The Help: A Truth Revealed

August 14, 2011

I need to begin this blog with a truth of my own. I am white. I am American of English descent. I am a privileged person. As such I realize that my reflections on the Jim Crow South are likely skewed, probably soaked in a vat of white guilt, and possibly suspect. It is easy to pontificate on the ills of racism and all of the "isms" that plague humanity, so I know no other way to begin than self-examination and a truth seeking that exposes the hidden prejudices and self-proclaimed piety of my life. Being born in the first year of the Baby Boom, I have been privy to witness great upheaval and change in the culture around me. Some of it has been blessing and boon, some of it has been startling and unsettling, some of it has been just plain hard and still stands not yet resolved. The Help by Kathryn Stockett scraped the scab from old hurts last summer as I read it. Not hurts I experienced, but hurts I know were inflicted on others with whom I lived on different sides of a railroad track in eastern North Carolina. As I read, I tried to remember the names of all the black people who were help to my family, as maids, as workers at the store and in the yard, and in the ironing, and spring cleaning. First names were easier to remember than last names. Ollie, Annie, Ada Mae, Tang, Mammy, Thurman, and all the others who came in the daytime and retreated to their homes at the end of the day sometimes with left-over food and outgrown clothes and pay that was likely not much more than nothing. My awakening to the racism that surrounded this privileged white upbringing began when I would see my grandmother's help sitting on grandmother's stack of laundry on the back side of the stove. I remember riding in the car to take her home to a shotgun house behind her church down by the river. I remember going with Mother to Ollie's house in South Ayden to pick up the ironing Ollie had done for the week. Her little house was heated with kerosene oil and our clothes picked up the smell. I remembered her all week, because the fragrance of her existence was on my clothes. Ada Mae talked up a storm. She was slender and strong as an ox. She pulled mattresses onto the porch and beat them with a broom and washed windows and porch furniture. Her son, Johnny, rode one time with my brother in his 57 Chevy convertible. None of these folks ever came to dinner at our house, even though they were as much a part of life as anybody else. There are two incidents I remember being turning points in my life. The first was when I was about 12 years old. Thurman, who worked at the store and also kept our yard mowed, was working at the house. His daughter also came to play in our play house with me as her daddy worked. It was hot and Thurman knocked on the back door to ask Mother for a drink of water. She served him water in a Mason jar that she used for canning, not even a kitchen glass. I was struck in that moment [that is still seared in the visual memory of my brain] with how wrong that felt to me. That my Mother would serve my friend's Daddy water in a Mason jar mortified me. That would not have happened with any other friend's daddy. The second thing that happened was reading a book titled: Black Like Me by someone whose name I do not even remember about the sociological experiment of becoming a "black" man in order to experience what it was like to be Black in America in the 1960s. It was shameful how this man was treated, like every black man and every black woman in town. When the Civil Rights movement caught fire, my heart was in it. Daddy wouldn't let me go to Washington to march with Dr. King, but I was socially aware and conscious from that time on about the struggle many have to have voice and know freedom and justice from the position of powerlessness. But the meek will inherit the earth, so our Lord tells us. And the reversal of have and have nots continues to play out in tension among us. I encourage each of you to see the movie, The Help. It is a profound telling of a truth that I know was lived in the south and in other places around the world. It will take time to process the depths of this story that intertwines with my own story. I pray that one day the kingdom will come in ways of peace and justice, that every voice will count and every life matter. "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." And it is up to us to make the difference for God. Amen.

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