Food for thought: Reflecting on ‘The Help’
Last night I watched The Help. It is the movie for which Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role. The movie is based on a book that chronicles the stories and experiences of black people who worked as servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. I saw this movie the year it came out, but in the time since then my appreciation for history has changed considerably. Connecting to family will do that to you, I suppose.
As I watched tonight I had a very different appreciation of the scenes in the movie from the first time I saw it because my own understanding of the events has changed. My understanding changed as I learned a bit more about a woman named Henrietta Fogg. Henrietta was born in 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was the child of a railroad worker and a servant. In 1940, at the age of 21, she followed the only path she knew and worked as a servant in a private home. She made an annual salary for 52 weeks of work totaling $234. That seems absurdly low and you would be forgiven for immediately pointing out that the figure doesn’t account for inflation. I did a little digging and found out that this is a little over $3,000 in today’s dollars. But more importantly, the median income in 1940 for a woman was $592. Henrietta made less than 50% of the median income as she moved into adulthood. She was about the age of Skeeter’s character in The Help, with not nearly the upside opportunities. That great big house Skeeter and Allison Janney’s character called home was almost certainly an inheritance of the forced, free labor of other human beings.
As I watched the movie this time around I couldn’t help but be reminded of an important truth about Henrietta. She was poor, just like women twenty years later in The Help. And just like those women, there was no equal justice system available. If you were accused of stealing — as was the case in the movie — that was the end of it. The domestic terror that still existed in the 1960s was barely even a cause to raise an eyebrow twenty years earlier when Henrietta was struggling through her job. Henrietta’s grandparents were slaves and it’s worth focusing on that point a moment. What skill at parenting can Henrietta’s parents have been expected to gain with parents who grew into adulthood as slaves? This isn’t about blame, it’s about empathy.
Watching The Help I found myself thinking about the knowledge passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. I thought about what impact the upbringing of a person’s grandparents must have on their parents. I considered my in-laws and their roles in the lives of their grandchildren. These grandparents, like most perhaps, dote and teach and nurture and guide their grandchildren. And before those grandchildren arrived, my in-laws guided and nurtured and taught and molded my wife and her brother and sister. I can see the power of those life lessons in many of the ways those grandchildren are now being raised. They are developing empathy and curiosity and skepticism and courage. They are developing the skills they’ll need to be good students and good citizens.
The influence of grandparents on their own children and on their grandchildren runs deep. And I sometimes think that we gloss over the impacts of the hundred or so years of domestic terror that followed the end of slavery but was oh-so-safely labeled ‘reconstruction’.
Henrietta was my grandmother.
I did not know her and I was not raised by mother, her eldest daughter. I did not receive the inheritance of generational poverty that my grandmother inherited from her grandmother. And I did not receive the even more insidious inheritance of anger and fear and uncertainty that comes from being raised in that reality. But there is an entire generation of people who did. We keep expecting that the passage of time will undo the wrong that created this perpetual poverty. And we seem to be surprised when that doesn’t happen.
I listened recently to Trevor Noah’s interview on The Ezra Klein Show and can’t help but reflect on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that existed in South Africa as Apartheid came to an end. I wonder what might have been if we had taken the signing of the Civil Rights Act seriously. America’s nominal end to segregation and domestic terror was never going to do for us what that Commission did for South Africa because the dynamics of power were so very different. We missed that moment in this country. A better way forward at this point will require significant local investments in economic opportunity, quality early learning and care for infants and children, and swift , harsh justice for discrimination.
I live a life my mother and grandmother and great grandmother could not have imagined given their own realities. That life convinces me that a combination of economic and educational opportunity and an intentional psychic break from the bonds of the domestic terrorism that followed slavery are likely necessary for broad progress. I’m thankful for the opportunity to understand the legacy of my family across multiple states, if not yet multiple continents. And as I reflect on the importance of The Help I can’t help but think these stories, if viewed in the right context, might just help create a better way forward between all people in our society.