Reflections on “The Help”

Posted by on Aug 11, 2010 in book review | 0 comments

It was the middle of the night, and I was propped up on the couch with a feverish little girl laying on my chest. My throat felt like it was on fire, and I tried to hold in my rattling cough, so I wouldn’t wake her up. On my knees, my iPad glowed with the book I was reading, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

The book, set at the brink of the Civil Rights movement, dives into the complex relationships between white families and the African American maids that cared for their children. It was hard to read, mainly because I knew that it probably only scratched the surface of the hardships that the maids faced working in often hostile environments.

Make one mistake, like using the wrong bathroom or misplacing a piece of silver, and you were not only fired, but you wouldn’t be able to get another job in town. Pour your life into raising the kids, and inevitably, they would grow up to “start thinking that colored folks ain’t as good as whites.”

One of the scenes that stood out to me was when Aibileen, one of the main characters, was trying to potty train her young white charge. The only thing that worked was showing her how to go, but unfortunately, she could only show her in the “colored bathroom” in the garage. When the mother came home, little Mae Mobley, when prompted to go potty, ran out to the garage to use Aibileen’s bathroom. Her mother was horrified, and punished her, telling her that she would “catch diseases” if she used that bathroom.

It broke my heart, both for Aibileen and Mae Mobley. They were both being oppressed…one for the color of their skin and the other for being willing to look beyond it.

I read late into the night, and it made me think…about the mistakes of the past and the discrimination that continues today. It also made me wonder how I would have reacted if I lived during that place and time. There were a few examples of women bucking the system in the book, but it was always in secret. If it got out that they were “blurring the lines”, they would be socially persecuted. I would hope that I would have been brave enough to stand up against the status quo, even while looking at my friends spending their days doing needlepoint and playing bridge.

It is impossible to say exactly what I would or wouldn’t do, especially with hindsight on my side, but two things came to my mind as I kissed the top of the sweaty little head tucked under my chin.

First, I wouldn’t want to cede the upbringing of my kids to anyone else. Yes, it stinks to lose sleep when a kid has a fever, especially when you are sick too. Yes, it is hard (and messy) work teaching a kid how to use the toilet. But it is my work, and I wouldn’t give up those moments for anything.

Second, I don’t ever want to act in a way that gives the impression to my kids that they are better than anyone else. It is an ugly thing when discrimination and negative stereotypes are passed on from parents to kids, and I want to be as far away from that as possible. I may not be able to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination, but I can control what is discussed and taught in our home.

As I flicked to the last page, I was thankful the book ended with hope of change, spurred on by ordinary people speaking the truth. May I have the strength to do the same…every day…regardless of the cost.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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