Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Help

Rosetta E. Ross has written a provocative self-described “rant” in Religion Dispatches about why she will not see the film The Help. Unlike her, I have not read the book but have seen the film. And, unlike her, I am white and thus have had a very different experience in a nation in which “we breathe racist air,” as my black classmate in seminary at the Episcopal Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley so eloquently put it.

In my classes at the university where I teach, I often challenge my students to consider the question I was presented in seminary: Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense? That is the question Ross has raised. And she has concluded that this book and film are good for whites who come to experience their full humanity by the instrumental means of their black “help.” Sadly, there is much to be said for that response. But it hardly exhausts the possibilities.

I am one of the many white children of The Help. I was raised by a black nanny named Henrietta who came to our home when I was 8 and helped raise my brother, sister and I to adulthood. While the children listening attentively to their black mother figures in the film well represents our own relationship with our nanny, the stereotypes of their white employers do not reflect our home. My own hard working mother was a clerk in a rural federal agency who did not have time for the Junior League nor much interest in such vagaries. If anything, she and her Help worked as a team and on her deathbed my mother bespoke her gratitude to Henrietta saying , “I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

What the film, set in the 1950s in Jackson, MS, does not well portray is the role that many of our black nannies played in the coming to consciousness of a generation of white children. As Ross suggests, we did discover the dignity of our nannies, their humanity and our own humanity in that process. But we also discovered much more than that.

I learned what cognitive dissonance meant long before I read Leon Festinger’s work on the subject in grad school. In a time of desegregation when fear ruled the day and self-serving constructions of the other ruled most white minds, Henrietta was a living refutation of the common wisdom about black people in our little farm town in Central Florida. While the stereotypes warned us that black people were lazy, Henrietta worked harder than anyone I knew. While the stereotype said black people were stupid, Henrietta was a source of wisdom about the world of which my siblings and I are beneficiaries to this day. And while the stereotype said never trust black people, my family entrusted to her without hesitation our most cherished family member, our baby sister, and Henrietta guarded her with her life just as she would have her own children who had long since grown to adulthood.

The living example of a dignified, wise and loving human being whose very existence exposed the falsehood of what our racist society had taught us had a powerful effect on many white southern children in the 1960s. Over time many of us came to realize that not only had we been taught lies, we had been taught pernicious, soul-draining lies. The people we had relied upon to be arbiters of the real world had spun for us a web of misanthropy threatening to choke the life out of that world. It was precisely our experience of The Help that set many of us on a lifelong journey of coming to grips with that legacy.

Coping with cognitive dissonance presents people with several options. The common choices are denial and rationalization, attempting to make the facts fit the deeply held fictions. The harder path is recognition that one’s beliefs have been erroneous, rejecting the falsehood, accounting for the harm caused by it and making a change of direction in one’s life path. In theological terms, we call that repentance.

For myself and I would guess for many of my generation of white southern children The Help was not so much the instrumental means of white self-actualization as they were agents of consciousness - if not conversion. Through their lives, we learned about the evils of racism and, even more threatening for many white people, the reality of our own white privilege. And through their love and wisdom, many of us accepted the calling to enter into a lifetime of confronting those forces in ourselves and our culture which would deny any human being their dignity even at the cost of our own comfort.

For those lessons, I am grateful. Like my mother, I don’t know what I would have done with them. Indeed, I have long known that I will be in the debt of The Help for the rest of my life.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Omniryx said...

I seldom comment on blogs for the same reason that I do not write one. I find the majority to be almost obsessively self-focused. I end up wondering by what stretch of the imagination the authors consider that the rest of the world has more than the most fleeting interest in their ruminations. A few are consistently stimulating and provocative. The remainder seem driven by the authors' conviction that what is being said is worth reading.

From time to time I check in on Harry's blog, partly because he is probably the best friend I have in the world and partly to see how he has reduced some of our wine-stimulated conversations to print. This entry motivated me to add a few remarks.

Like Harry, I am a multi-generational Floridian. Sixth, in my case, and there aren't many of us around. My sisters and I were reared in the Panhandle by a woman of color. Hazel Johnson was my arbiter of good taste in food, in style, in friends, and in conduct. My mother was a reading therapist and a coach. She lavished her love on us but her time was limited. My father, a brilliant man, was often absent, psychologically if not physically. Without Hazel, our lives would not only have been hugely more difficult but also deeply impoverished. She was intelligent, wise, compassionate, demanding, loving, insightful and, given her limited formal education, quite articulate.

We were the town liberals in our little community of 5000 beach-loving souls. My parents were probably the best educated adults in the county. They were voracious readers and insistent conversationalists. As children, we were expected to join in and we were expected to have something to say. We were an oddball lot among the rednecks of north Florida; liked by our fellow citizens but certainly not understood.

Our neighbors did not understand why my parents paid Hazel about three times as much money as was common for "help" in those days or why they withheld income tax and paid her social security. They did not understand why my father paid for her gall bladder surgery or why she sat in the front seat when we drove her to and from work or to shop. They certainly did not understand when we children said "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" when we spoke to her or why we called her Mrs. Johnson instead of Hazel.

And that is where Rosetta Ross just doesn't get it. Much of America does not know the stories of these loving and dedicated women. It does not know of their wit and wisdom, their patience, their dignity and grace. The stories of their lives and the goodness and joy they brought into the lives of others will only be known when the whites who knew them so well share their narratives with others. Hazel did not need whites--certainly not our family--to "live and demonstrate to the world fulfilled lives every day." She did that all on her own. But she and thousands of others do need our white voices, Professor Ross, because they are gone now and without our expressions of love and gratitude their stories will never be known.