**This week in a step away from South Africa (where we currently life) I'm looking at an American book/movie, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and it’s contribution to the conversation-in-story we have been pursuing about apartheid and colour issues. It has been difficult to decide whether to blog on this book or not, because it has generated a lot of discontent in that it has a white female protagonist and focuses mainly on her, rather than the black women she is attempting to help. There are flaws: the author was naive and brings her own baggage of having been raised by a black servant who was closer to her than her own mother--parallel to the character in the story. I would suggest, however, that this book is closer to having a trinity of protagonists that merely one who is pale and not extremely heroic. Rather than complain that this story is not written by a person of the correct colour and background, let's attempt to learn what we can from her efforts.
I live in a very pale neighbourhood where women of colour push babies without colour in little prams on smooth sidewalks leafy with shade. My neighbourhood is a few kilometres from the neighbourhood I suspect a number of these pram-pushers live. Let’s just say there aren’t any shady or smooth sidewalks for pushing prams there, and few enough prams.
Reading The Help and watching the movie again brought me some unsettled feelings, especially when I encounter pram-pushers in my neighbourhood walks.
If you’ve seen the movie, The Help, the book (as usual) is ten times better. The movie is delightful, humorous, ironic, and involving. The 60s decor, news, technology, and fashion are amusing and remind us how far we’ve come. But have we? The book gives us more to reflect on, more opportunity to look into our hearts as we get to know characters as more than caricatures.
The depth of the book is in its three alternating narrators and the issues each struggles with. Skeeter is the gangly, white college graduate and aspiring novelist. She wrestles with her lack of sex appeal, her towering height, and a tyrannical, faded beauty queen mother. Aibileen is an older, prayerful, coloured maid who has raised 17 white children and loved each with mother-love. She wrestles with the seed of bitterness germinating since the death of her only child, her 24 year old son. During a work accident, his boss dumped him at the coloured hospital which did not have the facilities to treat his crushed lung. Aibileen watched him die on her sofa at home. Minny is an outspoken maid, famous for her cooking; but she cannot keep a job very long because she speaks her mind. She wrestles with mothering five children (while working) and a brutally abusive husband.
When the story opens, Minny and Aibileen are working for Skeeter’s two best friends and Skeeter has just come from from college. We soon realize that Skeeter is different from the other women in the League and the bridge club. While consulting Aibileen for advice for a column she writes, she sees past Aibileen’s colour and discovers a woman she would like to get to know. Hence, this story: the perspective of the maids serving across colour lines. We hear tales of love and gratitude and others of scorn and abuse. Each one has been true in some time and some place; this is one work of fiction full of much truth. Many of the stories shock us--we try to comfort ourselves that that was the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement was just gaining momentum. Back then, people were ignorant and callous. That was then. This is now.
We don’t hear anyone called “the help” anymore. And few would admit to having a servant. But I have heard enough tales of woe about “domestics” to know that at the heart level, this story still needs to be heard, and needs to go to the heart.
It is true, young black men are no longer being beaten and blinded by tire irons for using the wrong entrance, and as far as I know, there are no segregated bathrooms. However, the truth of the matter is: apartheid is alive and well under the surface. I am sorry. I know people are weary of the “colour issue”. Most of us would like to think that we personally are not prejudiced in terms of colour. My goodness, wasn’t it Hilly Holbrook herself (the queen of colour-bar) who warned Skeeter that there were some “real racists in town” and she had better watch what she was reading? Hilly, of all people.
But after we smugly look away from Hilly’s pernicious attitude, we need to reflect on ourselves more deeply. The Help is a story about two women of colour and one without colour who started out clearly unsure of each other and protective of self-interest.
Then something happened. They developed relationships. From wary observation to interest, from there to beginning to share and finally trust, they risked relationship. That process of building relationships is how apartheid in the heart will be eradicated. Distrust across colours is a deterrent to finding out how how precious others are. Reasons for distrust abound: many are historic and some are current stereotypes. What spoke to my heart was hearing the battles each woman was fighting. “Be gentle” is the watchword--everyone is engaged in her/his own battle.
The Help offers a beautiful description of community at work in Aibileen’s church family. Community is people getting together and helping one another through those battles. Courage is risking for others, as her pastor poignantly brought home. Here in Africa, we call it “Ubuntu”, which means that a person is a person in relation to other people.
Although this book is about the US in the 1960s, it speaks people on any continent today. What do I believe about those different from me? Where did my beliefs come from? How do my beliefs align with Truth, eternal and unchanging? When we walk through this process, then we will be ready to step out and build relationships with people unlike ourselves. Take a risk. Possibly start a change that could spread like wild fire.
Read The Help, then reflect.