Showing posts with label maids. Show all posts
Showing posts with label maids. Show all posts

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Help Navigating "The Help"

I have very mixed feelings about "The Help," emotions that I feel are being quashed by the African American History Police.

I read the book when it first came out and saw the movie yesterday and was surprised at how much I liked it. The film has been criticized for sugar-coating the black experience. No, it wasn't the gritty look at real life in apartheid America. But it certainly hinted at the thousands of daily indignities that black maids endured everyday to work with white people. How much misery can you really pile into a movie and still expect people to see it? Folks, this is Hollywood.

Photo from "The Help"
What I applaud is the effort of whites to explore their own racism and to consider their culpability in perpetuating the system. Even the nicest person in the movie (a Junior League outcast) was "forced" to hire a maid in order to function at the level expected among her peers. There were many scenes where white women fired or refused to hire wonderful, dependable black women simply because of peer pressure - they didn't have the balls to speak up against injustice. As long as whites complied with the Jim Crow laws and the racist social mores, they participated and benefited from racial oppression. And this is explored in the movie.

What I think rubs us the wrong way is the depiction of the genuine feelings that the maids and nannies developed for the women they worked for and the children they raised. It seems anathema to the concept of involuntary servitude and caste structures. But I ask you: Doesn't it further degrade the experience of the black maids to deny that they were able to love the very people who oppressed them?  
My grandmother, Annie Cooper,
was a maid for the Parker family.
I came across this troubling contradiction with horrific clarity in my own family.  My mother and father were raised in a one-horse town near Richmond, Virginia. My father has often spoken of the humiliating, soul-breaking racism they endured. The dusty work of “chopping cotton,” sharecropping, the indignity of not being allowed to have jobs handling money, etc. My uncle told a story every family reunion about having to plow a field standing behind a white mule all day. As the sun beat down on him and the mule continued to lift its tail and crap in front of him, my uncle vowed he’d never stand behind anything white again.

The women in my family were all laundresses and maids. The highest dreams they had for their daughters were for them to become teachers.

My parents escaped that little town as soon as they could. When his college scholarship ran out, my father joined the Air Force and my parents traveled the world. 

Years later, I went with my mother to antique shop in Norfolk, Virginia. After living in Detroit for decades, I sensed that the white woman at the cash register wasn’t exactly warm to two black women coming into her shop. (Whenever Northerners cross the Mason-Dixon line, they are ever-vigilant for the Klan, as if racism only happens in Georgia or the Carolinas.) I ignored the woman and started rummaging through old photos. My mother, because she was raised with the genteel manners of the South, greeted the shop owner brightly. They even started chit-chatting.

Suddenly, there was a squeal, like the sound of teenagers greeting each other at the mall.

“Bobby Goode?” the white woman gushed, throwing her arms around my mother.

“Nancy Parker!” Mom exclaimed, hugging her back. “My mother-in-law worked for your family for years!”

I was embarrassed, angry and shamed. I wanted to drag my mother out of there for shining up to the family that had essentially enslaved my father’s family. What was she thinking? Didn’t she remember the horrible way they must have been treated? Wasn’t she resentful of the way that the white Parker children built opportunity on the backs of our family?

But then the women, wiping away tears, starting going through family members, giving updates, telling who had died, who had children, where they lived now.

I realized with horror that I was watching a family reunion. In that moment, I understood that racism was experienced differently for women than for men. Black women were brought into the intimate recesses of white family life. Indeed, they were sometimes the linchpin of the white family. It was inescapable that genuine, deep and lasting bonds would sometimes develop. Dare I use the words “love” and “affection?”

I know that the relationships were not equal. But if deep love and affection can happen in marriages where power imbalances, oppression and even violence occur, why can’t we believe that they happened between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow South?

This is dangerous territory for African Americans to concede. If we allow that whites and blacks forged friendships, affections and even fell in love with each other in the midst of slavery and segregation, can we still villainize whites as our oppressors?

This is the aspect of “The Help” that seems to make us the most uncomfortable. Yet, until we allow whites to explore their agency in apartheid, until we allow a discourse about the difference between their realities and ours, we will never move closer to a collective understanding of our histories.

“The Help” is definitely imperfect. But I’m open to the dialogue it can spur and to a deeper understanding of the complicated interracial relationships that we have yet to explore.