HELP WANTED – MAIDS OF HONOR and “KILLERS of the DREAM”
August 21, 2011
Yesterday a bumper sticker caught my attention which read: ” no one is free where others are oppressed”. This is particularly relevant regarding the current reviews of the four star movie “Help” based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel of 2009. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 during the struggle for civil rights is the story what black maids are thinking “working for wealthy white families in Mississippi in the nineteen-sixties (and by extension, at any time and place) felt about their lives and about their female employers . . . Sometimes the maids are the same ones who brought up the women, but now the women regard them not as family but as lowly hired help . . . but don’t seem to realize they are victims, too.” ( The New Yorker August 15 & 22, 2011 – The Current Cinema MAIDS OF HONOR, “The Help” by David Deby, pp.96-97)
Living in Auburn, Alabama 1958-1961 personal experience related directly with Maids of Honor and Black “Help”. (examples to follow) Some years later in graduate school at the University of Minnesota in the mid-sixties and early seventies studies involved in depth reading in Southern history and literature. Lillian Smith’s classic, Killers of the Dream, published in 1949 and expanded in 1961 was a sharp critique of southern racism. I recall vividly her remark to the effect that as white children they were taught the lessons of justice and democracy but practiced Jim Crow segregtion all day. The result was thus splitting mind from body. Smith’s book became a classic and was essential reading in the sixties for college students and activists in the Civil Rights Movement.
At the heart of Smith’s critique of Jim Crow racism and segregation are three “Ghost Stories”. The first is the relationship between white men and black women; second that of white fathers and their mulatto children; and finally, that of white children and their black nurses. Vivid in memory was the cover of my copy of Killers of the Dream. In the front stands the Big House and in the front yard a barren tree with a hanging rope hung over a heavy trunk branch. In the back yard were the humble cabins of the blacks In the Big House lessons of segregation for the children were the daily routine while in the back yard play was the order of the day. When patriarchal-puritanism split mind from body the “race-sex-sin spiral” resulted. Men prefered visiting the cabins. Result, according to Smith, while white wives became frigid the white male projected his own sins on the Negro male. The New Georgia Encyclopedia summarizes themes in Killers of the Dream as those “human forces – racism, violence, poverty, ignorance, and oppression that destroy mankind’s ‘dreams’ of freedom and human dignity.”
My wife’s and my personal experience with “Help Wanted” and “Maids of Honor” is included above in Fred’s Story & Documentary under Shaped by History. It reads: “Early weekday mornings we heard loud jocular chatting across the street from our apartment. African-American women gathered there after rides to town from the surrounding countryside. Working as housekeepers they served the Auburn white community. During Ruth’s pregnancy prior to Catherine’s birth she felt the need for help cleaning our apartment. At lunchtime the first day we invited her to sit and have lunch with us. She joined us but it became obvious she was very uncomfortable. This was clearly naive and misplaced even though a friendly gesture on our part. What she might have felt after a lifetime nurtured in the Jim Crow sociocultural setting should have dissuaded us from inviting her to join us at a shared table. Such invitations were not repeated. I drove her home in the country with her seated in the back. Catherine was born in nearby Opelika, Alabama. I recall the segregated waiting rooms while I awaited news of the arrival of our third child. That hospital was segregated with white and black wings.”
Time, August 15 has an article under The Culture an article by Joel Stein titled: HELP WANTED. Viola Davis is a star. Now all she needs is a starring role.” Davis plays the role of black housekeeper Aibileen. She receives rave reviews.