I’ve grown up attending wakes and funerals for people of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations. At these sad memorials marketed as visitations, going-home celebrations and extemporaneous family reunions, I often saw white people who were somewhere around the age of my mother and her siblings. I wondered who they were and why they were there. They didn’t attend our church or live in our neighborhood, both of which had homogenously black populations. Some were coworkers of the survivors, but most were children of the deceased’s former bosses, and they had come to pay their respects to the help.
Domestic service was known as “day work” in Kentuckyin the 1950s and 1960s, and it was a common profession among the women with whom I went to see The Help. I still haven’t read all the reviews or the literary, historical or cultural critiques of the movie whose popularity continues to sweep the box office and surprise Disney, but now I neither want nor need to. The testimony of those I know is enough for me to accept, even appreciate, a white woman’s fabrication of life for maids inMississippi in the 1960s, and a white man’s screen interpretation of her novel.
I went to see The Help with my grandmother and women from her church. A total of 51 women went on the outing, and about 20 returned to the church for a post-viewing discussion. One observer at the discussion, for she didn’t say anything but remained attentive, was a teenager. The oldest present was born in 1923.
The afternoon began with a prayer in which Joy Owens, born in 1958, thanked God for her grandmother, a woman she saw all over the movie she had just watched. The women loved what they had just seen. They felt the Civil Rights Movement had enough of a presence and that the movie focused on the very struggles it should have focused on: the women’s. White women dealing with peer pressure to settle down, get married and have children they don’t necessarily want and black women’s struggle to provide for their families, take care of their children, be good wives and keep their dignity in the face of sometimes humiliating situations. They had no problem that the race of the writers and the director was not that of the maids. They could relate to the characters.
The first job Fanny King, born in 1935, had was as a babysitter and a maid, work she continued through college. “I felt like I could see myself [in the movie]. I felt what they felt. A lot of times you have to bite your tongue, go to the other room and regroup and pretend like the child didn’t say that or the adult didn’t say that,” said King.
Tyra Johnson, born in 1966, was reminded of her grandmother’s stories of having “to go in another room, regroup and come back out and put a smile on her face even though she knew what was said or what was done was wrong.”
Day workers knew, as Marcella Watson, born in 1950, put it, how “to play the game,” something she says today’s black youth don’t get. “It doesn’t matter if you can do the job better than the person over you, you still have to play the game,” said Watson.
Betty Peake was born in 1951. She witnessed her father having to enter businesses through the back door, and she did domestic work at the home of one her high school teachers. “That time in history made me determined that my children were going to do everything they wanted to. And I really appreciate that time in my life,” she said.
Because of her mother’s work in a white family’s home, Nora Green, born in 1949, learned how to take care of herself. She resented that she and her siblings had to get themselves ready for school but said she “soon realized, that’s what put food on the table.”
The boss’ house was where King learned how to forgive, where Eudora Davis, born in 1956, learned humility and work ethic and where Doretha Richmond, born in 1952, learned to admire her parents’ sacrifice. She grew up feeling like her mother’s domestic work and her father’s work on a farm for a white man were belittling, but as an adult, she and her husband needed money and cleaned buildings to make it. They did their jobs well and provided for their family through honest work. (And in another full-circle move, the same womanRichmond’s father worked for would babysit her daughter years later.)
If you’ve followed my blogs for the past two-and-a-half years, you know domestic work isn’t anything I want to do. While it’s good, honest work—and certainly far more ethical, pure and righteous than other things I’ve considered in this economy—being the help is something I feel I shouldn’t have to do. I’m not totally spoiled; I have played the game Watson referred to, just not in a white person’s home. But I feel like the women who went to work white people’s homes before me, who had no choices, did it and urged me to do what I wanted so that I wouldn’t have to.
My grandmothers are proud to see my picture next to my editorials in the paper. They like that I can lead discussions like the one I’ve written about in this post. I thank God for these opportunities, too, but reading The Help, seeing the movie and hearing the conversation after it have made me reconsider my previous position. The most important lesson I have learned from the characters onscreen and from the women who have known me for 31 years, is that the uniform that someone else wants me in to keep me in my place does not define me. I may not be able to say so in every situation, but I know who I am in spite of the work I may have to do.
Listen to the post-movie discussion with the women of Taylortown A.M.E. Zion Church and share what you got out of it:
More reflections on The Help are coming. Stay tuned.