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The Help Delves Into Racism in 1960s Mississippi

September 13, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam February 10, 2009

Last Friday (9/11/09) was a day of mourning for our nation and also the anniversary of my mom’s death. I still miss her every day, and my feeling of loss is triggered in myriad little ways — like hearing something she would have thought was funny or pondering an idea and knowing she would have “gotten” it in a way no one else could. Often it’s my wanting to share a book with her. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was a novel I desperately wanted to discuss with Mom.

The story takes place in the early 1960s and is told through the voices of three women, all natives of Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen has been working for white families all her life and has lovingly reared 17 white children. Minny has also been “the help” for white folks all her life, though her incorrigibly sassy mouth has gotten her fired from several positions. 24-year-old Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a white girl and a recent graduate of Ole Miss. She dreams of becoming a writer, and she needs to find something she’s passionate enough to write about.

Unlike her white, middle-class parents and nearly everyone around her, Skeeter isn’t racist, though she is naiive and rather patronizing toward the “help.” When a long-time friend rallies support for not allowing black maids to use the toilets in their employers’ houses (they have different diseases, you know), Skeeter decides to write a book in which a dozen of Jackson’s maids, with their names disguised, talk about their experiences. It is a tremendously risky project, but one that, for the first time ever, gives these twelve women a voice.

In The Help, the author explores the many layers of racism in the Deep South in the early ’60s. These black women spent their lives serving white families, and often loved the people for whom they worked and were loved by them in return. Yet they were considered too unclean to use the families’ toilets, and they had to remain silent, acquiesce to all their employers demands, and avoid drawing attention to themselves.

At the end of a grueling day of cooking, cleaning, ironing, and childcare, these women went home to do all their own housework and cooking and care for their own children. At the same time, they were going home to men who were sometimes treated them much worse than their employers did.

I was moved by this book, and as I said, I longed to discuss it with Mom. It is hard to fathom the level of bigotry that was virtually unquestioned in that time and place, where a black person’s life could be ruined simply to protect a white woman’s pride. Yet my mother grew up there. She was born in a small town near Greenwood, Mississippi in 1940. She worked hard in her parents cafe, which opened before dawn to serve coffee and biscuits to white farmers before they went out to toil in the fields.

She once told me a story about a man named Exxo Bassey who had come into the cafe for breakfast. He left, pulled his truck away from the curb without looking behind him, and crashed into a car driven by a black man. Exxo was entirely at fault, but all the black man could do was stare at the street mumbling, “I am sorry sir, I’m sorry …. I’m very sorry …” and pray there would be no retaliation. The good folks in the cafe were unequivocal in their opinion. Obviously, that “nigger” had no business being there in the first place. (Driving on a public street on his way to work? The audacity of it!) This moment, and many others like it, made a deep impression on my mom.

She once told me she had no one to teach her racism was wrong — as far as she knew, that idea didn’t even exist in that time and place. But she always knew it was wrong. She doesn’t know how, but she just knew. She couldn’t wait to finish college and get the heck out of the butt crack of Mississippi.

She once explained to me that it was nearly impossible to really get just how deep this racial hatred ran. (Two of our relatives had been complaining that the newspaper published pictures of African-American brides in the wedding section. This was in the 1990’s.) “They don’t comprehend that black people think, feel, and breathe as we do,” Mom said. It’s deeply, bone-jarringly chilling.

In The Help, Kathryn Stockett captures this world with amazing clarity. It’s a novel that works hard to tell the whole story and tell it fairly. We see the unappreciated servitude of black maids who are barely viewed as human and unspeakable acts of cruelty against people in the black community. Yet we also see acts of love and kindness between white employers and the “help.”

I also enjoyed the history reflected in this book. We see the murders of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. We see glimmers of changes coming. Dr. King has drawn thousands of white and black activists to march from Selma, Alabama. There is an unknown new singer named Bob Dylan, a few girls are wearing their hair long and straight, and one even dresses in tie dyed t-shirts, and they’ve gone and invented a pill that keeps women from getting pregnant. In the words of the aforementioned musician, The Times They are a’ Changin’!

Another thing I loved about the book was the colorful and richly developed characters, including Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter, and Celia, a good-hearted, insecure white hillbilly who married a wealthy Jackson man. I felt as if I was sitting in these women’s kitchens, talking to them about their lives.

On many different levels, The Help explores the assumptions people make about each other, the courage of people — like Skeeter and my mom — who can see through the smoke and think independently, and — above all — the human traits and experiences that bind us all together.

Read more reviews of this book at The Book Lady’s Blog, A Novel Menagerie, and at Chaotic Compendiums

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 25, 2010 1:23 am

    Thanks for visiting my review of the Help. I felt like I was behind and that everyone else had read it before me. I tend to skim reviews of books that I know I plan on reading just to see if people like it. I don’t want to read too much since I think it will spoil it all for me, so it’s nice to come back and read your review now that I’m finished.

    So sorry about your mom! I can’t imagine what it must be like not to have her around anymore.

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