My Mother and My Grandmother Were “The Help”

“Not bad for a white woman, trying to capture a black story.”

That was my mother’s reaction after seeing “The Help“. She was a “mother’s helper”, another word for maid, in high school in the 60s. She got the job after her mother, who worked as a domestic worker in South Carolina, moved up to New Jersey to be a sleep-in maid.

Back then, blacks couldn’t get many other jobs and white families in the north were hiring help from the south to fill their needs.

My mother worked for the people that didn’t have the money to afford the full-time help her mother provided. She would clean and take care of the children while her mother would do everything and get one day off a week.

Although my mother enjoyed “The Help”, she couldn’t help but notice it was “a little Hollywood.”

She didn’t think the movie captured just how evil some of the white families could be.

This sentiment has been expressed throughout the blogosphere, especially by the Association of Black Women Historians. They specifically note that the movie pays little attention to the sexual harassment black domestic workers faced and the strength of blacks in civil rights activism. In an open letter, the group says the movie reprises the Mammy character, a minstrel characterization of black women that makes them asexual and hopelessly loyal to their white owners.

Many have pointed out that the movie comes from the perspective of the white protagonist, Ms. Skeeter. This plays out in the dialect and limitations in what we know about the black characters.

According to my mother, this movie also missed more mundane, yet crippling details. She says the minimum wage in the film was higher than reality. In fact, her mother didn’t even get paid by the hour.

Also, she says the film didn’t contain scenes showing things like cleaning silver or bathrooms. When my mother was “the help”, she was subject to cruel treatment like white glove tests, where the owner would go over nooks and crannies with a white glove and if he/she found any dust, the domestic worker could be fired on the spot.

What made the experience of going to see “The Help” even less authentic was that we saw it at Regal Cinemas Bridgeport, probably the most yuppy theater in Oregon. My family made up the only black people in a packed theater.

Considering my mother’s family history, the dynamic was particularly interesting.

“They were laughing at all the wrong times,” she says.

When I came to “The Help” I was expecting a “feel good” story about something that really shouldn’t make you feel good. All the comic relief did seem like just that, relief, tailor made for a mainstream audience.

However, my mother put things in perspective. If it were a Spike Lee movie about domestic workers in the mid 20th century, this story would get no attention (*cough* Miracle at St. Anna *cough*). Just as someone like Tim Wise can bring more attention to racial activism by virtue of being a white voice, sometimes these stories are most effectively introduced to the mainstream through a vehicle they are most comfortable with.

Focusing on some of the historical shortcomings is important but there were certain aspects that were effectively conveyed, such as the relationship between maids and the children they raised. While my mother notes that she didn’t see an allegiance like Ms. Skeeter showed to the maid that raised her, it was common for the children to be close to their domestic workers.

My mother says she was too young to talk extensively with my grandmother about her days at work but she does remember one particular day when she came up from South Carolina to see her in New Jersey. The police took my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, into custody for having a pistol in her bag and she went off on them and everyone else around, telling them she was the one that cleaned their houses and changed their stinky diapers.

Despite memory loss, those experiences were permanently branded in her mind. Although “The Help” can be seen as a “feel good”, uplifting story, as viewers we need to respect the reality of the experiences domestic workers faced (and still do, even if the color has changed) and understand that real life doesn’t have Hollywood endings.

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One Response to “My Mother and My Grandmother Were “The Help””

  1. From the voice of this post, you are a writer I would like to know better, and I will subscribe to do that. I did not see the movie, because I’d rather get to know real life from real life people.

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