I just finished reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. This book is written mostly from the perspective of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60’s—just my era. I could not put this book down. I identified with so much in it.
This is an uncomfortable subject for me. It was our life back then, but looking at it from 21st Century eyes, I see just all kinds of vestiges of slavery in the way our society was structured those days. It is, as I say, “uncomfortable.” Still, it is history, and I”m going to tell you what my life was like in this respect.
My father was a lawyer—Southern country lawyer. I remember him going to court in the summer time in blue and white seersucker suits and light (white or “light buck”) shoes. This was not unusual for attorneys of the day. Courtrooms were hot, and a dark suit would have probably been unbearable. I also saw lawyers back then with straw “panama” hats, although my dad never wore one. In this day of air conditioning, I don’t notice anyone wearing seersucker at the courthouse anymore.
Although my father was a professional and we were well-provided for, we were not “society” (my Daddy’s behavior just did not fit that), nor were we rich. Still, we were white. Back in that day, that’s pretty much all it took to have “help” at home. Amazing, as I look back.
V’s family wasn’t rich, either. We lived side-by-side in identical-but-for-the-chosen-exteriors tract housing. We had few frills, but we had ironing and cleaning ladies. I can’t remember V’s “maid’s” name off the top of my head. I know that her grandmother’s “Elizabeth” was a long-time, trusted servant.
I feel the need here to interject: NO MAID UNIFORMS! At least our “maids” never wore uniforms…
When we moved to the country the summer before my fifth grade, we moved into what we called the “farm house,” an old house from the 20’s which stood on the acreage our father purchased and would serve as our home while our new, more modern one was built.
Out back of the farm house was a shack. It was an old, long rectangular house with a central kitchen-living area flanked by two bedrooms. You wouldn’t have wanted to live there…the floors were uneven and I doubt it was very warm in the winter since there was no insulation. It was old, old. But there lived Beal and Betty and their two sons.
I could not find a picture that fit, but this one below is close with one exception: the only door was on the long side, not the end…and there was a long, low, wavy porch across the front. But it still had this “shotgun” architecture of just being a row of rooms—no hallways in this house. And it had a tin roof.
Beal took care of the outside chores, including tending to my horses. Betty’s portion was the inside of our house. She did all the ironing and cleaning and some of the cooking. On my parents’ bowling nights, Betty would leave her own children out in the shack with Beal. She would sit and watch TV with us and babysit until my parents came home. She also was responsible to look after us when my parents were out at night any time, and these would be the times she would usually do the cooking.
Beal and Betty moved after a couple of years, and Dad had the shack bulldozed down, if that tells you anything. This all happened about the time we moved into our new home, just around the corner. And at that time we switched “help.” I don’t really have the story on why Beal and Betty left—whether they just found opportunity or something else.
Our new help were Dannie for the inside; Willie for the outside. They were not related, but they came from the same small black community a mile and a half or so north of us. Living areas were not integrated at the time—no more than schools (except, of course, when one had a shack out back…). We all knew where black folks lived—all together, and who could blame them?
I remember riding with my mother or father to transport Dannie to and from work. Lanky, proud-tall-standing Willie, on the other hand, walked wherever he went. Willie reminded me of pictures I had seen of Masai warriors. He stood well over six feet tall and was thin as a rail—probably from all that walking and hot outside work. Despite his menial labor, he had a nobility to his carriage.
Willie had a distinctive, rhythmic walk, his long, long legs, eating up distance, his long arms swinging far to his front and then back, in time with the beat of his walk.
Willie was nearly blind and I remember him placing his face right down next to a nail head before he began hammering in order to be accurate, which he was once he got this up-close look. His poor sight, incredibly, did not interfere with his hard work.
There were other black men who helped my father outside occasionally, but Willie was the “constant” for years.
Dannie was with us from about my sixth grade until my sister (twelve years younger) was through most of elementary school. When I would come home from school, it was Dannie who fixed me an afternoon snack—fruit salad or chicken salad sandwich or pimiento cheese. She was intimately involved in our lives and knew all about us. I think I knew even back then that her parallel life was not so open to us. She was entrenched in ours; we knew little about hers.
And, here is part of the shame I feel as I look back: In order for my family to afford this, we must have paid her peanuts.
I remember that Dannie sang in a Gospel group called “The Spiritual Echoes.” She had a deep, rich, beautiful voice that I would hear as she rocked my little sister to sleep. She was kind and gentle with us, and years later when my mother’s mother was dying of cancer in our home, it was Dannie to whom we turned. She would come every single day and take care of my grandmother with competence and compassion.
Dannie is dead now. I remember her with great fondness.
So, reading “The Help” made me reflect. It was an odd time in our country’s history. I imagine my black friends might think of terms other than “odd” to describe it. It was a hazy limbo land for them, hung between slavery and freedom—they had legal freedom, okay, but for what?
In my junior high days we experienced integration. The Central High episode of 1957 (I was 5) is famous in my state. When I consider it, I wonder if I would have had the courage that those black parents showed in sending their children through that screaming mob—I doubt it. I imagine those parents sent up lots of prayer around those nine children who were sent to forcibly break down the racial barrier to education. But at my schools we did not have much racial trouble. I recall little tension, just awareness. And the separateness of our lives continued.
I am grateful to say that I believe we have made strides in this area, as I have many black professional colleagues, crossing swords with me in the courtroom and I don’t bother to think about race when we do. I hope they don’t, either….but I sure thought about it as I read this book.
I wonder what my black friends would think about my view of the era. What would they say at the thought that I, who was not a rich youngster, grew up with “servants?” That this was my privilege, not because my family could particularly afford luxury but because the labor of my black neighbors was valued at so little that we could afford that.
As I say: uncomfortable. But I’m going to talk to them about it. My interest is raised…I’ll give you a report.
I would love to hear your own stories from this time—especially if you are African-American.
As for me, it is, indeed, the part of “Dixie” from which I do want to “look away.” C