Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Help: The Past and Not So Past

The Help, the newest Hollywood release based on Kathryn Stockett's civil rights era novel, has struck a particularly sensitive note with me due to my own experiences as a child of the South--the divided South and not-so divided South, the South that so many of us hope has evolved.  Central to The Help's plot is a young socialite's motion to enforce that White households install a separate bathroom for Black help. It would be so easy for me to toss the idea aside as ridiculous, to claim no one would ever have thought such a thing. But I know better--there are enough reminders that we still struggle where race is involved.

I live in a house that I rent from homeowners who so judiciously refer to one of our bathrooms as the gardener's toilet. At first, I was struck with a little confusion as to why this home--one that has two baths up and one more down, would need yet a fourth toilet, especially considering the modestness of this little 1960s faux-colonial that was built among homes a bit more gracious in style. Foolishly, I had once asked my husband why any toilet would have been built in a laundry room--mud room, really--with a make-shift beadboard wall thrown around it (we ended up removing the wall so that we could do our laundry, long story short). This toilet, this porcelain bowl that sits so close to the washer that one would have to spread your knees in order to sit or stand to use it, was for the help.... the help that was not allowed to use the more private toilet in the rear hallway of the home, a bathroom only steps from this one.

My own childhood household, when my mother's back started to trouble her, had the help of Ella Mae, who came at first to clean, but later was kept just for ironing what my grandmother had called "all those big damn shirts". Ella Mae was a luxury for us, but somehow my parents afforded her. She lived in Fauborg Marigny, a New Orleans neighborhood that had been a mix of comfortable middle class and low class in the 19th century. By the 20th, it was far from an okay place to raise children and was riddled with poverty. Not far from her lived Albatine, who helped my great aunt in her home nearby--that formerly gracious Italianate home was sinking into decrepitude and decay by the time I was born, an old way of life sinking into oblivion by the time I reached school age. That home, by the way, had a separate bathroom for the help.

There are many stories to be told here. I certainly don't recall my parents ever teaching me to be anything but kind and fair to the help in our household, and I was well aware that those ladies led a harder, less educated, and more limited existence than my own. There were, despite all the tenderness we exhibited with Ella Mae and Albatine, invisible boundaries. Perhaps, their families noted those boundaries with more clarity than we did. I certainly recall the absolute despair in my father's voice when he had learned that Ella Mae, who had long grown elderly, had passed and had her life celebrated in a funeral; we had not been invited, much less told. Perhaps, it did not dawn on Ella Mae's family that we would want to be there.

At one point in my youth, it dawned on me that I should ask Ella Mae about who she really was, and she took the time to tell me about riding the mule home across the fields on her father's farm when she was a child in rural Mississippi. True to her African roots and generations of repeated dialect, she had a tendency to shove Ns in unlikely places, such as when she said Nyew Nyork. She described having lived on a street that she shared with a host of family as neighbors. She would continue to iron for us, clean for others. I would grow up and go away to school. When I returned, Ella Mae would have long passed.

My father and I recently discussed Ella Mae. He remembered his mother teaching him to be gentle with those that  helped keep our homes, mind the children. He remembers giving Ella Mae rides home when possible, paying for her bus fare, and providing her lunch. Ella Mae told us stories about crazy people she worked for--such as the reptile lady, if you can imagine that story--but she never did discuss the nature of her work where her dark skin and class differences were concerned. Apparently, my grandmother treated her as a confidante, sharing family issues and discussions of holiday plans. My grandmother isn't here to divulge the details of their friendship; something else that I consider sad.

Times have changed since the era documented in The Help when the lower class minorities feared for their jobs and lives if they were perceived as anything other than gladly subservient. I see that my neighbor's help across the street is a crew of Latin American ladies whose kids probably attend school with mine. My "gardener's toilet" goes unused for anything other than to hold the super-sized box of laundry detergent my husband buys. In fact, we wedge a garbage can in front of it. The Black yardman we hire on occasion drives a very nice truck and wields a Blackberry to organize his client list. He isn't afraid to price-gouge me (as he has in the past). And my son was the minority race in his classroom last year, the mothers of his African American peers holding jobs ranging from low-paying customer service fields to more-than-comfy-lifestyle-supporting careers as lawyers.

We still have a ways to go, as I have been reminded--I have known Black mothers that still teach their teenage sons to be very careful when they drive as they are easy targets for being pulled over. I see a minority still struggling in schools across the city in the tougher neighborhoods. I listen to the stories that my husband tells after his encounters at his university with young Black women trying to fight their way up and out to a better life. It's one step at a time, steadily forward I hope, and further away from "gardener's toilets", signs marked "colored only", and other reminders of a difficult and ugly past.


  1. Your Ella Mae was my Cora. I remember her helping my mother in my early childhood. Cora was such a feature to us that my youngest brother would run to her as if she was his own grandmother. We even have a picture to that effect. My grandma and Cora are sitting next to each other, and my brother is running to Cora.

    Our "help" was somehow more than that. She was family. She cleaned, folded, and she was also our first encounter with other people; people not our parents, nor other relations. We were colorblind. We didn't see her as a black person, we saw her as a person.

    Another fascinating feature of "The Help", and other fiction based in that time and location, is the fact that when a central character, especially female, is bright and creative, she is invariably a graduate of Ole Miss. Our alma mater appears time and again as the creative birthplace of strong, intelligent, females.

    But I already knew this.


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