I read The Help a few years ago. I’d like to say I purchased it for the library because I knew it was going to be big, but I suspect it had more to do with my interest in reading about the Civil Rights era and wondering how a southern white woman would handle the topic. I haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t — I rarely see movies at all, and I tend to stay far, far away from anything the entire rest of the world is talking about (and oh, how our patrons are talking about it).
I have, however, been reading with great interest the reviews of the movie that my friend Cecily has been posting, because they both confirm what I thought — that this is a movie designed in large part to allow white people to feel good about themselves — but also add to my understanding of the vast gaps in my understanding of race and what it means and how it feels.
Any time I’m at a conference or something that offers a diversity workshop or session or training, I go. I don’t do this to get accolades (oh, who am I kidding? I always want accolades — I don’t know any white person who doesn’t want to be cool like that) — but I do it also because I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which we fail to perceive the experience of others and how that failure has consequences for so many people.
Yesterday in the mystery book discussion group I run here at the library, we were talking about Tom Franklin’s book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. It’s about a white boy and a black boy who are secretly friends for a brief time as teenagers and who then grow up — the black man to be a local baseball star turned town constable; the white man to be a recluse whom everyone suspects of murder. Of course everyone talked about how it’s so unexpected to have those roles reversed. Sigh. Sigh that we think of them as “roles,” sigh that we so automatically have an idea of who should be cast in which part, sigh that we think our noticing that we have that expectation means we are enlightened people.
And everyone wanted to talk about The Help, which almost everyone had read and everyone was planning to see. Everyone who had read it liked it — hell, I liked it well enough — it’s a good story, it’s got likeable characters and some that you just love to hate, and, as I mentioned, if you’re white, it’s exactly the sort of book that lets you feel really good about yourself. So when someone asked what I thought, that’s what I said. That it was a story that worried me a bit because it was too easy to dismiss as a story. That it’s like the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement that says “Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat and Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and now everything is better!” That it was a little sad that in 2011, we were all going to see black actresses play domestic workers.
And that got us into a bit of a discussion of current problems — of the cabdriver someone had who said no, he couldn’t make a right on red, of the coworker someone else had who wasn’t allowed in a gated community. At moments like these I always wish I had an endless supply of copies of Peggy Macintosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and then I think what a total snob I am for thinking that I’m doing a better job at humanity just because I’ve read the thing so many times.
I love to read about the Civil Rights era because it was so complicated. It’s like the line in Matthew about “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Some days I’m all about Gandhian nonviolence and some days I’m down with by any means necessary. Some days I get furious at the black kids in SNCC for kicking the white kids out, and some days I think it was completely necessary. And I think about how Dr. King’s dream was Malcolm X’s experience when he went to Mecca, but how pretty much none of us live in that world most of the time. And then I read and think some more, and some more, and try to live my days with grace.