Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Help: they just can't help it, can they?

My mother had a black cleaning lady named Eva for years and years. She didn't have much to do with us kids, though we regularly saw her vacuuming our rooms and setting right the chaos of our jumbled games and toys.  My Mum once said if she met Eva on the street and didn't say hello to her first, she'd look away, but if she did say hello, Eva would smile and warmly respond: "Hello, Mrs. Burton." 
I think that was the protocol then: "the help" didn't initiate greetings, in case the white lady would rather the cleaning lady remain anonymous. Or in case she didn't want to be seen talking to a colored person.

Does this sound like the deep South? Guess again. I grew up in Chatham, Ontario, which is near Windsor, which is near Detroit, so we got all the Detroit TV channels and culture. Motown music got to us sooner and affected us more than in most parts of Canada, as did the late-'60s riots that Gordon Lightfoot wrote about in "Black Day in July". 

The Supremes came to Chatham in 1961, but I guess it was too much too soon, because hardly anyone showed up. Marian Anderson came to perform and couldn't stay in the same hotel as her entourage. There were, by Ontario standards, a lot of black kids in my classes, maybe 3 or 4, 5 or 6 even, but we usually didn't hang out with each other or both sides would be offended.

I never learned about the profound historical significance of Chatham/Kent County because it was never taught in school, nor even mentioned once. My mother did talk about it a bit, but I was not sure what she was referring to and I am not even sure how she found out about it. This is a tidbit from Wikipedia:

During the 19th century, the area was part of the Underground Railroad. As a result, Chatham–Kent is now part of the African-Canadian Heritage Tour. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is a museum of the Dawn Settlement, established in 1841 by Josiah Henson near Dresden as refuge for the many slaves who escaped to Canada from the United States.[3] John Brown, the abolitionist, planned his raid on the Harpers Ferry Virginia Arsenal in Chatham and recruited local men to participate in the raid. The small village of North Buxton, part of the African Canadian Heritage Tour, also played an important role in the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a loosely-organized escape route for runaway slaves from the U. S. South looking for sanctuary in Canada, and many of them found it in Chatham. I read these statistics now in shock: holy hell, these are all places I was familiar with from my childhood! There were poor neighborhoods in Chatham and surrounding areas where black folks had their - well, weren't they really happier in their own communities? We tried to convince ourselves of that. But by then, integration was the norm and they had to go to school with us, whether they (or we) wanted to or not.

Churches remained pretty much segregated, mostly (we believed) by choice. Reminds me of the old joke about the black man who goes to a white church and finds the door locked. He pounds on the door and shouts and tries to get in, but he can't. Then God comes along and says to him, "Don't worry, I've been trying to get into that place for years."

If there was any sort of official attitude toward black folks back then, it was "aren't we generous to let them live here": they were treated as glorified squatters, not part of a historical movement every bit as significant as the undergrounds that operated during World War II. Imagine the raw courage it took to escape, to risk life and limb for freedom and sanctuary. Imagine how many were maimed and killed. But what really destroys me is the kind of "welcome" waiting for them in this land of safe haven: every trace of their courageous journey was erased from the record, as if it were just some sort of embarrassment we'd rather forget.
This is complicated stuff, isn't it? I wonder. I'm not finished reading Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help, the book that would have been on Oprah if Oprah were still on. I probably don't need to tell you what it's about: an entire sub-class of black women in the early '60s basically taking on the role of nanny/surrogate mother as well as household help. But the deeper issue is a racial oppression so ingrained it didn't even draw comment, and a seething unrest just below the surface of normalcy.

I grew up on the cusp of that unrest. By the mid-'60s things were starting to bubble and boil and overflow the container. A shy lady named Rosa Parks had gone to jail for refusing to sit at the back of the bus. I heard about Malcolm X and Black Power and the Black Panthers, but I didn't understand much of it. There was a famous baseball pitcher named Ferguson Jenkins who was as well-known for being black as for his sports prowess. And a Chatham boy! Imagine being on the map for such a thing.
My Dad was full of hot air and given to endless, boring rants and monologues about pointless things. I was the last to leave home, so I sat on his right side for years at the dinner table without any kind of support or buffering from my three older siblings, who had made their escape years before. 

He got drunker and drunker over the years, and more maudlin, though of course no one believed me. His attitude towards black people still puzzles me. It was along the lines of "I knew a real nice colored guy once," like saying you knew a nice Nazi or maybe a leper. My parents were generally enlightened enough not to use the "n-word", and in fact I absorbed the message that it was just about the worst word there was, but my Mum still told me, not once but many times, that when she was a girl Brazil nuts were called "nigger toes".

I still don't know if this was meant to be funny, or a sign of how far we had progressed. But it was all part of the confusing and often conflicting stew of attitudes I absorbed as a child.

Just now this comes back to me: a song by Janis Ian, who wrote the provocative At Seventeen ("for those whose names were never called/When choosing sides for basketball", an anthem for the scorned and socially rejected). I remember kids saying to each other, murmuring. "Didja hear that new song?" "Which one?" "You know, the - " "Oh, yeah. Society's Child?" "Yeah." An exchange of knowing looks. The song is full of loaded images:

Now I can understand your tears and your shame.
She called you "boy" instead of your name.
When she wouldn't let you inside.
When she turned and said
"But honey, he's not our kind."

She said I can't see you any more, baby.
Can't see you anymore.

This is "the" forbidden relationship, delicately referred to as "interracial dating", forbidden particularly in quiet conservative non-radical Chatham. The nice boy down the street who just happens to be black, from another world. With the inevitable ending, but more shocking than I remember: 

One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening,
Gonna raise my head up high.
One of these days I'm gonna raise my glistening wings and fly.
But that day will have to wait for awhile.
Baby, I'm only society's child.
When we're older things may change.
But for now this is the way they must remain.

I say I can't see you any more, baby.
Can't see you anymore.
No, I don't wanna see you any more, baby.

"I don't want to see you any more"? That's not the way I remember it. When did it change?

The "rules" are nearly invisible but incredibly persistent, and thorny. Trespassing can happen in an instant. A middle-aged white woman wrote The Help, wrote much of it in dialect that is quite plausible as Southern black American speech, but in doing so she walked a fine line. I read about at least one lawsuit from a black woman who claimed Stockett had stolen her life, skimmed off the juicy parts and incorporated them into her novel without a thought. This sort of thing happens all the the time, because writers are vacuum cleaners (if not vampires) who suck the life and energy out of every situation and spew it back out again as "literature".

Perhaps they can't help it. But how many black people are equipped to write such a novel? Did Stockett decide she had to become a mouthpiece for the still-dispossessed? Maybe their usual champions are too busy. It seems that every African-American celebrity has to stand for a few thousand or million unknowns. There's only one Oprah, after all (though Condaleeza Rice didn't do too badly and blew open every racial stereotype I ever learned as a child). Alice Walker hasn't been around much since Oprah totally snubbed her at the premiere of the Broadway musical version of The Color Purple. Then there's Toni Morrison, an Oprah Book Club staple.  And who's that other one. . .you know, the one Oprah worships. God, I should remember.

Am I trying to say that only black people should write about black people? Obviously, someone had the nerve and the writing chops to step over that barrier. But I do wonder how all this goes down with black readers. Dialect is just a device, isn't it? Mark Twain didn't speak in the y'all-drawl of Huckleberry Finn, though he caught  the rhythms of speech from the deeps of Mississippi with uncanny accuracy.

"We" have a black President now, but unfortunately, not a very popular one. "We" have Jackie Kennedy coming out in her taped memoirs to say she didn't like Martin Luther King, didn't trust him, thought he was a phony even.  What does it mean? Applecarts are being upset, and even the sacred, calcified foundations of white liberalism are beginning to tremble. Now we have this woman, this middle-aged white novelist, uncovering shameful examples of racism, such as rich white women going on a campaign to force people to build a "colored" bathroom for the help, not just to make their houses more marketable but for sanitary reasons.

The book is readable, so far, but a little sudsy, a little slick. Bits of it make me groan for their almost-cutesy-ness. This is the sort of book that sells wildly. Supposedly Stockett was rejected by 60 agents before landing the one that slam-dunked this probably-mega-million-dollar deal. This smells of the kind of legend spun around the unknown writer (as in the probably-apocryphal "Whales, Mr. Melville?"), the writer who seemingly comes out of nowhere. Kind of like Mark Twain, who had been bouncing around for years on the fringes of eccentric anonymity before he broke through with Tom Sawyer.

Well. . .he didn't quite come from nowhere, nor did Stockett. Try Jackson, Mississipi (Oprah country, for sure). Try sixteen years in the publishing business in New York City. That's not "nowhere". It's the farthest thing from a literary backwater you can get. Surely a writer, a smart writer, a smart white writer like Stockett could make best use of those kinds of contacts. The woman has a good ear and a good eye and a good nose for opportunity, and is any of that a bad thing? If she calls attention to the plight of black maids in the South, a plight that still isn't resolved by many people's reckoning, isn't it all good?
And if it isn't, why not?