Cook: Rethinking the past with ‘The Help’

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 3, 2011

For better or worse, the movie ěThe Helpî is stirring memories this summer. The white families and black maids it portrays in 1960s Jackson, Miss., are a lot like the people we knew growing up.
Count me among them. My parents taught us to say ěyes, maíamî and ěno maíam,î to use good manners and treat elders with respect. They taught us to value education and to know right from wrong.
But then there was ěthe help.î
Oh, yes, we children were good to the them, respectful and polite. We even thought our family was generous, giving them used clothing, unwanted food, a ride to and from work.
Only years later did I realize we gave them everything but minimum wage and the benefit of the doubt. Their work hours were tracked to the minute, even with pitifully low wages. And anytime we misplaced something ó a ring or a piece of silver, just as ěThe Helpî portrayed ó suspicions always turned to the maid.
Itís an odd dynamic, bringing someone into the home to tend precious, personal needs ó taking care of children, washing and putting away laundry, overhearing family conversations ó while maintaining a wall of separation and, in many cases, distrust.

Ablene Cooper of Jackson, Miss., sued author Kathryn Stockett for $75,000, claiming the author used her name and image in an emotionally distressing way in the character of maid Aibileen. Despite Cooperís complaints, Aibileen is a wholly sympathetic character. Even with a heavy dialect, she comes off as one of the most emotionally mature and caring characters in the book.
But donít look for anyone to claim Stockett appropriated her name or image for the character of Hilly Holbrook, the Junior League president who urges friends to install separate bathrooms for their black maids to thwart the spread of disease. Though Southern towns were full of priestesses of propriety who like Hilly felt it their duty to keep black people in their place, who would dare admit it now? Like Hilly and her unspeakable pie, few people want to own up to this unsavory bit of personal history.
A judge dismissed Cooperís lawsuit in mid-August, ruling that the statute of limitations had expired. The movie of ěThe Helpî may have only come out this summer, but the novel came out more than two years ago. And it has been making waves in Jackson and across the South ever since.

Itís hard to overstate how much white families took the help for granted.
I remember asking my grandparents one Christmas Day where their maid Mary was. The news that she was spending the holiday with her own family stunned me.
She had a family?
Someone she wanted to be with more than us?
Whites talked about treating maids ělike family,î and occasionally youíll hear people tell about financially supporting these loyal, longtime employees long after they could no longer cook and clean.
But many households simply parted ways with their maids and pushed down the thought that the former ěfamilyî member would have little to no Social Security.

Maybe it goes without saying, but there were two sides to the coin of racial prejudice in the 1960s. Demeaning domestic workers a la Hilly Holbrook was the prettified side. On the ugly side, there was whitesí treatment of and attitudes toward blacks in general, with preconceived notions about willingness and ability to work, to become educated, to live an upright life ó to be on par with whites.
Our world was so separate, so skewed, that when integration delivered my friends and me in 1968 to what had been an all-black school, we were scared. Was this safe? Would there be riots, knives?
We were surprised to realize the black students were just as scared as we were. They had notions too, I realize now, notions shaped by the legacy of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws and their parentsí and grandparentsí experiences.
But the first day went smoothly, and the next and the next. Eventually, we forgot that we ever went to ěseparate but equalî schools.
Progress has come slowly, and sometimes we go backwards. Many schools have virtually resegregated. Changes in law did not change deep-seated prejudices. But crossing the racial divide through school integration in the 1950s and í60s was a monumental step, one that cannot be taken away.

What do you do when you realize the people who taught you right and wrong were themselves wrong about something as important as race?
In ěThe Help,î Skeeter defies convention, her parents and her friends to secretly document the maidís stories and help open the worldís eyes.
In real life, my generation was not so heroic. We didnít write books or lead marches. We put that past behind us, moved on and passed down different customs and beliefs to our children.
Theyíll have their own experiences to learn from.
Kathryn Stockett told one interviewer she was surprised how many people related to her book. ěI thought I was writing a very personal story … about my unique situation.î
The story and its message were definitely personal ó personal to countless people who experienced that era much as Stockton and Skeeter did. Weíre older and wiser ó yet we still have much to learn from ěThe Help.î
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.