“On the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Commentary on the Movie “The Help”
by Bull Sullivan
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, August 21, 2011
Living & Arts Section
Black, white Atlantans talk about “The Help”
by Rosalind Bentley
Rosalind Bentley’s review and commentary of the film “The Help” could be of little help to anyone serious about understanding the complex dynamics of the relationship between white women and black women in the Southern United States. This is no fault of Ms. Bentley, unless we wish to fault her choice of commentators. That it was her choice isn’t clear, however, as the article states: “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked present and former Atlantans to reflect on that era.” As I reflect on the superfluous comments by this racially imbalanced panel of five “experts” I must insist, to be fair and balanced, that the reader follow my link to a FaceBook thread of the Atlanta, Georgia “Buckhead Native” Group, which serves to far better inform any interested person of the unusual nature of the relationship between white women, the employers, and black women, the employed, as seen by the children of those white women, many of whom were raised by their black maids. This thread:
and several others regarding “The Help” make clear that the complex racial relationships portrayed in Kathryn Stockett’s novel were often the crucible that led the generation of post world war children, War Babies and Boomers, to a compassionate understanding of racial equality and the need for racial justice.
What is amazing to me, a child as described above, literally raised by our maid, our mammy, Carolyn Manning, is that other than Wynette Blathers, who was a maid, I can not imagine that either Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall or the Honorable Julian Bond, both of whom were the elite children of educated “Middle Class” black parents, and both of whom could well be described as “high yellow” African Americans, have any real understanding, other than academic or apocryphal, of the conditions of employment or the nature of the often personal emotional ties that the white wives had with their black help. Nor can I assume, based on his observations, that Professor James C Cobb ever laid his head on the bosom of his black maid and sobbed over some school day disappointment while this dearest of all women, his maid or mammy, comforted him.
I would take nothing away from any of these three commentators; their personal achievement, their racial sensitivity, even if birthed in guilt or shame, is notable. In fact, I wonder if Mr. Bond enjoyed such comfort; surely the son a University President must have lived in a house with some servants. And Dr. Guy-Sheftall, whose wise mother worked so hard as a teacher and accountant, and who was gifted by those efforts with a prestigious education at Spellman College, and Emory University, I wonder did she ever consider such a position?
Dr. Cobb, surely a Georgia Cracker, remains shocked that liberal white folks have domestics, “but it is a matter of class.” The guilt he must feel that his parents would want to pay “them” (their farm help) in old clothes once the work was done. This professor’s red neck shines brightly as he casually notes “…it was like they (blacks) had to act grateful and happy to do it” and of course he notes “”so-called decent white folks got a lot of psychological gratification or felt “I’m helping these people…(they must be)so grateful to me…(I’m)doing something good”
Dr Cobb, as I reflect on your comments, I don’t believe you have been so close to a load of manure since you last visited your family farm in Hart County, Georgia. I’ve read a number of your articles and your blog, and am amazed that you can manifest such a lower middle class “guilt” driven understanding of Southern Culture. I can surely appreciate that a University lead by a boyishly sycophantic upwardly motile “wanna be” southern gentleman, as Doctor Michael F Adams is, would have you as a Spalding Distinguished Research Professor, Southern History and Culture, but really, your comment “having a black maid was a status symbol” is neither well researched nor well considered.
Dr Guy-Sheftall, a little learning or in your case a lifetime of learning, can often obscure the ability to speak truth. One can become so certain that the facts are, as they present them, so universally true that those facts become part of a lie, the lie of self deceit and self conceit. “They were often vulnerable to sexual exploitation of the white men in the household.” Really, Professor? Is it your experience that as a nearly white, high yellow, fair skinned Negro woman white men see you as an object of sexual exploitation? Is it your exotic looks that convince you that the sexual attentions of white men are as inevitable as, well, as proximity?
Funny, I rode the Number 23/13 Atlanta Transit bus daily for nearly a decade, as a observant prodigy, and seldom noticed other than dark ebony women, tired from work, not trysts, riding with me, and with me they rode, for I was always in the back with them. Let’s see, in Atlanta they rode the bus early, early to work, arriving as early as 6:30 or 7:00 AM, and then they worked through the day, preparing meals, washing dishes, making the beds, cleaning the rooms, doing laundry, making lunch for the Massa’s wife, ironing clothes, greeting the children, starting dinner, and just when may I ask, among all this work, did they and the Massa have time to do the nasty? You, dear professor, are the child of privilege, the daughter of an educated woman who sought to teach you self-reliance and independence. Is your poor opinion of white men based on abandonment, were you or your mother ever subjected to abuse or abandonment by one such predatory white man?
Let me tell you a story, Professor Guy-Sheftall, distinguished alumnus and Professor at Spelman College. The woman who raised me, Carolyn Manning, as black and big and beautiful as any renaissance Madonna, was subjected to such abuse, but by a black man who impregnated her as a child, and then abandoned her to her own means. She was bright and wise, and good in a way no intellectual could ever fathom, and she made her way up from South Georgia to Atlanta, and took to doing domestic work. She came to my family, not as Dr. Cobb suggested, as a “status symbol,” but to help my mother who was pregnant with her fourth child. She remained with our family until her death. Now, my mother was a liberated woman for her time, a combat air evacuation nurse veteran of WWII, and was at the time, beginning a real estate brokerage career. Fifteen years after the birth of her fourth child, well after I had left home, my mother returned to school and earned a degree in Law. My mother is an accomplished and successful woman, but make no mistake, Carolyn was the pillar of our home, the one essential person that made life as we knew it, possible. And that lifestyle, it wasn’t so terrible, millions of Americans, including you and every other cited commentator in the above referenced article, sought it, the comfortable life of the Middle Class American. Carolyn Manning was abused by one other man, the black doctor, a graduate of Meharry Medical College, who failed to properly treat her high blood pressure, and whose carelessness lead to her death by a hospital borne pneumococcal infection. The small Catholic West Atlanta Hospital where she died has long since closed, but as a member of a JCAH evaluation team in the early 1970’s, we found the hospital appallingly filthy.
Julian Bond was a hero of mine, defier of convention, intellect behind SNCC, legislator of courage. He too, suffers from a childhood of privilege, we will never know if he felt shame that his childhood was free of most of the passing insults and pernicious discrimination that blacks through America suffered. His actions however, always spoke to truth; his words in this article remain truthful. He understood that the film “The Help” wasn’t meant to be a documentary, or to reveal some yet unpublished insight, it was a work of fiction based on the memory of one woman, of one childhood. More importantly, it was intended to be entertainment. Just as Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” was not perfectly factual, or all encompassing of the “Negro in domestic service” experience, neither is “The Help.” Succinctly, Mr. Bond sums up the truth of much of the experience as “There’s nothing to be ashamed of for being paid for a honest day’s work.” Thank the Good Lord Mr. Bond never became an “academic.” A PhD is obviously four or more years spent in studying a topic; all too often that topic is “Why I became important.”
The last two of the commentators more accurately express the true nature of domestic service, then as now. Anyone can understand the need of a job, of work to pay for necessities, to hopefully bridge a “now” to a better “future” time. In Black Culture, then as now, males were often absent from the family. At the time the novel takes place, men had a better excuse than now; for the Negro male, respect, dignity, self-worth were all hard to acquire in the post war years, and the frustration was exacerbated by the war time service of hundreds of thousand black men, returning to a Nation that had no place for them. In these circumstances, black women became, by default, breadwinners, and often sole providers of their children’s needs. In the South, it was especially difficult for woman, mothers, whose children’s father often had left for the North or California, or someplace, anyplace better than a racially divided South. Had they found such a place, I am sure many of those displaced men would have sent for their family; unfortunately, all too often they found out that discrimination wasn’t just a “southern” thing. The nascent post war prosperity coupled with expanding traditional southern families provided opportunities for domestic employment, and a generation of black women availed themselves of that opportunity. Mattye Sanders’ mother, Leola Green, was such a woman. It is, in my opinion, sad that Ms. Green’s daughter failed to understand much about her mother’s relationships, even as she benefited and eventually received her degree in economics from the University of Missouri. Several of her comments say much about her lack of understanding. I suspect her mother said little about whom she worked for due to a process of compartmentalization, a behavior in which many of us lead two lives, a public and a private existence. Also, someone in service hears many things which are frankly not appropriate to discuss with others, Ms. Green may well have been the soul of discretion. As to her mother calling the women she worked for by the appellation “Miss,” had she, as her mother had, heard what the women her mother worked for called the women they respected, she would know it was a sign of respect, not homage, to address such persons as “Miss”. Why not respect the people who make it possible for you to feed and clothe your family? Why not keep their secrets and do the best you can? “Miss” Leola seems to me to have worked diligently to see her children accomplish more in life than circumstances allowed her, and she deserved the gifts her daughter and siblings later bestowed on her, and certainly their love and their respect for her doing what ever it took to assure them a better life.
Much is made of how hard these women worked, but consider this, most women, white or black, who kept their own house, did exactly the same tasks, and for no pay at all. Ah, the joys of wifery and motherhood! The fact is most women did not have a maid. And what of the women who did? Did they lounge around in their pajamas as often portrayed? Not those I knew as a child. They volunteered in prodigious numbers in schools, libraries, and hospitals. They worked tirelessly in churches, community theatres, in the Red Cross, in the PTA, in social and public service groups, and many worked with their husbands building businesses that survive and thrive today. Others practiced medicine, dentistry, and law. Yes, this was true then in Atlanta, and even then in Mississippi. These women also raised their families, albeit with the help of their maid, and their contribution to society was possible only because of the trust, respect and affection they had for their maid.
It would be wonderful if every domestic servant, every maid and mammy had the experience of Wynette Blathers, the last of the five commentators. I could not assert that such was the case, and must agree that often the times made such an experience unlikely. But I feel that Ms. Blathers understands that to serve is not to submit, that her service to the family that employed her was of great benefit to both parties, and that the affection and respect she felt while in service to them was real and mutual. Professor Cobb obviously thinks such a relationship is an affectation of class, Professor Guy-Sheftall asserts it as demeaning and Ms. Sanders doesn’t quite understand it. Mr. Bond accepts such relationships can exist, but monetizes those relationships. Only Ms. Blathers, the only one who has experienced a time of service to others, truly understands the joy that comes from doing any job well, and in the case of her family, the tight bonds that grow between the family and those who, through mutual affection and respect, become “one of the family.”