planted to my padded dining room chair, beginning this blog that three people have told me I just have to write. So let us begin our discussion of The Help...

First of all, I have read the book and seen the movie. I loved them both. I laughed. I cried. Several emotions were evoked deep down within my soul. Some good. Some bad. I'll share some of them with you today, approaching this discussion as "Good News" and "Bad News."

The Good News

I could go on and on over the good news behind The Help. First of all, from an artistic perspective, the film adaptation of The Help far exceeded my expectations. I love books and movies, but I'm usually disappointed when a book is adapted to film. Of course, no one could possibly fit a 400-plus page book into a two-hour film, but director/screenwriter Tate Taylor did an amazing job. I'm sure author Kathryn Stockett was quite pleased.

I think it's amazing how this book, and especially the film, has people talking -- African Americans, Caucasians, men, women, people from all walks of life. And we're not just talking about the film either. We're talking about race. We're talking about race relations in the 1960's. We're talking about race relations today. And we're making comparisons and wondering how far we've really come.

Also, the actors did an amazing job portraying their various characters. Aibileen, while afraid to rock the boat in the fragile racial climate of Jackson, Mississippi, takes a bold stand when she agrees to assist Skeeter with her controversial book about the relationships between African American maids and their Caucasian employers. Instead of agreeing to interviews by Skeeter, Aibileen decides to write her own story, thus breaking even more rules. Although subtle in the movie, the book reveals Aibileen as a promising writer who actually co-writes The Help. And when Skeeter begins preparing to move to New York for her dream-job as an editor, Aibileen takes over her position as ghostwriter of the "domestic assistance" column at the local newspaper.

I love Minny, the spunky, no-nonsense maid whose sharp tongue leads to the termination of several jobs she needs to make ends meet for her large family. Minny provides the comic relief in this intense story, as she storms through life like a tornado, leaving others quaking in her wake. Yet Minny is a woman of great paradox. While she refuses to accept disrespect from her Caucasian employers, she remains in an abusive relationship with her husband. And while she clearly dislikes Caucasian women, she befriends her newest employer, Celia, a social outcast that the other society women view as "poor white trash."

Skeeter, a recent college graduate, holds her own in this unusual trio. Despising the maltreatment of African Americans in her town, she fulfills her longing to make a difference by writing The Help. Appalled over Mississippi's racial laws, she fights back with the only weapon she possesses -- her pen. As a writer, I admire that. One of my favorite quotes was written by the 16th Century Christian church reformer Martin Luther:

"If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write."

Skeeter -- and Kathryn Stockett, for that matter -- did just that.

Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter all fear the possible ramifications of writing The Help, but they're even more afraid of remaining silent. Their silence would have perpetuated the status quo. Their silence would have stunted growth and change in a community in desperate need of it.

Which brings me to...

The Bad News

Now I have to admit that a lot has changed since the 1960's. Our president is biracial, yet identified himself on the 2010 U.S Census as African American. Some of the wealthiest people in our county (Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Jay-Z) are African American. Many people of African descent have moved beyond our history as domestic help to now hire and manage their own domestic help.

And our laws have changed quite a bit. For the most part, our laws now protect African Americans from mistreatment and discrimination on the basis of race. Thanks to the Little Rock Nine and Brown v. Board of Education we can attend any school we choose. We can buy a house in any neighborhood we choose. We can utilize any form of public transportation we desire. The government has made great strides in protecting our rights as a minority race in this country. The laws have changed a lot about our country.

Yet, can the government change hearts? Can legislation affect the actions and thoughts of man?

I honestly don't think so. I'll list a few incidents from my personal life experiences to make my case:
  • The law didn't change the heart of a little boy in a Chickfila play area when he said, with my children in earshot, "I'll be glad when all the Black people leave." I suspect that little boy was parroting the words of some adult in his life.
  • The law didn't prevent someone from writing "KKK" and "Nig---" all over public utility boxes near our home in Tennessee.
  • The law didn't keep someone from writing "KKK" on the bathroom wall of my sons' school in Tennessee and hanging a miniature imaginary noose from a stall. The law didn't prevent the school's principal from trying to cover-up the incident.
  • The law hasn't erased the disparity in our son's Arkansas public high school that needs to make improvements because of the lack of scholastic achievement of African American students.
And while the law has desegregated schools, restaurants, public transportation and even marriages, it's done nothing to desegregate our churches. The fact that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in the 1960's -- that eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week -- is still true today.

One more point before I wrap up. In The Help Skeeter writes the book that the African American maids cannot possibly write. In 1960's Mississippi, a Caucasian person had to write that book. Well, it's 2011, but as an African American I must assert that Caucasians still have to write our books.

Now hear me out. I have absolutely no problem with Stockett writing this story. I believe she wrote the story she was called to write. And I'm glad she did. But I've been wondering since I read the book if an African American woman had written the same exact book, would the world have taken notice? Would the book have risen so quickly to the New York Times bestseller list? Would it have transformed into a major box office smash so quickly? Would there be all the buzz surrounding it right now?

I think probably not. African Americans still have a hard time being heard (or read, for that matter). And when we are, we often get labeled as the "angry Black man" or "angry Black woman." So, we still often need our Caucasian friends to write our stories. That is, if we want the world to take notice.

So I leave you with an encore of the words of Martin Luther. "If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write."

That's what I'm hoping to do here at "Sojourner of Truth."

Speaking the Truth in Love,

Carla


10 comments:

  1. Carla,
    Very thoughtful post. I was interested in your take on the film.

    Regarding your comment about Caucasians writing the story and whether this would have created the same conversation had an African American written this: From my perspective, it is precisely because a Caucasian wrote this that the conversation spread so quickly. That someone within the ranks of the thoughtless and bigoted oppressors would take a stand lets many of us align with views we have always carried (but of which we may have been accused, simply because of our race).

    Have you read the Nazi Officer's Wife? In a similar vein (though written by a Jewish woman), the book showed that not every German sympathized with the Nazis. There were heroes among the common people who risked much to save souls. I believe it is the same in the U.S. and is what this book conveys.

    Interesting questions. And a discussion that won't end anytime soon.

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  2. Hi Carla. Not sure if we have met in person yet, but I look forward to that day. I totally agree that white advocates for change are still needed. I am still learning and will always have more to learn, but I have been on this path for about six years now. The majority culture will not change (or at least, not as quickly) simply by the minority's desire. This principle is true across all types of systems. But when part of the majority changes (writes, acts, talks), change is certainly inevitable. I offer this not as instruction to you but as support for your words. Thanks for your words; your blog has quickly become one of my favorites.

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  3. Carrie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. And you make an excellent point. I'll have to read Nazi Officer's Wife. Sounds like my kind of read. So glad you and I connected @ Mt. Hermon!

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  4. Rachel, I don't think we've met yet. Are you a Mosaic member? I totally hear you. Change will come faster through the majority, not the minority. So true. My hope is that we will all be allowed to be heard and effect change, whether we're of the majority or minority. I think change will really occur when we all start saying the same things.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughts and contribution to the discussion, Carla! I, too, have wondered a similar question as a white man speaking on the multi-ethnic church, for the past seven years or more, nationally. Indeed, the minority voice on that issue (at least in the past) has been too easily marginalized by the white majority culture of the evangelical church throughout this country; thankfully, that is changing!

    I do believe, however, that an African American could have penned the book, The Help, and that it could have been similarly received today, especially if high profile people (white and black) would have endorsed it. For as you know, there are many factors that determine whether or not a book (or movie, for that matter) is popularly received: timing, marketing, message, messenger, contacts, financial strength of the publisher, similar books/movies in the market at the time, etc. Such factors also determine who makes it as an athlete, musician, actor, etc., as well. In other words, some of the best authors, athletes, musicians, and actors, remain unknown while others who are not half as good have become popular figures in our culture.

    At the end of the day, I believe the question you raise is not easily answered "yes" or "no" ... and that confusion is what continues to bother us all.

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  6. Thanks for your comments, Mark. I appreciate your perspective on the issue. Glad to be rewriting history with you @ Mosaic, where people from all races and walks of life worship together!

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  7. Thanks for sharing about this book/ movie. And I have read the other posts here too, WAY more interesting that anything I have to say, but I will write something here anyway: THANK YOU for being brave in sharing the things that have happened to you personally with some racial stuff (especially to your kids). I have had only a few things happen to me with racism too, but surprisingly, they have only happened here in Conway, in all my 41 years! The result: I wanted to move away. The interesting part is that for a lot of people racial attacks happen everywhere and all the time... and there's no "moving away from it". I think that when people are only around their own, anything (or "anyone") different is just a "strange thing" and I think also that kids do mirror what the parents feel or say themselves, but not always. For example, when speaking Spanish to my kids at Toad Suck park one day a couple of boys went straight to my face and said that I was ugly and should just leave. I responded in English and asked "who is the adult here with you?" and that changed things. They were surprised I spoke English, and when I went to the mom she just apologized and called the boys to their minivan and left, with an embarrassed quick apology. So I wonder if the parents are really racist or if those kids (like 9 and 11) were just feeling "threatened" by another language or felt like looking tough to one another by way of "bullying" someone with words (hoping to see fear because of an inability to understand English). But doing this to an adult? In front of her kids? I think now that that episode was more of a lack of respect and a result of poor parenting than racism, but still... not good. And the things you said that happened to you guys, especially with the bathroom incident... those are bullying acts done in secret by cowards. But having people mix in and see others that are just human like them-- thinking and feeling beings, made in the image of God-- is the way to change things. There's good and bad in every ethnic group, plain and simple. But people need to realize that; they need to experience it. And so, I don't feel the solution is to move away anymore. I am so glad about finding Mosaic church and for the whole concept of "togetherness" in terms of following Christ with what we think and do for God's glory. And P.S. I am so glad you pointed me to your blog in July. It is so thought-provoking and insightful! God bless you and everyone in the Mosaic leadership team!!!

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  8. Zarina, thank you soooo much for your authentic and heartfelt comments. That Toad Suck park incident makes my stomach churn. We've come a long way, but not all the way yet. I'm so glad you, Erick and the kids are at Mosaic. You all will be such a blessing to the Mosaic family!

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  9. Carla,

    Very insightful blog. I strongly agree with you. Even in 2011 it will be heart changes that make the difference. As of yet, (as a general rule) hearts have not changed where the voices of the minority are concerned. Even when persons of the minority culture may have the same or similar credentials there is less favor for his words (especially when that person is darker skin). I spoke with an American who lives in France (for over 25 years now) and he said to me that many of the French he has spoken to refuse to follow black people. There are countless articles to affirm what you say about the minority voice and some books I can think of right this moment where people of color tend to feel disenfranchised and unheard because they are not white. Absolutely, White or Majority advocacy is well warranted. But you are right when you say that it takes a Caucasian (often times) to write/produce etc. to be noticed. These aren't just my feelings but words and sentiments of cultural scholars and practitioners both in and out of the church who say the same. You are "Spot On" as they say. This is my first time reading your blog. It was a pleasure. Thanks

    Steven

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  10. Thanks so much Steven, for your insight. I so appreciate you reading my blog and taking the time to add your thoughts here. I love to hear differing opinions, because I think the Body of Christ has to be real with some good, open dialogue. But it's always a blessing to have someone say, "I feel you, Sister." So you have encouraged my heart today, Brother. Thank you so much!

    p.s. You've got to tell Anthony and me how to get to some of that research.

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