As I walked into the movie theater, I thought: I shouldn’t have come without a black friend.
I quickly brushed it off – the gathering happened quickly, the white women with me were good friends. Good people, dedicated to the idea of racial unity. It wasn’t that I intentionally excluded anyone black, I just wasn’t intentional about including anyone black.
I glanced around the room. Groups of white women, groups of black women. Not one group had both.
It was the opening night of The Help.
I settled into my seat, ate some popcorn, checked my twitter feed one last time. I noticed a link posted by Sarah Orsborn which led to a movie review titled: The Help: A feel-good movie for white people.
I clicked the link to save it and read it later.
A couple of hours later, after crying through a good fourth of the movie, I thought: I don’t know what that review is talking about. I sure as heck don’t feel good. On the half-hour drive back from the theater, we talked about various parts of the movie. I was quiet. Sad. Irritated. Angry.
Because while many things are different between my world and the world of The Help, so many things are so very much the same.
The next day, I read the review. I finally got what I had been wanting: an African-American woman’s opinion on The Help.
Back when I read the book, I enjoyed it. The characters seemed rich and warm to me, and I got caught up in their stories and relationships. However, the whole time I read it, there was a small uneasiness, tucked away in that corner of my brain that is easily ignored. Maybe it was because so many people loved it, and told me I had to read it. Or maybe it was because every single one of those people were women, and white.
I couldn’t help but wonder – how does this book feel from a black point of view?
I looked around a little for such a review and didn’t find one. I also didn’t know one African-American who had read the book. So, I let it fade, and didn’t much think of it again until I walked into that theater last week, with my group of white friends.
The next day, I did really enjoy reading Valerie Boyd’s thoughts – seeing the film through her eyes. While I didn’t agree with everything she said, this statement stopped me cold:
Even today, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for African-Americans to talk honestly with white people about race and racism — because, put simply, most white people can’t handle the truth.
After living my entire life in the South, where race issues are dodged, ignored, justified – it’s a refreshing shock to hear it said that clearly, like a glass of cold water thrown in your face.
I think she’s right.
When I was in Portland earlier this summer I ran into the cleaning crew in the hallway of my hotel. I stood there for a second, my brain trying to make all the connections. Something seemed off.
I realized the people cleaning my room were white.
Several years ago I went to a banquet for a teachers’ group. After sitting my purse under my chair, I went through the buffet line. Returning to my table, I found that a group of black women had settled there. Rather clumsily, I said um, we were sitting there. See, my purse is under that chair. One of the older women in the group said isn’t that always how it is. The white people come along and take whatever they want. They left, angry.
Just this week I listened as a smart, beautiful black woman talked about how she has clearly explained to her children that there are people in the world who will treat them differently, or simply not like them, just because of their skin color. This is a friend of mine – not someone who is trying to spread fear or hatred, but who is trying to help her kids realistically face the world they live in.
I live in that world too, only I’ve never had to have a conversation with my kids like that.
In that world, cleaning people are almost always black or Hispanic. White people still don’t like to talk about race too much. Maybe black people don’t either. We are afraid of people different from us, and we seek friends who look like us and think like us. We like to say we are colorblind, but for the most part, I think we would rather be blind to it all. It seems easier.
In fact, to try and do anything else seems depressingly hard. There are systems in place in our society – in my own life – that keep perpetuating all of this. I have a cleaning lady. She’s Hispanic. I love my cleaning lady; I feel guilty about her cleaning my house. My son plays on a soccer team that’s all white, and so is almost the entire neighborhood league. I love that he plays on a team with some of our good friends; I wonder about what I am teaching him about where to live and what friends to choose. My own brain still betrays me, revealing negativity and ignorance about people who are not white.
If I understand Valerie Boyd correctly, The Help is a feel-good movie for white people because we will find it all too easy to identify with Skeeter, the white heroine, and to distance ourselves from Hilly, the white villain. We could also conclude that in a time and place far removed from our present lives, white people were awful to black people.
That would be a shame.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved The Help. I loved it for the same reasons I enjoyed the book, but maybe even more so for the gift of the amazing performances given by the actresses involved. So many wonderful women on that screen. I hope you go see it.
But I hope as well, that it won’t make you ‘feel good.’ I hope that as you walk around your world, you will see, and that you will want change.
If you’re new here, you might want to read the other posts I’ve written about race: here’s one on living in the shadow of Central High, and one on what my church is teaching me about race.
really enjoyed your post. i haven’t read the book or watched the movie. probably will at some point, just haven’t yet. however, i appreciate you sharing your feelings. having recently moved into an all black neighborhood, ryan going to an all black gym, lucy attending a mostly black school…it is clear as day that racism is still very present and like you said, generally ignored. it breaks my heart that our neighborhood is run-down and poor and it’s about 99% black (and us :). i feel sometimes like all the black people were shunned to this part of town. people judge us for living here. people judge us for sending our kid to school over here. some people are scared to come to our house. it just makes me sad. we just want our kids to learn to love everyone.
Thanks for caring deeply and for sharing honestly. I believe that true reconciliation is possible only when we are willing to open our eyes and hearts and stop being “blind to it all”.
Beautiful post, Sarabeth. I’m reading the book now and plan to see the movie. I’m enjoying it, and my black friends who’ve read the book and/or watched the movie also gave it great reviews. Just as you hope white people don’t feel good about themselves after watching the movie, I, as a black person, hope African-Americans don’t use the movie or the South’s dark past to excuse ourselves from taking any responsibility for racial divides today.
I, too, am waiting to read a not-so-positive review after I finish the book and watch the movie. It is from the Association of Black Women Historians. Here’s the link if you wanted to read another perspective: http://bit.ly/qUphJ3.
Thanks for sharing. This is a great post.
Thanks, Sarabeth, for sharing your thoughts and feelings on the movie and book. There were definitely some tough moments for me reading the book. However, I appreciate that someone had the courage to write the book and make the movie. In order to move forward and progress, it often requires a look into ‘where we used to be.’ The truth is that black people were not always treated with dignity and respect by white people. And some places in the world the same still exists today. But, as a black woman, I choose to believe that although people may look, talk and live differently, we as humans have something in common. It is when we connect on the common things and celebrate the differences that we grow individually and make the world a better place.
I’m glad you’re my friend. *tear*
I’ve been reading your blog for a year or two, and really have enjoyed it. I saw The Help on Friday night, and also had a pretty strong reaction to it. Then I read your blog post and ended up writing one of my own. I included a reference to your post ’cause I enjoyed reading it and because I used the article you quoted. Hope that’s ok, let me know if it’s not. Hope everything is well with you guys, tell your family hi for me. 🙂
Adria – so great to hear from you! Thanks for letting me know you are reading, and that you’re out there blogging away too. 🙂 I loved reading your take on things.
Excellent, excellent post! Thanks for writing about this and being honest about your convictions. This is a continuous conversation that we need to have is anything is to change. I believe that change does happen one conversation at a time through one relationship at a time.
Here are my thoughts surrounding ‘The Help’ from the prospective of a Christian who happens to be an African-American woman:
Thanks for also reading and joining the blog dialog:
Blessings to you my sister, Natasha
SB, for some reason I decided I had time before work today to start catching up on “the dramatic.” I read this post, then clicked through to the “black and white” post. I had a couple of co-workers talking about the help (one of them read the book, saw the movie, then gave the book to her assistant and said, “you HAVE to read this.” today on my lunch break, I went and found the book on sale and bought it (even though I don’t have 2 nickels to rub together right now). at the store, the book clerk was talking about it to another customer, and i had to chime in with my opinion, then when i was paying for it, a black male employee walked by and said, “That’s a fantastic book.” I went and sat in my car and read as much as I could before I had to go back to work.
next thursday the local community college is showing the movie for free, and i plan to finish the book before then and see the movie.
all that to say thanks for inspiring me to get the book. i can’t wait to devour it.
SB, i miss you and fellowship north. (btw, I forwarded links to both of your posts to our Connect with Scripture blogging group at fellowship batesville. The pastor and his wife are two of the bloggers.)
(and sorry about switching back and forth between uppercase and lowercase sentences!)