Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do Tell

This week, I went on a journey with three women, two black, one white, from Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are the main characters in The Help by Kathryn stockett. I hate to be a bandwagon reader (The Help is a New York Times #1 Bestseller), but sometimes, like this time, it's well worth it. I've been hearing about the book and its movie (due out August 12) for a while now, but when my mom suggested I read it, I figured I'd jump right in. At 522 pages, it's quite lengthy, and I'm usually not the type who can read an entire book in one sitting. I've been going to bed for the last few nights lamenting the fact that we humans have to sleep to feel good and have to work to make the dough.

The novel's backdrop is 1960's deep South. With allusions to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, it's hard not to believe that the story is a fairly accurate depiction of the relationships between white and black people, but more specifically, white homeowners and black maids (or help or domestics) when "Separate but Equal" still meant that it was okay to ship almost spoiled milk from white grocery stores to sell it in black grocery stores.

Aibileen and Minny are two very smart, very bitter, black maids for two very ignorant, very naive women. Having worked since they were teenagers, and having almost no other choice, they've half-raised at least 10 kids a piece. Over the years, Aibileen and Minny have learned the golden rule of working as a maid: White people are not your friends. These women avoid talking to or even looking at their employers. Skeeter (Miss Skeeter to Aibileen and Minny) is the young daughter of wealthy parents who own and run a cotton farm. The family employs a maid with whom Skeeter grows close to and respects very much. Her friends are Hilly and Elizabeth, two women who have been taught the golden rule of employing a maid: Black people are not your friends. These women have made a career out of barking orders at their help, playing bridge on Wednesday afternoons, and making babies who will be raised by others. Skeeter knows that her friends, and most of the country's population, are wrong about black people. They aren't dirty, and they don't have diseases that you can catch by sharing a bathroom with them. However, she finds it hard to escape the expectations of a young, wealthy, southern woman: find a boyfriend, get engaged, get married, hire a maid, have children. She wants to break the mold, though. She wants to become a writer. She also deeply believes in Civil Rights. Fate, and a little finesse, brings Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter together to document the stories of black people working for white families in Mississippi.

The Help is heart-warming and heart-breaking. It's uplifting and upsetting. At times it's hillarious. Most of all, it's eye-opening. Not having lived through the 1960's, I've never known what it's like to be emersed in a culture so deeply racist that black and white people can't share the same drinking fountains. I didn't participate in The March on Washington, and I've never witnessed a race riot. Having read The Help, though, has helped me to understand a little bit better what life was like during such transitional times. As Charles Dickens so aptly put it, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Many people escaped at the other end of such a challenging era enlightened.

Having finished such a poignant novel just days after President Obama certified the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I realized how easy it is to compare the original DADT legislation to "Seperate but Equal." The original DADT policy "prohibits military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while barring openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service." Isn't asking these people to "not tell" discriminating against and harassing them? Likewise, the original SBE doctrine certified that "services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group's public facilities was to remain equal." We've all heard the old saying: "Separate is inherently not equal." It's really easy to get sucked into old cliches: "History repeats itself," and "The more things change, the more they stay the same;" but I suppose it's appropriate to remain optomists, reassuring ourselves that our country, our world, is forever changing and learning from its mistakes.

Its unfortunate that we haven't already made all of these essential changes; but learning is growth, and growth can only mean good things for everyone.


  1. Thanks for always commenting, Mom. It makes me feel like I should keep writing. :)

  2. Our book club read this when it first was published and it is still one of my favorite selections. I was thrilled to hear the author give an interview on NPR while running errands and their advice to readers: "If you can only read one book this year, make it 'The Help' ". You may enjoy "The Kitchen House" as well.

    1. Thanks for checking out the blog! I'm not in a book club, but I sure wish I was. I'll be sure to check out "The Kitchen House." Is the setting and backdrop similar to "The Help?"


Tell me what you think...