Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Help

One of my earliest memories was sitting on the floor in front of the television while my parents watched the evening news.  Every evening, there would be a report of how many lives had been lost in the Vietnam War that day.  Walter Cronkite's voice would drone on, there would be some film footage or what impressed me the most- a chart with lives lost depicted through stick man figures.  And what I remember was sometimes there would be a half of a stick man.  The stick men probably represented numbers such as ten or twenty, but I always wondered about that half man who had lost his life.  Why would I think of such things?  I was born in October of 1958.  I was very young.  As I said, it was one of my earliest memories.  (My daughter likes to tell people "my mom was born in the fifties."  I always retort "the late 50's.")
The Help is set in 1962.  So many situations that Kathryn Stockett writes about I recall being played out on our black and white television set.  One example was Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech and the march on Washington in 1963.  It gives me cold chills to this day.  How thrilling.
Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi where the characters in her story also live.  Stockett was raised by a nanny named Demetrie, who she was very close to.  Demetrie was her comfort.  It was Demetrie who builds up her self-esteem.  There is a similar character in the story named Aibileen.  The protagonist mirrors Stockett's life in many ways.  I adore the protagonist whose nick-name is "Skeeter."  She has incredibly curly hair and fights to straighten it.  I can relate to that as well.  In the photos with the movie trailer, Skeeter's character is pictured wearing what we called (in the 70's) "orange juice can" rollers.  Some women rolled their hair with actual orange juice cans.  My rollers were pink and I probably wore them (a head full- even to sleep in) from 1974 or 1975 until the early 80's.  At some point in time there was a hairdryer with a brush attached that I was able to straighten my hair with and I think that was when I gave up my big pink rollers. 
On Kathryn Stockett's website under discussion questions she asks "do you think racism is inherent or taught?"  That is the old nurture versus nature question.  I feel racism is a learned trait.  It may run so deep in a family or a geographical area that it is all someone might ever know any different.
I grew up in the shadow of racism.  I never went to school with an African American until I was in the 7th grade.  There were not any black families in my part of town until I was in high-school.  I remember hearing people use the "n" word.  People in my own family using the "n" word.  I despise that word.  In high school one of my best friends was a young black (in the years I grew up we would say "blacks and whites") man named Clyde Smith.  He was in band and choir with us and we would have so much fun.  Whenever there was an opportunity to dance, I wanted to dance with Clyde.  Because of the part of Indiana that my Dad was raised up in, (and the time) he was very concerned about my friendship with Clyde.  But everyone loved Clyde.  (Sadly, Clyde is now deceased.)
In the town that I grew up in Indiana, there were not a lot of race issues that I recall.  I grew up in New Castle and most African American families were like white families.  There wasn't a lot of difference or problems.  I remember the African American families in my home town to be "fine" families with outstanding children and people who made a difference in the community.  Or, that is the way that I remember it. 
There were two towns nearby, Muncie and Anderson that had a lot more race issues.  And I suppose Indianapolis had a fair share of race issues.  The KKK was still active then.  The clan continued to have rallies in my hometown when my children were little and on days that I was aware there was a clan rally, I would take my children and we would head out of town.  I didn't even want to be in the same town where such awful things were going on. 
I grew up hearing my paternal Grandma use the word "colored" whenever she spoke of a black person.  I would always tease her and say "what color were they, Grandma?"  Whenever she would grow weary of my asking her that she would scold me and say "Now Cheryl Kay, Grandma had some very good friends that were colored people!"  My paternal Grandma was a cook and worked with women who were  "colored."  My maternal Grandma was a farm wife.  They worked a large farm and had "farm hands."  I don't ever remember her mentioning any African Americans.  She was a little more higher class than my maternal Grandma.  (Again, that is how I remember it.)  My paternal Grandma went to church every Sunday and belonged to Home Ec Club.  She would get dressed up and wear necklace and earrings.  In fact, I don't ever remember her wearing pants.  She would mow her lawn in a dress with her stockings rolled around her ankles with sandals.  That doesn't sound very fancy, but she was a little higher class than my maternal Grandma. 
I have long suspected that somewhere in our family line, we are related to African Americans.  In the area of the state that my Dad's family is from, there are African Americans that share our last name.  My mother tells me that when I was a little girl, I was black.  She called me her little blackberry.  She said whenever we were out in public and she would have me by the hand, she would get strange looks like "what is that white woman doing with a black child?" I have always had a very dark complexion.  I never experienced a sunburn until I was sixteen years old.  That year the tops of my shoulders burned and I wondered what it was.  My skin was natually dark (especially in the summer) and my hair has always been nappy.  I joke about life before mousse.  I was in my twenties before I knew about mousse.  My hair was thick and bushy like a brillo pad.  I remember as a young girl they would thin it in an effort to get it to settle down.  I also didn't know about using a pick and would use a hairbrush on it and that would just make it fuzzier and bigger.  Once I learned about using a pick and how much better it was, I threw out my hair brush.  To this day, my hair is either straight (now I used a two inch barrel curling iron or a flat iron to straighten it) or I wear it curly- "natural." My son has inherited the curls and wore an afro in his senior picture. He has the most beautiful curls and he always told me that I did too much to my hair.  He is probably right. 
Every person that I've encountered who has read The Help loved it.  It is one of those books that you hate to see end.  As you can tell, for me, it stirred up a lot of memories of my growing up years.  If any of my readers or followers have memories they would like to share, I would love to hear them.
The movie will be released in August of this year.  Photos and information found here.


Mary Jo said...

It's being assigned as required reading in my daughter's high school. She and I read it together- really a great book!

^..^Corgidogmama said...

It truly is a marvelous book. I read it a year ago, and it still has a waiting list on it at our local library. I totally agree...we highly recommend this book, and everyone, so far, has loved it.

MamaMonki said...

I too loved the book. I hope they do a nice job with the movie of it.

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