Thursday, December 17, 2009

My latest read: "The Help"

When I decided to read Kathryn Stockett's novel I expected to be enlightened, disgusted, touched and shocked. I was not disappointed. What did surprise me was how conflicted many Southerners seem to be about race relations.
The story is set in the early 1960s Mississippi when Jim Crow was still in full force yet an under current of change was brewing. The help was a tactful way to refer to African-American domestics who were paid less than minimum wage and treated no differently than their slave ancestors had been.
It hurt my heart reading about Black women who loved and raised the white children of their employers. They nurtured those children into adulthood only to have them turn around to treat them as their parents had. As during antebellum times, a maid who raised a child might then be given to that grown-up child to serve her and her family. Southern decorum insisted that those women were like extended family and dearly loved.
The constant anxiety these women felt was another shock. If a maid displeased her employer for any reason, she could be accused of stealing or worse. No proof was necessary to accept the word of a white person. In the eyes of white residents and the law, her reputation was ruined and, even if she wasn't sent to prison, she was ostracized and unemployable from then on. There was no mercy, even if she had a family to support.
My naivete was challenged and disrupted by this novel. Growing up in a WASP suburb of Chicago, I realize now that I wore blinders. It was not intentional -- just the way it was for lack of exposure.
Racial color-blindness doesn't exist; differences are too obvious. However, if we concede differences and similarities and our own imperfections and faults we can relate to anyone. We are human first -- all the other categories we use to describe ourselves and others are secondary.
End of sermon.

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