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Race, The Help, Cane River

2011/09/10

Have you ever heard of white privilege?  As a white person, it can be hard to take.  However, it must be acknowledged for real racial healing to occur in our society.  For those of you who may not understand, white privilege is being born white, therefore never having to deal with being a minority.  As whites, we already have a “step up” in opportunity.  As a product of a working class family, this was difficult for me.  I didn’t always see a lot of opportunity.  However, we need only look around us at the characters on our television shows, the spectators and owners of professional sports teams, the ceo’s of businesses, the majority of people in government, especially the federal government, the majority of public servants like firefighters and policemen, to see that white people are the majority.  That is not because white people are the majority in our society.  Since white men started bringing Africans over and enslaving them, whites have not always been the majority in every area of the US.

I saw “The Help” yesterday.  It had some redeeming qualities.  It was entertaining.  There was a tone of racial reconciliation, but more for the white heroine of the film, rather than the black maids.  She could move on and pursue her dream of writing, while the maids are still stuck in Mississippi.  The acting of Viola Davis was extraordinary.  She was able to evoke some of the very real psychic pain that comes from years of being oppressed and un-free.  There was also the Hollywood fluff aspect, which was distracting.  That said, this film was adapted from a book by a white woman with a black maid.  Therefore, I wouldn’t expect a lot different.  I might point out if this was a film written by a black woman about a black woman it probably wouldn’t have been made.  I may be wrong, but show me how many films by and about black women have been made.  Yes, half a handful.

I recently read a book about the 1927 Mississippi River flooding.  Many blacks were forced to work for free, backbreaking work, to keep the levees in the lower Mississippi from breaching.  It was a vain attempt because the river management program was designed by competing white men, and doomed to fail.  Many blacks were forced to live for months on top of the levees.  Planters, who didn’t want to lose their labor force, prevented them from leaving the area even when rescue boats came for them.

I’m reading now Cane River by Lalita Tademy.  This is more realistic than ‘The Help’, in terms of the experience of African Americans.  I’ve just started it.  Tademy researched her ancestors, who came from the Lower Mississippi area.  It is the story of her foremothers, beginning with Suzette, who was a slave girl.  She was impregnated at age 12 or 13 by a friend of her master’s family, a Frenchman.  The novel speaks acutely of Suzette’s confusion and feelings.  Her work for the household began when she was 7 or 8.  Slavegirls and boys were never allowed to be children.  I have much more to read.

I’ve often taken issue with the idea that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were in love.  I think the fact she bore children by him is well established.  However, she was a slave.  She had no choice, she had to allow him to have sex with her.  I’ve realized this awhile, but after reading about Suzette’s experience in ‘Cane River’, I wondered about the age difference between Hemings and Jefferson.  Jefferson was about 30 years older than Hemings.  She was born about 1773, about the time Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence (a liberating document for white men).  Hemings was his daughter’s slavegirl.  She was in France with Jefferson, and enjoyed some of the trappings of high society there.  However, she was a slavegirl.  Jefferson had sex with, or dare I say raped, his daughter’s slavegirl, over and over.  I know that sounds harsh, but it was probably her reality.

As whites, we have to accept that while there may have been fondness, even love, between maids and the babies they cared for, slavegirls and their child masters, they were still slaves.  They could be killed for not agreeing with every word a white person said to them.  They had to work 12 hour days, 6 & 1/2 days per week.  They had to get up before their masters did to cook their masters’ breakfast. They had to submit to every white person’s sexual whim.

We also have to read our history.  While former slaves had some opportunity and protection during Reconstruction, it lasted only about 7 years.  The ensuing cultural climate enabled blacks to be enslaved all over again.  Many, I daresay most, whites still considered them unequal to themselves.  There were lynchings, rapes continued.  Remember Strom Thurmond and the maid he raped?   That child, now an elderly lady, was vilified for coming forward just a few years ago!

Blacks were paid below minimum wage.  My own aunt had a store, and black people worked there.  None had insurance, but she paid their doctor bills, made sure they were fed during hard times, etc.  However, even in the 30’s-50’s they had no opportunity to be free.  This was an economic prison for them.

Well, I’ve wanted to write about this issue, and some of the films and books I’m taking in are helping me form my words.  Thanks for reading.

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One Response to “Race, The Help, Cane River”

  1. zouxzoux Says:

    Julie,
    You might be interested in this article about “The Help”: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html

    I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t until it’s on Netflix. I didn’t grow up with “help” – we were too poor ourselves – but I know people who grew up having an “Aunt Bessie” or Aunt Whoever that took care of them and the house and still see nothing wrong with it. It always seemed foreign to me. But then, the way many people live seems foreign to me: the MacMansions, the gas-guzzling SUV’s, the compulsion to have the newest and flashiest of everything….. Oh well, I guess that’s another story!


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