“The Help” and Mama and I: A Personal Perspective (Part 1)

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I mentioned in a previous post watching The Help, and the strong emotional response I had to the film.

First, let’s talk about the film itself, based on Kathryn Stockett‘s bestselling novel of the same name.

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis as Abileen and Minny in The Help.

The Help is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.  A young society girl, known to one and all as Skeeter (Emma Stone), has aspirations to become a novelist. Fresh out of college, she returns to her hometown and decides she wants to tell the life stories of the black servants—“the help”—who have for generations raised the children of well-to-do southern families.

Only one maid, Abileen, Skeeter’s best friend’s housekeeper, is willing to speak with her in the beginning.

 

There is unhappiness on both sides with Skeeter’s writing project—Abileen’s friends in the black community think she should stay silent and not rock the boat, and Skeeter’s friends from the fine old southern families think one of their own is meddling with the status quo.

 

Nevertheless, Abileen and Skeeter continue their collaboration, and other women begin to come forward to share their own experiences. Their stories are eventually compiled into a book, also called The Help, and published under a pseudonym—with all the names and locales changed, of course.

 

Still, everyone knows “who’s who” and some of the stories paint a very unflattering portrait of their employers, particularly Hilly, a manipulative and venomous creature portrayed brilliantly by Bryce Dallas-Howard.

Hilly (Bryce Dallas-Howard) and Skeeter (Emma Stone) face off.

Along the way we also see a friendship develop between Celia Foote, the “white trash” wife of Hilly’s former boyfriend, and Celia’s maid, Minny.  Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis as Minny and Abileen give true, honest performances that linger with you well after the film has ended.

 

It’s the sort of film that makes you laugh and weep and think.   I haven’t yet read the book, although I do have it on my Kindle; from what I can gather, the film adaptation from the source material is a pretty solid one. It’s well acted, well scripted and has excellent production values. Filmed in Greenwood, Miss., The Help looks and feels authentic.

 

For some, this film could be a valuable history lesson on the way things were in the segregated South of 50 years ago and the complicated relationship between black servants and their white employers; for others of us, it’s a reminder of life as we once knew it.

I was born in Alabama, right next door to Mississippi, in roughly the same time period in which this story is set.

I did not attend school with black children until the fifth grade when our schools were forced to integrate. I remember when black customers could not eat inside the air-conditioned dining room of the Dairy Queen.  How they were not even allowed to use the same pick-up window.   Public water fountains were “whites only.” Black patients sat in separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office.

I knew families whose meals were cooked, houses cleaned and children cared for by black servants, who were not allowed to eat at the same table as their white employers.

Many of those servants were genuinely loved, and yet, expected to stay at arm’s length from white society.  Expected to know their place.  It’s a contradiction, but it was (and for some, still is) a reality.

Celestine Marsh was “the help” at our home on a part-time basis, usually once, sometimes twice in a week. She was barely five feet tall with a well-upholstered body and  a couple of gold teeth that flashed when she smiled.

I will always remember the delicious rice pudding she made from leftover rice and how good it tasted as an afterschool snack. I remember the time she took a hoe and killed the rattlesnake that was threatening my two older sisters.

I remember her prayers. You see, she was also an ordained minister, the pastor of the little concrete block church they built on land deeded to her family by my daddy. When Celestine got the Holy Spirit stirring, she vibrated all over as if she was being shocked with an electric current.

“Yes, Lord, Yes. Praise God, praise Jesus,” she’d exclaim in that slightly throaty voice, raising her plump hands in the air and closing her eyes.

I don’t mind telling you that as a little girl, I was a bit scared of Celestine in Jesus Mode.  As I grew older, I came to appreciate Celestine’s fervent prayers for me and my family. When Celestine was talking to the Lord on your behalf, you felt well and truly prayed for, as if she had a direct line to God.

When my older sister had to go into the hospital for some surgery, it was Celestine who weaned me. My mother informed me that when she came back home, I initially wanted nothing to do with Mama, having bonded with Celestine.

She was actually one of my mother’s first friends when Mama came from the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee to Alabama in 1946 to marry my daddy. My mother didn’t know any black people growing up. That’s because there were no black people in that part of Tennessee back in those days.

And on the big farm my grandfather had established, there were many farm hands working in his cotton gin and lumber mill and in the fields.  Mama experienced culture shock.   When my grandfather came down on the train to visit Mama in the early days of her marriage, he expressed trepidation over all those unfamiliar dark faces surrounding his favorite daughter.

Mama told him, “But Daddy. They’re just people, too. You treat them right and they will treat you right.”  Unlike Daddy, Mama didn’t grow up using the “n” word and she taught us not to use it either.

Still, as with so many other white families, Celestine was referred to by her first name, with no courtesy “Miz” in front of it.  You just didn’t use formalities with the help. It wasn’t done.  As the Bruce Hornsby song says, “That’s just the way it is . . .”

(end of part one)

Comic-Con is coming July 11-15 in San Diego!

About fedoralady

I'm an LA native--Lower Alabama, that is. My husband of more than 30 years and I live here on a portion of my family's former farm with two gorgeous calicos and a handsome GSD mix. My background is art education, and over the years I've been a teacher, department store photographer, sales associate and a journalist. My husband, his business partner and I have Pecan Ridge Productions, a video production company, for which I shoot & edit video and stills and manage marketing. I also still write part-time for the local paper. I love movies, music, art, photography and books, and my tastes in all of them are eclectic.

4 responses »

  1. Wow Angie. Thank you so much for sharing. Your story is so interesting. I think that a lot of prejudice comes from not really getting to know the people one is prejudice against. If you have never lived around black people and never knew any how can you know they are really just like you. I remember a few years ago Oprah Winfrey had a show where this white couple wanted to apologize to their black neighbors who had purchased the house right next door to theirs. The white couple were members of a white supremacist group and hosted meetings in their living room. They told both of their children not to befriend any black children. Well, their children did meet black kids at school and started inviting them over to their house. The parents were appalled. The kids told the parents that all the things they were saying about black people were not true and kept inviting the black kids over to their house. One day the kids even invited their black friends over for dinner. The parents began to see that the black kids were normal and no different than their own children. They were well mannered and did well in school. That made them rethink everything they were taught about black people. Over time the parents realized they were wrong and left the white supremacist group. Prior to their “enlightenment” this couple actually believed that black people have tails that we cover up under our clothes.

    Anyway, the white couple wrote to Oprah telling her their story. They wanted to come on TV to apologize to their black neighbors for their white supremacist activities. It turned out to be funny because the black neighbors had no idea they were living next door to white supremacists until they were on the show and the white couple told their story on national TV. You should have seen the black couple’s faces as they were listening to the white couple.

    You have good and bad in all races and cultures of people. No group should ever be singled out as being worse than others.

  2. It was actually a white co-worker and friend who stopped by my cubicle at work and recommended that I read The Help. This was about 4 years ago and I am just getting around to reading it. My friend loved the book and when it came out in the movie theaters she went straight away to see it and loved it. She has been waiting very patiently for me to read the book. 🙂 My Mom read it last year and loved it.

    I have to say that America has come a long way from those times of segregation. Racism still exists but no where near what it used to be. There are certain southern states that I am still not all that comfortable in so I don’t spend a lot of time there. I have a brother who lives in Maryland. One of my best friend’s lives in Georgia.

    I have always had black and whites friends throughout my life and love them all dearly. What I have learned in life is that no matter the skin color we all want to be happy. We all want great health, enough money to pay our bills and that special person to love. Parents of all colors want the best for their children.

    I love living in America. It is truly a melting pot.

  3. Where I work I am one of two white people, the rest being black and all my patients being black. There are cultural differences that I’m getting used to. The big one is calling people Mr and Mz. I’m in the north and that’s not something I grew up doing for people of any color (make of us northerners what you will). Plus when I’ve worked at different facilities they’ve told us to call people by their first name to be more personal, so I’m still working on the use of titles.

  4. I haven’t actually read your post as yet, Angie…will do so immediately after I finish this comment. I’m just emotionally responding to the title above.

    I’m reminded of the prejudice that a whole heap of Australians had/have (some people still haven’t changed even in this day and age, unfortunately) against our own Aborigines. Luckily for me, my own dearly-loved and sorely-missed Daddy worked alongside quite a few Aborigines on farms back in the 1940s/1950s and even earlier, and had great respect for their work ethic.

    Back later

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