The Help by Kathryn Stockett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really enjoyed this book. I was hesitant to read it at first--I worried that it would be too hokey. I was concerned that the white people would be portrayed as one-dimensional racists, and the black people as one-dimensional victims. But Kathryn Stockett manages to make the characters multi-dimensional, which makes them believable. She also avoids turning the white people into puppets simply proving a point about segregation in the south in the 1960s.
I also found the black people believable, but hard to relate to. For no particular reason, I just don't know a lot of black people (I don't even know if I'm allowed to say "black" but I really dislike "African-American" which is not a term used in the book, but I dislike it because it presumes that I know where someone is from, and also that all places in Africa are the same. I would never say I'm a "European-American," but rather a "German-American," or whatever. And finally, the phrase "African-American" presumes that I know that someone is, in fact, American, when they could simply be a Kenyan. Okay, rant over).
As I was saying, I had a hard time relating to the maids in the story because I have a very hard time imagining what life was like for a black woman in the south in the 1960s. My parents were both in Memphis when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. When I've asked what Memphis was like during that time, my mother held a similar view point to mine: how could kids who were fed, nursed, bathed, and cared for by black maids grow up to hate black people? It just makes no sense.
I once read an interview with Whoopi Goldberg in which she said that everyone is either an introvert or extrovert racist. She went on to explain that people either pretend they don't see color, or they just admit that they do. She wasn't complaining or accusing or anything, but I thought it was an interesting point.
Bear with me, as I really am going someplace with this, but when I watched the movie The Joy Luck Club, I kept wondering why I couldn't keep the different characters straight. I had just read the book, so I knew what each character was doing, what their personality was, and their motivations. But I just couldn't keep the actors separated.
Years later, I read that the reason we do this is because back, thousands of years ago, when we were all tribal nomads, anyone who looked like us was likely to be part of our tribe, and therefore distinguishing characteristics were useful identifiers, but anyone who didn't look like us was probably an enemy (presumably fighting over valuable resources and the like), and therefore distinguishing characteristics weren't useful identifiers. Even though socially we've evolved past this, our brains still group everyone in a different race as "them." In fact, there's even a bit on 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan says, "No, you can't leave, Ken. Who's gonna help me tell white people apart?"
So to tie all of these points together, I felt like after reading the interview with Whoopi Goldberg, and especially after I read the science behind it, I felt like I could actually say that I can't tell all black people apart without feeling like I'm a terrible human being and intentionally being racist (I can't tell all of the Indian people I work with apart, either, especially when I'm on the phone with them).
So now, to get back to The Help, the book was really interesting, and I'm actually a little sad that I didn't read it as part of a book club, because I think it would have sparked an interesting discussion. One really interesting point made in the book was how sneaky the white employers could be. One character discusses how the white ladies might destroy a family by firing the maid, and then spreading rumors that she stole or whatever, so the maid couldn't get another job. Then the white lady's husband would talk to the owner of the house the maid's family was renting, and evict them in the middle of the night, and then the maid's husband would get fired because the foreman (or whoever) wanted his wife to stay in the social circle of the white lady who originally fired the maid. It's just mind-boggling to me that this elite power-play could go on and everyone knew about it.
I felt the same sort of horrific wonder while reading the book that I do when I read about women getting the right to vote (what were the men really afraid of? That we'd take over the world? That requires a tremendous amount of effort! That we'd make stupid choices? Or even worse, that we'd make smart choices?) . What were the white people in the south really so afraid of? I mean, deep down, how could they really be so concerned with sharing a water fountain or a bus seat? Did they really think the black people were going to take all of the jobs, all of the opportunities, all of what, exactly?
I think the black people in the south weren't interested in taking everything the white people had. They were interested in the same things that all decent people are interested in: their kids' schools, being safe, having a job that pays a reasonable wage, and in general being treated like a human. That's really not too much to ask for.
View all my reviews