The astounding singer, Nina Simone wrote the song, “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in response to the merciless 1963 killing of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi, along with Alabama, were among the most egregious, hard-core, racist, states of the Union back in the day. It was as if the people of those two states never got the memo that slavery had ended; I have long been aware of this fact. It was with this awareness, that I read a new release, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, herself a native Mississippian. In this work of fiction set in 1963 and 1964, Stockett explores the complex relationship of black help, maids, or domestic servants and their white employers in Jackson. Skeeter, a young woman, just out of college and a budding journalist, comes home and discovers her beloved maid, Constantine, is gone and nobody can explain to her satisfaction what happened to her. In her search for Constantine, Skeeter looks hard at the inbalance in the lives of southern whites and the black people who serve them, some who live in extreme poverty. In a challenge from a New York editor to find something to write about that excites her, Skeeter decides to write a book, interviewing the black maids of her peers.
In The Help, the black maid/Miss Ann relationship is a convoluted union. It is also a symbiotic relationship; each needs the other. The white employers need someone to fix their meals, clean their house, wash their clothes and raise their children and the black domestic workers need employment to pay rent, buy food and other necessities of life. But I, who was born in the south and California raised, ask why would anyone need maid service eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week? If a woman is not working outside the home, why would she need full-time domestic help almost everyday of the week. Why do you need someone to fix you a sandwich in the middle of the day? Why can’t you teach your own children manners and change a diaper every once in awhile? To follow behind someone, cleaning up after them, fix all their meals, and oversee entertainment, including holidays, when these women would rather be with their own families? I asked my southern born and raised mother these questions and more; trying to grasp the understanding, to get into the heads of these spoiled, over-indulged white women, who I know not only existed in fiction, but in reality in 1960s Mississippi.
Mom explained that this was tradition, historical, no doubt a holdover from slavery, where as slaves, blacks waited on whites hand and foot, no matter their status. Mom went on to explain that white woman who were little better off than some of the blacks around them, hired black women to wash their clothes. That was the case in rural 1930s Arkansas where my mother was raised. Yes, there was racism and mistreatment of blacks in her rural Arkansas town, but the difference she saw in the women in her family, was that her family owned their land. They had as much or near as much and in many cases more than the many whites around them. They, and other black families such as them, were not subject to the harshness and cruelty that those who were sharecroppers and depended on whites for their every need.
The need for power, to order someone around old enough to be your mother or grandmother—or your daughter, to feel superior was something ingrained in the white women in The Help. Some of them were so hateful and mean-spirited, who would have their help jailed for the smallest infraction; the help was at the mercy of these white employers who would not hesitate to lie, if crossed. Oh, Mississippi Goddam.
It is my love of southern literature that I was able to read this book that is getting many rave reviews by critics. I, a child of the south, writer, family historian, and keeper of southern stories, appreciates a well-written, good story and Stockett is a good storyteller. When one of my sister reviewers became immediately offended by the book content and the dialect of the mostly uneducated black women, I was eager to read and see for myself. There were many uncomfortable moments, as I expected there would be, but all in all, the cumulative value of the book is an admirable contribution to the tomes of the “new southern literature.” If anything, this book opens up the dialogue, which has already began-- if the discussions online and on blogs are any indication, between black women; southern born and northern born, and with white women, especially those southern raised, and presents an opportunity to talk about this elephant in the middle of the room in this Obama era. Maybe black women and white women, and all women can come together in sisterhood now that the stigma of segregation no longer exists--- oh black women will still be working in white homes, and there is still an unequal balance of privilege and poverty; but maybe those who are privileged will look to those who are not, as human beings with the same desires and sensitivities as they. Mississippi goddam no more.
April 17, 2009