The recent move The Help has focused a great deal of attention on the whole relationship between wealthy white people (and “wealthy” is a relative term) and their black domestic help. The movie (at least, I haven’t read the book) cuts across many stereotypes on every side of the issue. And it’s always dangerous in this country to deviate from the conventional wisdom on any subject.
As you would expect, an elitist snob like myself was raised with household help. From my experience growing up, what I saw in The Help had the ring of verisimilitude. But our situation was a little different.
First, I wasn’t exposed to black household help until we moved our family and the business to Chattanooga, TN, in 1960. As a general rule, when we lived in Chicago, we had a preference for Scandinavian help (live-in back at the turn of the last century.) The situation we had in Tennessee was more typically Southern (and thus more reflective of what I saw in the film) than before or after, and the black maid we had was very sweet. But that only lasted four years.
One of the really sad realities the film depicted was that, until the late 1960’s and even later in some cases, the only really meaningful contact that white Southerners had with people of another race was through the help, both domestic and in the workplace.
After we moved to Palm Beach, the black help continued. But Palm Beach isn’t very Southern, so things were different. My mother was, though, and she pretty much ran with the tradition. There were the usual “bathroom restrictions” the help had to endure, although our house in Palm Beach actually had a maid’s quarters inside the house. It was a humiliating system, but at least the creature comforts were better than the slovenly accommodations one saw in the film. (It’s reasonable to say that our help had little incentive to use the bathrooms my brother and I, elementary and junior high boys, used.)
The experienced help, in many cases, had interesting resumés. One of our maids (and we didn’t have “lifetime” help, unlike some in the South) had worked for the Pulitzers; my guess is that gossip columnists and writers were interviewing the help long before Kathryn Stockett got the idea. One memorable experience we had with our maid was that she introduced us to Burger King, something my parents, who always associated the Miami-based chain with black people, never would.
But one thing my mother would not do was turn over the rearing of her children to the help. In that respect she was an outlier in Palm Beach, and we were very much aware of that fact. She also insisted that we extend the courtesies of “please” and “thank you” to everything the help did for us, which doubtless smoothed over many of the rough edges we had in those years.
I never found the whole racial paradigm of those who came before me very appealing. Part of that was Biblical; the Bible I read didn’t have room for that. The New Testament proclaimed a unified humanity; I saw no reason to view it any other way. But another part was the social scene in South Florida in general and Palm Beach in particular. I saw some of the meanest gutter racism, worse in many ways than the Old South. Being at the bottom of the social system in Palm Beach didn’t engender much WASP loyalty either, which inspired the search for alternatives.
That search really didn’t come to full flower until I went to work for the Church of God. As I noted in this 2008 piece:
In my early years of working for the Church of God, I got to know the Executive Director of Church of God Black Ministries, Asbury Sellers (photo at right.) When I tell people I grew up in Palm Beach, most let it pass. Not Bishop Sellers. He quizzed me down extensively on where exactly in Palm Beach I had lived. I ended up giving him driving directions to the place, at which point he was satisfied I wasn’t a poser. How could he do this? He had been a pastor at one of our churches across the lake, and doubtless some of his church members worked on the island.
Many of our churches in South Florida are black churches, be they African-American, Haitian, West Indian, or what not. We also have a rapidly growing (approx. 20% of our local churches) group of Hispanic churches. We serve these people through conferences (my superior was in North Miami last weekend to speak at a men’s conference at a West Indian church,) support for their men’s and evangelistic ministries, and product sales. They are our brothers and sisters, and they’re great people (take a look at this posting from a recent leader’s conference in Orlando to see the composition of a Church of God delegation.)
When you are put in a position where you deal with such a diverse group of people as equals, your whole perspective changes. It’s put me in a position of dealing with people whom I would have never rubbed shoulders with had I stuck with the social circle I was raised in. But I’m certainly the better for it, and have had a lot of fun in the process.
Now, of course, I teach at UTC, and our civil engineering department head is Kenyan, a fact I celebrate in They Tell Us What to Do and We Do It. My life has come full circle; it is beautiful.