Paying respect to The Help
photo: my great-aunt in her day work uniform with the children she kept

My great-aunt in her day work uniform with the children she kept


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:

Discussion Part 1

Discussion Part 2

Discussion Part 3

More reflections on The Help are coming.  Stay tuned.

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10 thoughts on “Paying respect to The Help

    1. What stuck out to me was the comment that the uniform represented a dumb, quiet person, but AS SOON AS the uniform came off…they could return to “normal” behavior, which despite how the help is portrayed all throughout media throughout the years, is intelligent, opinionated, and self-sufficient. The latter charactertistics shined through during the civil rights movement, which came “as a surprise” to many employers.

      1. Yes! In the uniform, they were who the employer needed them to be, whatever would justify the situation and the treatment. There was a comment later in audio I haven’t uploaded yet about how the word insignificant describes how all “help” is treated, even today. Hotel staff, food service workers, bus drivers. And those are just the people in some kind of uniform. I’ve noticed it, too, in office settings where I’ve been the administrative assistant. That’s for a different post…

    2. Thanks for reading! I just shaved a little off the audio. Credit for the event and discussion goes to Betty Rowe at Taylortown AME Zion Church.

  1. Enjoyed the article and the audio!!! Right on time as usual…Haven’t seen the movie The Help yet if ever but here are some of my thoughts after reading and listening:

    What the movie “The Help” and the MLK Memorial illustrates well is that there is a perception out there that Blacks are not qualified to tell their own stories and that there is a lack of a true Black aesthetic and support system to allow the space for Blacks to become the creator, the narrator and the lead in their own stories and destinies…

    It is moments like these that I thank the universe for folks like Oscar Micheaux, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, August Wilson, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, George Schuyler, James Weldon Johnson, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Langston Hughes and Harold Cruse among a plethora of others…

    If a well made and accurate movie about Fannie Lou Hamer, Birdia Keglar (???) and the Mississippi Freedom Movement came out today, how many folks who went to see “The Help” would support this movie? “The United States Of Amnesia” indeed…

    If you want me to read “The Help” then let me recommend to you that you should read “David Walker’s Appeal To The Colored Citizens Of The World”…One ♥!

    1. Thanks for reading. A few things…

      I’m missing how the MLK Memorial illustrates your point. While I don’t believe the Black aesthetic is lacking–I know enough artists and visionaries, including you, to know that it isn’t–I do agree that there is a lack of a “support system to allow the space …” I see this all the time in Louisville, and I know it’s not unique to here because, hey, look at Hollywood. I have a cousin who is an immensely talented and experienced theater professional. He’s put up hundreds of productions all over the world. Since he’s been here the past few years, his entertainment company has put up only a few shows each year (to my knowledge), and that includes at least one major production produced annually for our church. I can’t compare that to Actors Theatre, as Actors has a budget of several million dollars. But Louisville has about 30 community theaters, and most do four or five shows each year/season. Some of those small companies have been runnng for a long time and have built a good fan and donor base. Still, even for long-standing arts institutions, competition is fierce, and the public isn’t really all that into art. Now add on top of that the fact that black stories rarely make it into “The Cannon,” and you have another obstacle. There are not enough black people period, let alone blacks with money, to give black storytellers the kind of funding they need to share their own stories in grand fashion. Hence, we have blogs that are accessible to everyone.

      There’s a lot behind the above observation: Who teaches what’s good and what isn’t? Who evaluates what’s good and what’s not? Who publicizes it? One of the (unintentional?) effects of integration is that we don’t have a lot of control over our own stuff anymore. And because “diversity” encompasses much more than race or gender nowadays, I don’t see more blacks in decision-making roles in institutions that are largely white as a realistic solution. And with that, we also have to recognize that Brooks, Wilson, DuBois, Hurston, etc. ARE in The Cannon.

      Moving on … “well made and accurate?” First, what defines well-made? I thought Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” was a train wreck, but most people I talked to loved it (I think for reasons they couldn’t understand or articulate, but I’ve written about that already.) Second, what constitutes accurate? History? See Miles Grier’s comment for a response to that. Furthermore, what is history but a bunch of people’s memories gathered together and summed up? How accurate is memory? How accurate is perspective?

      If you’re defining well-made and accurate as written, directed, produced, and performed by the people who lived the experience or their survivors or people of the same racial background as they are–and even if that’s not your definition–I can’t answer how many would go support it. No one can. We’re discussing a subjective business. Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript was rejected by 60 agents before she found one who would take her. Had Toni Morrison written the book, it would not have been such a problem. The Help was a bestselling book first, so you can bet a good portion of the people seeing the movie are people who read the book, and that many of that portion also love Toni Morrison. Attach an unknown author’s name to the same concept and don’t put the marketing machines of Disney and a major book publishing house behind it, and it may go straight to DVD. Happens all the time.

      I’ll take your recommendation. Doesn’t really matter to me if you read The Help.

      1. great response. but you do realize that what you articulated are the outcomes of a white supremacy system and not a system of diversity or rule of inclusion…we basically gave away the store for nothing under this paradigm…that’s mentacide…when you give up the right to decide your destiny you basically give up your freedom…you can train people to appreciate the arts just like you can train folks to kill, pillage and rape (look at the military and private prison industry complexes for proof)…there is no excuse only for lack of will that we don’t tell our stories…you must sacrifice in order to give…don’t be surprised when I produce a movie and ask you to help write a script…one <3!

        1. Yes, I do realize that. But do you really think a lack of will is the only reason we don’t tell our own stories? Between being an artist and being a grant writer, I’ve realized art appreciation and art funding are two different things. Even if you do as you and I have done and build a platform using the web, making art is expensive. “Free” blogs are ad-supported. The writing, audio and video you and I produce takes our sweat equity and more often than not, it results in very little exposure and no money. Profit isn’t necessarily the point in creativity, even though corporate donors have their names plastered on every art-related thing here, but we need more monetary support.

          Here’s something getting plenty of monetary support:

        2. And are you defining well-made and accurate as written, directed, produced, and performed by the people who lived the experience or their survivors or people of the same racial background as they are? I just had a thought that the people who lived the experience aren’t just the ones who were abused and oppressed. I think that those who were on the receiving end of hatred and aggression experience great power when they tell others about their experiences. I witnessed it just last week. But those who inflicted the trauma experienced it, too. Recall the backlash against Tyler Perry and against Ntzake Shange when each released “For Colored Girls.” People were upset that the men’s side of the story was untold. (I still say Bo Willie deserves his own movie.) I could see white women being offended by how man-crazy and maternally dysfunctional all but one character looked in The Help.

          I think most critics’ problem with The Help, Mississippi Burning, Driving Miss Daisy, and countless other films I haven’t seen is that someone who looks like the oppressor and who benefits from the oppressor’s privilege every day tells the story from the perspective of the oppressed person. I don’t think the movie is as much from that perspective as the book is. Kathryn Stockett was worried about writing in the voice of a black maid, and she did research to find out what she couldn’t have experienced herself. Not having experienced being a maid or an enslaved person, I would do the same thing if I were to write period fiction. but I digress from the point, which is in the paragraph above.

        3. Okay, just one other thing: Given that artists like Wilson, Brooks, DuBois, Hurston, Hughes, Morrison, Walker and others did make it into The Cannon, can we really say that everything this white supremacist system produced is bad? Would it not be more productive to look at how these voices emerged in spite of the cultural circumstances and how their success can be replicated or reinvented?

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