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.
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