14 August 2011

Skeeter's Sisters: And Some of Them are Good (Reflecting on Insidious White Woman Normativity in “The Help”)

It has taken me 24 hours later, Sunday worship, and a talk with Mama to get me in a righteous space to respond to the movie, “The Help.” I am most grateful that God allows for righteous indignation (Ephesians 4: 26-27) or else I would be sinning big time with the meditations of my heart!

As a bibliophile it was unusual that I saw the movie before reading the book. However, with life moving in such swift transitions over the past six months, by the time I caught the wave of the rave, the movie was opening in my neighborhood. What I expected was to see a film which hired a lot of black actresses in silent roles – typical of Hollywood and life beyond celluloid where the spooks at the door (literally and metaphorically) were oft seen and not heard. Still, I purposed to see a film where black actresses were working. I also expected to see happy white girls who lived to make life miserable for the other and outsiders. These two expectations were sufficiently met.

Conversely, I did not expect my heart to be snatched out of this suburban theatre and esconed once again in the dirty South. A South, namely Texas, where I knew those maids because they were kin to me; where I knew those white women because they were mysteries to me; where I knew even in my young knowing that white people had a monopoly on the easy life and black people were expected to make it so for them. So I cried.

As I watched Abileen (portrayed by the imitable Viola Davis) mammy Mae Moebly, from the first scene to the final when little Mae asks Abileen as she was leaving having been fired, “Are you going to get you a new little girl?”, I traversed from deep sighs to deeper sobbing. I cried for the love black women gave to little white girls and boys which was usually repaid in insult. I cried because I watched my Democratic womenfolk mammy and serve Republican white folk who red-lined our neighborhoods, charged the Poll Tax, and sat on juries to convict on color more than on circumstantial evidence. I cried because Mama'nem, the vast of black mammy ancestors, gave away so much of their good heart to little white people and having so little of this affirmation left over to give to us – their bone, their flesh, their skin, their kin. I cried, envious of the ample lap ever available to the little white girl, when all the story told was of the next generation of little black girl being coached to serve the next generation of little white girl. So I cried, a lot.

I cried also, because I know, in my lifetime, the daughters and granddaughters of the white women portrayed in this movie. Same spirit, ever more insidious, different generation. I met one of them in seminary when doing a group project where I was the only black, and black woman, in the group. Of course, without discussion, the white woman took power of the pen and paper; the alpha white male took the seat at the head of the table; and they together began to answer the questions set before us – as a group assignment – as if the other three of us people of color were invisible. When they came to a question that neither of them knew the answer I offered the answer. This little white girl, being some 20 years my junior, poised her pen over the paper and refused to write down the answer. I repeated the answer to which she positioned herself as interrogator, “How do you know that?” As my Mama said, “it is not what you say, it's how you say it.” She asked the right question the wrong way. The collision of her indignation at her lack of knowledge and my confident knowledge hung thick in the air as I refused to justify my presence at the table.

She, holding the pen and refusing to let it dance with the paper, blushed deeply as I calmly turned the paper away from her, wrote the answer in my most flourishing penmanship and purple pen, and read off the next question. For the group to answer. She had nothing more to say for the rest of the project and relinquished the paper to my pen to finish recording the answers. When the convener called us together to a lively competition of who got the most answers correct, not only did our team win, our team was the only table who got the question in question correct! Again, that little white girl, I can call her so being 20 years my junior, indignantly and emphatically asked, “How do you know that?” Again, I refused her the luxury of bullying me into justifying my seat at the table of knowledge. While our table, minus her and the alpha white male who had walked away from our table and rejoined his peers across the room before the results were announced, celebrated at being the victors in this theological mini-decathlon, she writhed in clear discomfort of my ability to do her no harm. To answer her, with anything other than silence, I would have done her harm. Being a grown black woman and womanist, I seek to do no harm, or at least mitigate harm, to another. That little white girl in seminary just couldn't bear the thought that a black woman possessed knowledge superior to her cache of trivia. She just couldn't phantom that I would not mammy her into feeling good by my being silent or otherwise responding to her intimitable airs. I cried watching this movie because that little white girl had learned some very bad habits, had inherited some awful social graces, and embodied racist norms inherent of nurture not infused by the nature of Imago Dei.

Five years later, and mere weeks ago, I met another little white girl professing being called to Christian ministry who demanded I allow her to bully me into a conversation in which she was clearly not my social, intellectual, spiritual, or theological peer. And, like little children do when they cant have their way, she threw a tantrum in the middle of a gathering and garnered all kinds of attention to her pouting and spouting because in response to the most blatant, racist and ignorant comment I had heard from anyone in our denomination, I quietly corrected her, sought to deflect her escalating diatribe of pseudo-intellectualism with gentleness, and offered my ability to do her no harm. I cried in the movie because Hilly Holbrook's granddaughter so needed to avenge her ignorance, brashness and mean spiritedness that she falsely accused me taking something of hers – her power to demand full participation in denigration of the spook in the doorway (I was the only black woman in attendance). Her sole defense for asserting her position was, “I am from Texas and black people don't....” Hilly's granddaughter, which I shall heretofore name my experience with this little white girl of whom I am 30 years her senior, called the law enforcers of our gathering to further demand I give an account of what I did to upset her so. I cried in the movie because I wanted one more conversation with Hilly's granddaughter to merely ask her, and ask of her generation of racist white women in my most sincere Abileen voice, “Miss Hilly, aren't you tired, yet?” I long to ask her if she was not indeed tired of sifting through righteousness to hold fast to whiteness. I long to ask her if she was not indeed tired of being afraid of others outside of Texas, femaleness and whiteness. I long to tell Hilly's granddaughter that it was not too late for her to have a Skeeter Epiphany in the name of Jesus. I cried, so hard and so long because Hilly's granddaughters are still giving birth. To seminarians. To clergy.

As I watched The Help, I cried because I could not leave the theatre hating white women. Besides hating being such an exhaustive endeavor, I cried because I am grateful for Skeeter Sisters in my life. I couldn't hate all white women, because some of them are good. My mother and her sisters have long worked for white women. My 89 yo senior aunt still works for white people. Whether as maids entering from the back door to raising white kids to taking in laundry, Mama'nem speak of the goodness of white people towards them in an era which authenticates the content and context of The Help.

Mama tells of working for Mrs. Ava Folks in Lily White, a subdivision of Houston of which its name announced its populous and fiercely guarded demographic. Mrs. Folks took notice of Mama's detailed handiwork on finishing garments. She would sew an outfit and Mama would finish it with nimble fingers and keen eye for detail. Mama says that Mrs. Folks was good and fair and generous. She paid Mama justly and often gave Mama useful gifts of fabric and excess from her coffers. Mrs. Folks was so benevolent, Mama named my sister after her. I heard this story a many a day. I cried watching the movie because there were not enough “good white women” portrayed on the front lines of the eve of the Civil Rights Movement; because the white women who would have been good were portrayed as neurotic, alcoholic and opportunistic. White women: and some of them are good.

Just as I have encountered many of Hilly's granddaughters, I have also encountered white women who are good, not merely tolerant, benevolent, or kind towards me, but inherently good – seeking righteousness where they could instead choose privilege, passivity and protection. One of them who is good encouraged me in seminary to preach truth which was unpopular. One of them who is married to a former boss keeps in touch with me long after the white liberal reaction to the Rodney King Riots quelled. One of them works for queer justice understanding that black church folk approaches this hot topic from a distinct cultural location. One of them opened her palatial home and offered her expensive car to me for four years as I visited my son in boarding school on the East Coast. One of them seeks out my perspective on matters pertaining to women, not just black women; to holy texts, not just texts about homosexuals; to raising babies, as she is raising her own while marveling at the relationship I have with my teen son. I cried in the movie, a lot, because some white women are good, courageous, not at all intimidated by the ring leaders of racism prevalent in Hilly's daughters. Some of them are good.

Skeeter’s Sisters: some of them are good, first; white by creation; and friend by choice. For that I give God thanks and praise.

5 comments:

  1. Rae, if this hadn't filled my heart to bursting with the love poured into and pouring out of every word, I wouldn't know whether to respond with tears or anger. As it is, I can only respond with reciprocal love and deep respect. Not only is this the best review of the movie I've read, it is (in my admittedly limited experience) one of the best things you've written. Thank you.

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  2. Cassandratoday, I validate both your tears and your anger! Thank you for reading... and writing... Joy-filled and Spilling Spirit! Raedorah

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  3. Thank you, Raedorah for posting this for all of us whose mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and aunts worked for white women, some of whom were good.

    In the days of technology, gaming, Internet, cell phones with the future at the ready and gone in the blink of an eye, we are quick to forget our pasts, search our histories for the deep meaningful stories which bind us to our collective truths. Not that we need labor there, but that we understand the fabric rewoven into our present lingering in threads of malevolence which continue to link us to those unimaginable hurts. At the end of the day we are our mothers and our daughters both bearing the stain of racism in varying degrees in the fabric of our lives.

    I am grateful for my mothers' and aunts' stories. Grateful to understand the strength in my bloodlines, grateful to understand that not everyone is my friend nor is everyone my enemy. As it has been through the ages good can be found everywhere.

    I still have not read the book nor seen the movie. As a writer I cringe at the excerpts I have seen and as a black woman I am angered by Hollywood's failure to support the black women's stories already out there rather than believe a white woman could better tell our stories than us.

    I know I will eventually see the movie. I just would not be counted in the opening weekend numbers.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful insights. Truly grateful.

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  4. Raedorah,
    Hi. I found your response. It is amazing for so many reasons: your visceral reactions, the deeply emotional response, your analysis, and your ability to make meaning of it through your own Southern upbringing and your more current seminary/university experiences. I have been to school with the very same white girls, and had a grandmother who worked for these same women. Thank goodness I was yet too young when she did domestic work and yet too young when she died to have heard stories of good white women. Though I can't imagine that she ever would have told them to me. My Mom and aunts, instead, told me stories of her going over to Manual Arts High to "set 'em on fire" when they tried to put my aunts in the vocational track instead of the college-bound track. Thanks for your time, anguish, and wisdom. Paige

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  5. Bobbie... you are welcome!
    Paige... I am honored and humbled by your presence here. You are a joy, I know, to your womenfolk! what a wonderful heritage!

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