And what better place to begin than with the phenomena which has captured our collective consciousness, the motion picture “The Help.”
As someone whose mother and grandmother were “domestics” or “housekeepers,” I have two diametrically opposed sentiments after seeing the movie.
What I liked most about “The Help” is that it is fiction.
What I disliked most about “The Help” is that it is fiction.
As a work of art, it is touching, well-acted and superbly scripted. It is witty and well-presented.
I’m a great fan of Viola Davis (Aibileen), an award-winning stage actor long before she received acclaim for an 8-minute performance in the movie “Doubt.”
I hope “The Help” wins several Academy Awards. It’s just that excellent.
As a representation of what I lived through watching my mother and grandmother work as domestics in West Point, “The Help” literally made me sick inside.
It puts in stark contrast how differently whites and blacks see our history. Sadly, author Kathryn Stockett romanticized about an unreal world where poor black women – my grandmother worked nine hours a day for $15 a week – conspired with perky white girls against the white establishment.
She put sheer evil in the hands of a black pastry cook, which no person I can imagine, black or white, would ever be evil enough to do. It wasn’t funny.
Admittedly, both the book and film do allude to the prejudice and racial animus of the times, but to depict them fully would have worked against the overall warmth and wit of the story. But, believe me, for a black domestic in the 1960s, the times were anything but warm and witty.
When I was about 12, my grandmother came home in an un-before-seen tearful rage. In anger, dismay and disgust, she explained that because her employer’s husband had not come home for dinner, the employee deliberately threw a whole baked chicken into the garbage, so Mama couldn’t bring it home.
On my first day attending West Point High School, a girl called me over to a group of her white friends, to welcome me, I had supposed. After asking mine and my mother’s name, she exclaimed with contemptible glee, “Your mama cleans our dirty toilets every day.” They walked away laughing.
Both of those stories are in my memories, but not in my heart. Whenever I see that girl from high school, now, I can see in her eyes how ashamed she is of that incident, and I forgive her all over again.
My grandmother eventually left that hateful employer and began working for a family called the Applewhites.
When she died in 1998, the son, Henry, cried harder than I cried. Henry had benefited as much from my grandmother’s love and kindness, nurturing and joyful spirit as I.
Henry grew up and began a successful law practice.
Now, he and I both take pride in the fact that my grandmother – Elilian Davis – “the help,” had a hand in raising the current Monroe County School District attorney.
It’s the contributions that my grandmother, and thousands of black “help” like her, made in the lives of the Henry Applewhites of Mississippi, that give me immense pride.
And there’s pride in knowing that when black women like my grandmother worked in white folks’ kitchens, no matter what society said about them, or cruelly treated them, the only extra ingredient they put in their pies was love.
James Hull is an award-wining journalist and a political consultant. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.