Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The Help:" A Trip Back in Time

 I grew up in Southeast Arkansas, not that far from Jackson, Mississippi during a time of much strife and turmoil.  It was in 1957 when the Governor ordered the end of segregation at Little Rock Central High School. That set off a series of many tense moments and shameful behavior throughout the state for the next ten years. While the National Guard was called in for the Little Rock event to demonstrate a sense of urgency and protect the nine students who showed up to register in a white school, it took almost ten years before all schools in the state were integrated.

The movie, "The Help," told a story of this period but from a perspective never told before. It was striking that it told a story, not of activists or of KKK, it told a story of the gentle souls who helped to hold many households together. Fear was omnipresent and well depicted in the story but the actual violence and shocking events that were unfolding and fueling the fear in every community in the South were omitted. This was clearly a good decision as these stories have been told over and over in many movies including "Mississippi Burning" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." and so many more. The Little Rock Nine have been a sidebar in many other movies.

"The Help" was so powerful because of it authenticity of story, history and subtle detail. I wanted the movie to go on and on. It ended all too soon for me.

Having lived during that era and in that setting, I had a flood of memories of the great moments of our Help. The first picture above is my family home in Star City, Arkansas. Those pictured in this 1917 photo from left to right are my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great grandmother and my grandfather's manservant. Missing from this picture is Miss Josie who had already been with the family for more than 10 years. She started out as the Help but quickly became family and my guess is that she was in the kitchen cooking.

We had a house for Josie on our land where she slept, but mostly she was in the main house all the time. She cooked and she cared for my mother for nearly 50 years.

When my mother was a toddler she was burned very badly over most of her body. Doctors didn't know if she would make it. It was Miss Josie who tended her wounds day in an day out to see her through to a full recovery completely void of physical scars. Miss Josie became family during that time.

Many years later one morning dawned when  she didn't have breakfast ready for everyone when we woke up, it was clear something was wrong. Mother went out to her house and found that she had passed away in her sleep, all alone. It was a sad time for all of us.

By the time that I came along in the family we had two maids. Miss Josie ruled the kitchen. As it was a room surrounded by other rooms, there were four possible doors that I could enter the kitchen. She stood guard over all of them. I was not allowed in the kitchen unless it was mealtime or Saturday morning to feast on the cake batter left in the bowl and on the beaters. Is it any wonder that it was years later that a learned to cook. On the other hand my sister had a big interest in cooking and she was always welcome in the kitchen. I guess Miss Josie was afraid that my bouncing basketball or tennis racket would knock over some of her handiwork. Whatever the reason, I knew my place.

Over the years, the original house evolved into the other pictures above. Josie's house was torn down, huge oak trees were cut down, the house was renovated several times, and the three other family-owned homes were razed. By this time Emily had joined the family. She took care of the house and us. She did everything  but the cooking that a family of five would need from cleaning, vacuuming, laundry, cleaning the fish and all things else. Somewhere along the line my sister started calling Emily by the name of Dean and that became the name that we all called her. Our mother had made it clear that Miss Josie and Dean were the boss of us! They made us laugh, they held us when we cried, they tended our scrapes and filled the house with song. Dean was full of old wives's tales and sayings. I clearly recall her making me get up our of my daddy's Lazy Boy chair when she vacuumed the carpet in the den. She would say, "Don't never let anyone vacuum under your feet or you will never get married." There was a lot of pressure on us southern girls to be sure to get married quickly. Another of Dean's favorite sayings when she wanted us to do something was...."I'll dance at your wedding." There were so many more pearls that came from these two strong, capable and loving women that were very much a part of our life.

After Miss Josie passed away Dean took over the kitchen and other help that frequently changed would come in to do the heavy cleaning. I have so many fond memories of those days. When I turned 16 it became my job to drive Dean home to the Mill Quarters on the other side of town. In those days with all that was going on white people were not welcome in this part of town. (The homes were exactly like those depicted in the movie.)  Yet, because I was with Dean I always knew I was safe. Everyday, when she got out of the car she would caution me, "You get on home quickly now, don't tarry." I always heeded her words because I never felt quite as safe once she was out of the car.

Across the street from our school was a church filled with a large congregation of  the Help and their families. I imagined the inside to be just like the scene in the movie. On many hot afternoons the school windows would be open and a funeral service would be happening in the tired old church. The sweet sound of spiritual music would waft from the open windows and cause my foot to tap. I remember thinking they don't sound sad but joyful. I always wanted to go there but couldn't of course.

When my sister got married, our family broke with all the rules of Southeast Arkansas. Dean was invited, not to handle all of the preparations of the reception but as a guest. She sat alone in the back of the church, and I was so proud to have her there. While no one danced at the wedding I watched as Dean shuffled rhythmically down the sidewalk from the church. I'm sure she had a song in her head and was working very hard at not breaking out into a full-on dance.
While there were some moments that could not be avoided, for the most part my sister and I were sheltered from the worst strife that overtook the South when people sought the real freedom that was promised at the end of the Civil War. There were times when we would happen upon a "sit in" and we would get as far away from the turmoil as possible. These were not easy times.

In "The Help," the authenticity of character, setting, daily routines, architecture, separate entrances, dishes, meals, glassware, diners, furniture, dress, and plot line transported me straight out of 2011 and right back to 1955 when we were embraced by two wonderful women who raised my sister and me. At that time, I was too young and innocent to really appreciate the hardships they had to endure. By 1966, I had lived and learned enough to better understand their plight but was unable to change things.

It was in 1969 while living out of the state that I learned that Dean had killed her husband in self-defence. All those years, she never let on that her home life was so hard. No charges were laid but she soon moved to Detroit to live with her children who I never knew. I never saw nor heard from her again, and I have missed her terribly just as Mother must have missed poor ole Miss Josie.

With the release of this great movie, "The Help," I'm sure many, many people of the South are reliving either good or bad memories of the role they played in this era. For those who find this story so foreign to their life experiences, it is a very important and poignant slice of history that needs to be told to prevent history from repeating itself.

1 comment:

  1. Lisa,
    This is a really interesting post. Thanks for sharing!