Thursday, August 18, 2011

Children of "The Help"

In  my last blog, I talked about the deeper complexities of interracial relationships that "The Help" explored, however ineptly. (To hear my interview about the movie on The Takeaway, click the play button below.)

I can't believe how many people responded to that blog, including my good friend, Jackie Victor. Those of us in Detroit may know her as the co-founder of Avalon International Breads, a small business that has had a ginormous impact on Midtown Detroit. Avalon was there in 1997, long before Midtown was cool, and many people thought Jackie had flipped her lid to locate a business there. She and Ann have shown the city what dedication, commitment and love can prove.

My biggest question has been, "Why?"

I got a hint about what makes Jackie tick after she read my blog and sent me this response. I was awed by her honesty. Here goes:

You may not be surprised, but I was on the other side of "The Help". The woman who largely raised me, Geneva Powell, was a primary force in my life from birth until 18. Although my mom was wonderful and loved me dearly, there was something missing in her raising of me...primarily confidence.

In any case, Geneva's presence was deep and powerful, protective and full of contradictions. My deep relationship with her until the day she died has informed every part of my life: from living in Detroit, to starting a business that contributes to revitalization of the city, to overcoming my own fears of the city 25 years ago and moving here from U of M, when few if any of my peers were making that move. All those choices have given me gifts I could never have imagined years ago. And so her legacy continues to feed my soul.

I also named my daughter, Rafaella Geneva (doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, I admit), in tribute to the love and truths that Geneva taught me. Rafaella means "one who heals with G-d". To me, Geneva means simply, love.

The book reminded me of the excruciating truths that I painfully know, albeit from my position of privilege: the sacrifices that Geneva made to raise me, the great indignities and humiliation she endured, even working for a "liberal, Jewish" family from the North. I could go on and on. I felt like the book could easily have been set in Bloomfield Hills in 1970.

These are painful topics, that I have broached openly only periodically. Yet I have tried to live a life that would make Geneva proud. And give back a portion of what she gave to me. An impossible task, but certainly one that could keep me moving forward for my lifetime.

Thank you for opening up the dialogue in a brave and honest way, as is your strength. I welcome any dialogue that opens our hearts and deepens our mutual understanding, albeit painful and dangerous terrain.

In Gratitude,

Jackie Victor


Kelly said...

My story is very similar to Jackie's. I was raised by a woman named Olga Clarke, who was from Jamaica and was (because my parents traveled and were frequently unavailable) a real mother figure to me. She told me lots of stories about discrimination including tales of traveling to the south in the 1950s and 1960s and not being allowed to eat inside restaurants--the intense humiliation of having her meal brought out to her car. Because I had no siblings and no means of separating myself from her, I identified strongly with those stories. When I cried, she said, "Now you are a part of the black experience." Of course, I am not. But her legacy has stayed with me. I grew up in Washington , D.C. which was much more integrated than Detroit was in 1993 when I moved here. I encountered racism here in a way I never had before. It was extremely painful and shocking when people in my new metro Detroit neighborhood made racist comments in front of me. They didn't censor themselves because they thought they were talking to another white person (Why do people assume we feel the same way because we share the same skin color?) It took me several years not to shut down completely when someone said something hateful in front of me. Finally, I was able to say, “I completely disagree with you. I find that very offensive. Please don’t assume I feel the same way you do.” Now things are changing slowly. My neighborhood is becoming more integrated. Most people are thrilled by this but it does make the people who are fearful and slow (I really do correlate racism with low intelligence) more belligerent. I hope that in some small way I am honoring my relationship with Olga by sharing my deep-rooted hatred of racism with my children, their friends and anyone else I come into contact with.

Anonymous said...

I have many Jewish friends who have Black 'help' whenever I visit them the 'help' always leaves whenever I am in their presence it is akward for all of us especially when talk about white racism and Obama topics of course I never censor myself this time I will bring up the white Jewish publisher in the film....

Thrasher said...

WoW..I really admire Jackie's comments many of my white Jewish friends remain in denial about their families white providers during our country's Jim/Jane Crow era!