Widespread discussion of ‘The Help’ sparks memories of youth in Mississippi
Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 7:02 pm
By RICHARD CHESTEEN
Of late it seems the thing to do is write a commentary on the popular book and movie “The Help.”
My wife is now reading the book. The book and movie have some particular interest to us since we both have roots in Mississippi communities and I grew up near the Delta city of Greenwood where the movie was partially filmed.
I will not likely get around to reading the book but I will possibly see the movie at some time in the future. I gather from the reviews of the book and movie that the plot centers around the interaction between two white women and two black women who work in their homes in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s.
Having hired help work in the home today in the South is fairly rare for several reasons. Among them are the following: 1) such hired domestics now, in most cases, qualify for minimum wage and Social Security coverage, which makes their compensation beyond the financial means of most families; 2) with their access to quality education young black girls are able to prepare themselves for careers that make such domestic employment unattractive; 3) the racial equality that has come with the civil rights movement has so changed the nature of relations between the two races that the subservient position that blacks lived is no longer acceptable to most of them.
My mother worked outside the home while I was growing up. I was the youngest of five children, three of whom were girls. When we were young, during the months we were in school my mother and father did employ black domestics to clean the house, do the ironing and prepare meals for the evening before leaving work.
I know we had several different domestics but one worked longer for us and was the one who I got to know best. She was Emma. Emma was probably in her mid-40s. She had a serious limp that I always wondered about but never asked.
Emma was a great cook. Some of my favorite dishes were garden vegetables. Her turnip greens and cornbread with baked sweet potatoes were a treat. I know we had deserts at times but I do not really remember any particular one other than blackberry cobbler. However, there was one dish she cooked from time to time that I just could not grow to like. It was “cracklin” bread, which is mentioned as being cooked by the black maid Calpurnia in the popular Southern novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For those who might not be familiar with such a dish, it is cornbread cooked with pork skin (rind) — the cracklins. I loved the resulting taste of the cornbread the cracklins were cooked in but not the tough cracklins.
I do not remember what our conversations were about but I do recall Emma and I often talked with each other. She was a firm but affectionate caretaker. I particularly remember watching Emma ironing clothes. When she was doing this, she often had the radio on. She usually listened to an all black radio station in Memphis (WDIA). This was in the late 1940s before the popularity of black rhythm and blues, later known as rock ‘n’ roll, caught on with white youth across the country.
My parents both believed strongly in segregation but they were not racial haters. I do not remember either of them swearing at our black help or promoting violence toward blacks as racial tension began to grow in the South. I do remember very well one day my mother was sitting at our kitchen table and the adult conversation was about black efforts to integrate eating establishments. I recall my mother commenting on how she would not go into such an integrated establishment but then she said that, on the other hand, she would be willing to sit at our kitchen table to talk and have a cup of coffee with Emma because she was different. (What she meant by this statement I did not understand at the time.)
When I graduated from high school I did not know the full name of a single young black person my age at that time. White and black children in those days lived in separate worlds even though the homes they grew up in were often only blocks or less from each other.
I was in graduate school at the University of Mississippi in 1962 when James Meredith integrated it. I had classes with him. Two years later I began my teaching career at a community college in the Mississippi Delta. By then it, too, was integrated. Since then I have had the privilege of teaching young people from many parts of the world. I have never found the segregated treatment of blacks by so many whites in the South (and North) as either Christian or personally acceptable.
At times I have been challenged for my views by members of my own family and some friends. I have never understood how they failed to see how their racial views were in such contrast to the humanity they so often demonstrated in the rest of their lives.
Whether I do or do not get around to seeing the movie, I have lived in the environment “The Help” portrays. I remember it well. It was not void of moments of love and compassion between the races but those isolated circumstances will never offset the history of violence and indignities that blacks were subjected to by whites, including my own family, who should have known and in many cases did know were wrong.
Richard Chesteen, a longtime Union City resident, is professor emeritus in political science at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is former chairman of the Obion County Democratic Party and was a gubernatorial candidate in 1994 Democratic Primary. Published in The Messenger 9.21.11