Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The Help" ... and Me and My Maimee

The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, recently number one on the NY Times Best Seller List (49 weeks on the Best Seller List), is an absolutely incredible book about race relations in the South during the Civil Rights Era. Although a book of fiction, it draws from the author's own experiences of being raised by a black nanny in Mississippi.

I decided to read the book because my sister-in-law, Donna, raved about it. She wanted to read it because Kathryn Stockett is a fellow Phi Mu sorority sister, and was featured a couple of issues back in our national magazine, “The Aglaia.”

I’ll tell you a bit about the book (hopefully enough to compel you to read it without revealing too much) then I’ll share my own experiences growing up with a black nanny.

The book features a complicated theme of blacks and whites living in a segregated South. Even a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, black maids raised white children and ran households but were paid poorly, and often had to use separate toilets from the family. They even suffered to watch the children they cared for, and loved as their own, grow up to commit bigotry. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, “The Help” is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

These women of color were suffocating within the lines that defined their town and their times. But sometimes lines are made to be crossed. Led by the Stockettesque character Miss Skeeter, they bravely came together for a clandestine project that put them all at risk. Their determination to start a movement of their own forever changed a town, and the way women —mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends — viewed one another.

“The Help” is addictively, compulsively readable. Stockett’s debut is well-written, and it is abundantly apparent that she truly understands Southern life and has made great efforts to understand what life was like for black women who served white families. She presents sad, even shocking, stories that leave a great glimmer of hope. And though she examines our differences and our mistakes, she also reveals our commonalites, highlighting our humanity to wonderful effect. And while this is a serious book, it also has wonderfully lighthearted moments, humorous moments, and strikingly funny insights into women and their behavior.

Reading this book, I realize that these themes helped me shape my own values and opinions:

• Racism is not inherent; it is learned. Until a certain age, children may wonder why another child’s skin is a different color, or why their culture or physical appearances are not the same, but there is no regard for inferiority or prejudice until someone puts the idea in their heads or dictates that standard. Usually that “someone” is a person of authority, someone they respect, or fear.

• A person’s character is greatly shaped by the times in which they live. That is evident by the stories shared in “The Help.” It is demonstrated in Miss Skeeter’s own personal struggles against the lines drawn by the culture and times in which she lived. I rallied around her, as a reader, in her personal convictions, which totally defied the expectations and boundries she was supposed to live within as a white woman.

• I believe vestiges of racism still remain in relationships where people of color work for people who are white. However, racism has also become a double-edged sword. As “equal rights” have marched across time and history, prejudices against all colors have also evolved. Many of us, despite the color of our skin, have experienced (while an oxymoron) “reverse discrimination.” It makes me see how awry the purpose for equal rights has become. Generations of men and women worked so hard to bring about racial justice that was long overdue and well deserved, but which has at times since been distorted. Equal does not mean “fair.” I have deep respect for, and advocate, equal rights for everyone no matter their color, gender, culture, religion, etc. Everyone deserves equal opportunity in the work place as well as in society. But equal rights don’t translate to “better rights.” But that is where our society has evolved.

• The book caused me to examine myself, and question my own discriminations and intolerances in the past and present.

As I mentioned above, I had a black nanny growing up. That may come as a shock to some of my northern and overseas friends. But it was commonplace during the early ‘60s in the South. Though I was very young, I have a few beloved memories of Maimee. My overall impression of the experience was that I deeply respected and was very fond of Maimee. She made me feel very loved. Maimee came to live with us when my mother went back to work as a school teacher, a few months after my brother was born. She was big and round, with a hearty laugh, and looked like Aunt Jemima without the do-rag. She seemed a content woman and smiled a lot and I remember how very white her teeth looked against her pitch black skin. She stayed with us during the week, sleeping on the couch in our small house because we didn’t have an extra bedroom, and Mom would take her home on Friday nights and pick her up Monday mornings. She spent the weekends with her husband in their home. She was unable to have children, and loved my brother and me as if we were her own.

Maimee sometimes let us do things that my parents wouldn’t allow … like making mud pies. I remember one time while making mud pies, I smeared mud all over my face and gleefully squealed “Look, Maimee! Now I look like YOU!” She just slapped her knee and laughed and laughed and said, “Yes, sugah, you sho’ law do!” Not long after that, she gave me a doll. A "black mammy" homemade cloth doll. I remember it well. But I don't remember it making its way with me to the new house. I hadn't thought about that doll for years ...

At the tender age of five, I could recognize the difference in the color of our skin, but it never dawned on me that Maimee’s skin color, or that her vocation, was cause for anyone to look at her in a negative light (bullet two above). I loved Maimee and she loved us and she loved taking care of us. I remember one night, when my brother took a nose dive into the lower bunk bed and his eyebrow made vicious impact with the window sill, Maimee held me against her ample bosom, assuring me that John wasn’t going to die, despite all the blood his wound yielded. She made me warm milk and cuddled me the entire time my parents were in the emergency room with him. He came home sporting stitches, but he hadn’t died. Thank you, Maimee, for your reassurance.
I remember one time while making mud pies, I smeared mud all over my face and gleefully squealed, 'Look, Maimee! Now I look like YOU!' She just slapped her knee and laughed and laughed and said, 'Yes, sugah, you sho’ law do!'
Mom told me that sometimes Maimee would bring her teenage niece to work with her, and that she remembered not approving of that “wild rock and roll music by black singers” that she played, and didn’t like her showing off her “suggestive dancing” ("dirty dancing"). She was afraid Maimee's niece was a bad influence on us kids. I chuckled when she told me this recently. I don’t think it had anything to do with the niece being black; it was a youth revolution. That generation was rebelling and creating a new culture, black and white alike. The times, they were a-changin’! Right, Dylan?

Mom treated Maimee with utmost respect. She asked her to do things, never told her to. She said please and thank you, and showed her sincere appreciation for all Maimee did. This was rarely the case in Stockett's book, set deeper south down in Mississippi, and that was startling to me ... that so many maids and nannies were treated so disrespectfully, even inhumanely. I don't think I ever have witnessed that.

I know Maimee didn’t work for a white woman, taking care of her children, cooking for her family, and cleaning her home, to get rich. And it wasn’t for prestige. It was the early ‘60s in the South, and that’s what black women did. It was hard for an uneducated black woman in that era to get a job doing little else. And for that, I am remorseful. But I also hope it was because Maimee loved us and wanted to help mold us into children who had a bit of herself in them. I’d like to believe that was true.

I regret that Maimee moved on, and we moved to another area of town after my sister was born, and that we lost touch with her. I doubt that she's even still alive, but I sure would like to be able contact her today. I'd love to hear in her own words what it was like to be a nanny to white children. Of the horrific segregation rules she had to abide by ... how it made her feel.  I'd like to hear the stories of triumph when, for the first time, blacks were allowed to sit at the same counter as whites at Buntings Drug Store and eat hot dogs together. Of how it felt to not to have to ride in the back of the bus, or to be able to use a "white" bathroom or water fountain, or be able to shop in the "white folks grocery stores" without having to wear your white uniform. And, ultimately, what it means to her to see a black man be elected as President of the United States. Did she ever fathom that it could happen in her lifetime?

But most of all I'd like to be able to tell her, "thank you.” Thank you for your sacrifices and your love. Thank you for being my Maimee.


Joyce said...

I loved reading this...almost as good as The Help : )
It was sweet and very well said.

Susan said...

Thank you so much, Joyce! Quite a compliment, coming from YOU! :) Thanks for taking the time to read it and to leave a note.

Mary Pablate said...

Also check this as well!