I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands. I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Today, August 10, 2011, marks the release of the film The Help, based on the 2009 bestseller written by Kathryn Stockett. The synopsis of the book is as follows:
“Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women–mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends–view one another. 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.”
Here is the synopsis of the film:
“Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, Skeeter (Stone) is a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends’ lives — and a small Mississippi town — upside down when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. Aibileen (Davis), Skeeter’s best friend’s housekeeper, is the first to open up — to the dismay of her friends in the tight-knit black community. Despite Skeeter’s life-long friendships hanging in the balance, she and Aibileen continue their collaboration and soon more women come forward to tell their stories — and as it turns out, they have a lot to say. Along the way, unlikely friendships are forged and a new sisterhood emerges, but not before everyone in town has a thing or two to say themselves when they become unwittingly — and unwillingly — caught up in the changing times.” Written by Walt Disney Pictures
I had a problem with the publication of this book when I first heard about it. A book, written by a White woman author, that purports to tell the story of Black women who worked as domestics during the era of Jane Crow segregation. Not to mention that Ms. Stockett is being sued by a former maid who worked for her family. I have not read the book yet. Since I would rather support the city library, I searched the local library branches, and most libraries have holds on their copies, with holds numbering over 100. Therefore, it will be a while before I can read The Help and give my review on it.
For another series of reviews on The Help read here here, and here. The author of this website has read the book and gives a differing view on it in comparison to the many reviews around the Internet that laud the novel, and the forthcoming movie.
That said, I would like to review a film I saw years ago that addresses how life for a Black maid was, and how she and her White employer confronted issues of racism in the American South.
That movie is The Long Walk Home, a movie released by Miramax Films on December 21, 1990, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek.
The Long Walk Home is about a Black maid, Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg), and the employer, Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek), she does domestic work for. Set in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., the story is told through the eyes of Miriam’s daughter. The movie does not address the fear of rape that hung over the lives of Black women domestics, but, during segregation that was an ever-present reality for Black women domestics. Not only did Black women face back-breaking labor that paid inhumane salaries, they also fought for the need of sexual autonomy, the need for sexual preservation, as well as the need for economic necessity to take care of their families. In the following excerpts from the book Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis records interviews with eighty-one domestic workers who traveled from the Deep South to Washington, D.C. in the early part of the last century. They were quite frank of the hells that awaited them as working domestics in the homes of Whites:
“Nobody was sent out before you was told to be careful of the white man or his sons. They’d tell you stories of rape. . .hard too! No lies. You was to be told true, so you’d not get raped. Everyone warned you and told you ‘be careful’.”
“You couldn’t be out working,” said another woman, “til you knew how people was raped. You’d know how to run, or always not to be in the house with the white man or big sons. Just everyone told you something to keep you from being raped, ’cause it happened, and they told you.”
Another woman told how her family tried to prepare her and her sister to deal with this danger. “My mama told you first. Next was aunts and all. Now, then just before I was to leave with the family [I was to work for], my daddy just gave me a razor and he said it’s for any man who tries to force himself on you. It’s for the white man.”
SOURCE: A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, Broadway Books, New York, 1998, pg. 215.
The prevalence pf rape was strong, but, all daily life was affected by Jane Crow segregation, and no where was it more strong than in the city bus service: White bus drivers who drove off and left Black passengers after they paid their fare and went to the rear door to board the bus; Black passengers, many of whom were domestics, who after a long day of work had to give up their seats to White passengers, even if the passenger was a White male; Black passengers who had to endure racist insults, slurs, and physical abuse from White drivers.
Fed up with this brutality, Black Montgomery citizens organized the 1955 bus boycott on December 1, 1955. Caught up in this were Odessa and Miriam. Odessa participates in the boycott and has a long walk to work, hence the movie’s title. This is hard on Odessa, as she develops painful injuries to her feet from the miles of walking she endures to make a better life for herself and her family, as she walks nine miles to her job in the morning, and nine miles back to her home in the evening. Needless to say, Odessa starts coming to work later and later.
Miriam becomes frustrated at this, but, since she needs Odessa, she decides to pick up Odessa and drive her to work. Miriam’s husband finds out that she has been driving Odessa to work. He forbids Miriam to do it, but, Miriam has an awakening of her own and tells her husband that she is in charge of the household and that she should have decisions over how Odessa gets to work.
Odessa and her family members are affected in diverse ways about the boycott. Her husband, played by Ving Rhames, is supportive and understanding. Her three children also are affected by the impact that the boycott has on their community and their family as well. Even when the daughter rides a bus to meet a boyfriend, her young brother risks bodily injury to come to her rescue from a gang of racist White toughs.
Meantime, the White Citizen’s Council has worked to destroy the boycott, when one fateful night Odessa and Miriam are caught in the wrath of White racists who storm an area where White women employers, in a carpool arrangement to pick up the Black women domestics, have gathered.
In the following scene, the fury and rage of racist hate, the resolve to change a repressive and vicious system, and the violent shouts of “Walk, nigger, walk! Walk, nigger, walk” make for a compelling urge to overthrow a system that sought to destroy the humanity of Black citizens:
Black churches raised money to support the boycott and bought shoes for the walkers. Black citizens walked, rode bicycles, and even traveled by horse and mule. Black citizens with cars organized taxi pools for each other, and when the City of Montgomery pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring vehicles used in the carpools, the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) which oversaw the boycott, turned to Lloyd’s of London to insure their vehicles., a company which slave ships cargo ships.
What I like about The Long Walk Home is that unlike Mississippi Burning, the Black citizens are shown to have agency in challenging the racist Jane Crow system. Yes, the movie has the obligatory “White savior” person (in this case, Sissy Spacek), but, the Black people depicted are not waiting around to be saved–they took matters into their own hands. On the other hand, Spacek’s character was indecisive and unwilling in the beginning to buck the system and her husband, but, she later came around to work on the side with the Black citizens to end racial segregation on the city buses.
The boycott officially ended December 20, 1956, and lasted 381 days, just a little over a year. One of its major effects was the United States Supreme Court ruling with Browder vs. Gayle, (in particular, four women — Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith — who served as plaintiffs in the legal action challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system), which declared segregation on public buses unconstitutional. Pressure increased around the nation and on June 4, 1956, the federal district court ruled that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional (Browder v. Gayle). But, an appeal from racist segregationists kept the segregation intact and the boycott continued until, finally, on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
The Long Walk Home, is a beautiful film. But, even it fails miserably in truly giving an authentic narrative of the profound impact that Black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement had on all of America.
The movie that salutes the many Black people who struck a blow against racial segregation on city buses with the MIA boycott; the famous Black student sit-ins at lunch counters; the desegregation of city pools, parks, hotels, motels, movie theaters (via the Public Accommodations clause of the Civil Rights Act); the right to have access to a higher education ( with the desegregation of Ole Miss and all colleges across America); the U.S. Constitution right to vote under the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the right to fair housing and decent humane treatment under the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the unknown and unsung Black women who were the backbone of the CRM–these, and so many others—that civil rights movie that tells the truth has not been made.
You see, it was not just the White men who raped defenseless Black women and girls; it was not just the White women who cried rape and caused the torture and death of so many Black men; it is not just the KKK cross burning on Black families property; it is not even the vile utterances of the word nigger.
It was the daily slights and humiliations in the interaction between Blacks and Whites that often get so lost when white Hollywood tries to make a so-called film about the CRM. The constant day-in and day-out assaults against the very humanity of Black citizens. The ordinariness of racist hate. The normalization of the unthinkable. The continuance of the banality of evil. The death by a thousand paper cuts.
The refusal of so many, many Whites to ask of themselves the one essential question: “Can I live with myself in the upholding of white supremacy, white hegemony, and the possessiveness of whiteness at the expense of the lives, well-being and freedoms of my fellow Black citizens?”
Obviously, millions of Whites could. Sleepwalking through the valley of the shadow of death. On the other hand, there were the few Whites who did wake up and break free from the hells of racist hate.
Then again, Hollywood has had over 75 years to denigrate, castigate, vilify, defile and debase the image of Black Americans. It will take generations of Hollywood films to even break even on getting a true depiction of the CRM before the movie-going public. Hollywood in its scared and gutless attempt at the CRM not only shows disregard for the legacy of Black people’s struggle in this country, it also shows contempt for the White moviegoers. It is so afraid of offending their delicate sensitivities, that it refuses to show the real truth of Black citizen’s endurance, and faith to fight against the horrific oppression they have suffered in this nation. Hollywood would rather have a watered-down and whitewashed version of the CRM than the Real McCoy. In Hollywood’s decades-long approach at the CRM, they insult not only Blacks, but Whites and other ethnic groups.
Just once, I would like to see a Hollywood movie about the CRM where Black people are not sidekicks, supporting roles, and mere ciphers in their own historic struggle. Just once, I would like to see a CRM movie where no White people abound as if they and they alone can save Black people.
As Dr. King stated “No lie can live forever”, and the proud Black women who faced certain humiliation and callous disregard daily, the many Black citizens who drove each other to work so that the boycott would work, as well as the White women who drove them in the carpools, are to be remembered and praised for their strength, faith and dedication in one of America’s most momentous eras.