The Help: Some Thoughts

Posted: February 20, 2012 in Entertainment, Personal, Racism
Tags: ,

I watched the movie The Help a couple of weeks ago and I was profoundly moved by it for very personal reasons. The movie itself is set in the 1960’s. I was born and raised in Memphis, TN during the 1970’s, but in all honesty, things were not too much different. There was a lot of criticism about the movie because it is told from a white-centric narrative and it reflects the too-often stereotype of a white savior/black victim who is rescued scenario.  Many critics said that portrayal inaccurately describes the Civil Rights movement. Stories that are white-centric in nature exists partly because Hollywood thinks that this predominantly white nation won’t pay to see movies with African-Americans in the lead. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I can only speak for myself to say that it isn’t true in my case. Another problem with this white-centric narrative is that the lives of African Americans are either extreme stereotypes or remain invisible.

I understand these criticisms and for the most part agree with them. However, the author of the book The Help is white and she writes from a white person’s perspective. She didn’t have to but she did. So the narrative is from a white person’s perspective…it’s inescapable if they were going to make a film of it. And maybe, such a vehicle is what is needed to reach white viewers. Furthermore, for non-southern white people, it will help introduce them into this world. Again, I can’t speak for others. My own story and why this movie moved me so deeply is also from a white person’s perspective….it is inescapable for me as you will see if you continue reading this post.

I was the youngest of six children living in a small three bedroom house with my mother. My parents were divorced and mom had a decent job with the telephone company. The fact that she was divorced, even then, was considered scandalous within our community and even in our own family. My father was not involved in our lives except for a once a year summer vacation visit and gifts at Christmas. We didn’t have much and I always had the sense that we were one major illness or one car breakdown from being destitute…even as young as I was, I sensed the economic precariousness of our family.

So by most standards we would have been considered lower class, and maybe even poor. Even with all that being said we still had enough for my mother to pay for an African-American nanny to watch me and the twins when I was about 3 or 4 yrs old.  Her name was Annie. To this day I do not know her last name. Think about this if you will. We struggled to get by, but this woman earned so little that even we could afford to have her as “help”.

The twins were two years older than me and already in kindergarten but I had not yet started school, so Annie watched me all day and took care of the twins before and after school. She is part of my earliest memories more than anyone else, my mother and sisters included. I slept in a crib until I was three because we didn’t have enough beds. One day I was supposed to be napping and couldn’t sleep. There were some red heart stickers on my bedroom door (from Krystal’s, a hamburger restaurant that remains a Southern tradition). The stickers were peeling and I was obsessing over them and eventually couldn’t stand to look at them any more. Something had to be done about them, right away! Clearly my sometimes OCD behavior started young. 😉

So I quietly climbed out of the crib, tip toed over to the door, and tried to smooth down the curling edges of those stickers. They just wouldn’t cooperate. I decided to take them off entirely. While I was scraping at them with my little fingernails, Annie seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Quite frankly, she appeared so suddenly that she scared the living daylights out of me! As she swept into the room I remember seeing her large pink palm descending to pick me up, the other hand landed on my bottom just once. Then she carried me to the crib, put me back in and told me to go to sleep. I was crying by then, not so much because the swat to my bottom hurt so much as because I had been so startled by her appearance. I laid down and finally went to sleep. This is my earliest memory.

That’s not all that I remember about Annie though. She was a wonderful cook and I loved her pancakes in the morning and her corn bread for dinner. She made both in my mother’s cast iron skillet. I have often wondered how much my mother learned to cook from Annie. My mother often told us that when she married my father at age 17, she couldn’t even make toast. I think of that cast iron skillet like some kind of magical talisman for culinary skills passed on from my grandmother and Annie to my Mom. Annie always wore long skirts–I do not ever remember seeing her in pants.  And I seem to remember that she wore a hat every day without fail.

Annie was an older woman who had custody of her grandchildren. Her children were all grown, but she had to take in her daughter’s kids (I vaguely recall that daughter had gotten into drugs but I could be wrong on this point). So far as I know, these kids were at home unwatched–true latch-key kids, something I myself would experience later in life after we moved to a new house. I never once thought about this aspect of her life as a child. I never once questioned how she felt about taking care of a white woman’s child all day in order to earn enough money to support her own family and when her own children were back at home, also needing her.

So this movie, The Help, really struck me hard because it reminded me of her sacrifice and how trapped she probably felt.  And yet she was still incredibly kind, even loving, to me.  I have a feeling that many southerners my age and older who had similar caregivers can relate in ways that people from other regions might not be able to appreciate.  In the end, the movie is a white-centric narrative, something that Hollywood has to move away from. Perhaps the recent movie with the majority African-American cast, Red Tails, is the beginning of this change. I saw it and thought it was a very good movie. I would encourage everyone to see it not just because of the casting but because it describes an important  and neglected historical aspect of WWII.

Ultimately in my view The Help is a good movie and the actress Viola Davis who is nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress is rightfully deserving of it. It moved me to tears and I hope that if you see it, it will move you too.  Or at the very least that it engenders a greater understanding beyond your experience.

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