My family had just moved to southern Georgia (a few miles north of the Florida border), when I entered junior high school. If junior high wasn’t bad enough in itself, I was in a new state, new school, with kids who had been together since pre-first (that’s Southern for kindergarten). Add to that the fact that I was a Yankee, had a Jewish father, and no fashion sense. It was about as dooming a combination as anyone could muster to be—and stay—an outsider. We didn’t play golf or tennis, didn’t join the country club or go to any of their churches, and didn’t hunt quail or duck. Had my father not been a doctor (a breed worshiped in that part of the world), we would have been lost for sure. As it was, I walked into seventh grade having no idea it was the most infamous viper’s nest the school had seen, maybe ever. The kids in the class had somehow managed to be dominated, manipulated, and terrorized since pre-first by a homely, freckled, conniving girl named Ivey, who dictated who was “in” and who was “out.” I gave her a wide berth that year, saying as little as possible to her and her inner circle, and sticking closely to the only girl in the class who would talk to me (who, incidentally, was the only girl from a state north of where I was from—Alaska). Then, somehow something must have happened over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and when we came back after the summer, Ivey had been dethroned as Queen Bee. What transpired at church, or the country club, or whatever gentrified haunts these people had for themselves, I never found out. All I knew was that I was no longer considered an outsider to be shunned. (Until my family gave up living in the South as a Lost Cause in itself and prepared to move to California. Then I was right back where I started. But that’s another story.)
I was reminded of all this social in-and-outness and slippery madness when reading Kathryn Stockett’s recently published novel, The Help. Narrated from the point of view of three women—a wealthy young white woman who was raised by a black maid, and two other black maids—it tells the story of early 1960s, pre-integration Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett, who was herself raised by a black maid, has bitten off a huge mouthful, attempting to represent three distinct women’s voices (two of them black women’s), and in my opinion, pulls it off in style. Skeeter Phelan is a young white woman who lives at home with her parents, has just finished college at Ole Miss, attends weekly Junior League meetings with her high school friends (now married and having children), and dreams of being a journalist. Aibileen is an unmarried maid in her 50s who has raised 17 white children during her career as a maid, and does all she can to give her latest charge the love, confidence, and colorblind compassion she sees missing in the child’s mother. Minny is a 30-something mother of five, married to a drunkard, and has a reputation for a sharp tongue and fabulous cooking. Together, these three women conspire to publish a book detailing the personal experiences of a dozen Jackson maids—good and bad—with their employers. The stakes are high, and range from ostracism for Skeeter to firing, bludgeoning, and possible jail time for the maids if they’re successfully framed by vengeful employers.
For me one of the book’s chief strengths is the distinctiveness of each protagonist’s voice. Each of the women is very much part of a system that is in place, throwing black and white women together in close intimacy, yet separating them through social conventions that contradict that intimacy. When Miss Hilly, the Junior League president, author of a local initiative to install separate bathrooms for black servants, and Jackson’s own Ivey, confronts Skeeter for possessing a printed copy of Jim Crow “laws,” she says, “You know as well as I do, people won’t buy so much as a slice of pound cake from an organization that harbors racial integrationists!” Skeeter replies, “Hilly … Just who is all that pound cake money being raised for, anyway?” To which Hilly responds, with a roll of the eyes, “The Poor Starving Children of Africa?” Skeeter’s moral clarity, despite being a product of the same society as Hilly, at times feels almost unbelievable. Stockett carefully balances Skeeter’s desire to see change in her society by a very believable delicacy and awkwardness around the maids she meets with to take down their stories.
Perhaps surprising, since Stockett herself does not claim to possess any special knowledge of what it was like to be a black woman working as a maid in the early 1960s, are the true-sounding voices of Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen’s is mature, sensitive, loving to the children she cares for. She tells “secret stories” to her young charge, teaching her in subtle ways about the superficiality of skin color. “I take the brown wrapping from my Piggly Wiggly grocery bag and wrap up a little something, like a piece a candy, inside. Then I use the white paper from my Cole’s Drug Store bag and wrap another one just like it. She take it real serious, the unwrapping, letting me tell the story bout how it ain’t the color a the wrapping that count, it’s what we is inside.” Minny’s crankiness, though, was what won me over most. Too smart for her own good, she has lost many a job through letting herself say what she thinks. The greatest luxury for the reader is being allowed inside her head to hear her unbridled inner monologue. “The thermometer by Miss Celia’s kitchen window sinks down from seventy-nine to sixty to fifty-five in less than an hour. At last, a cold front’s moving in, bringing cool air from Canada or Chicago or somewhere. I’m picking the lady peas for stones, thinking about how we’re breathing the same air those Chicago people breathed two days ago. Wondering if, for no good reason I started thinking about Sears and Roebuck or Shake ’n Bake, would it be because some Illinoian had thought about it two days ago. It gets my mind off my troubles for about five seconds.” To Minny’s disgruntlement, her employer, Miss Celia, keeps her a secret, trying to make her husband think she herself is the woman behind the sparkling bathrooms, the fried pork chops and butter beans done just so, and the vacuumed stuffed grizzly bear. However, Minny’s ultimatum that Celia tell her husband, Johnny, about having a maid is set for December. “I walk into work with one thing on my mind. Today is the first day of December and while the rest of the United States is dusting off their manger scenes and pulling out their old stinky stockings, I’ve got another man I’m waiting on. And it’s not Santy Claus and it’s not the Baby Jesus. It’s Mister Johnny Foote, Jr., who will learn that Minny Jackson is his maid on Christmas Eve.”
Stockett plants a few fascinating mysteries in the plot that slowly unfold, such as what happened to Constantine, the beloved black maid who raised Skeeter, why Minny’s boss lady lies in bed all day every day and refuses to get up, and what the Terrible Awful Thing was that Minny did to her former employer. All is eventually revealed, and the ending is neither sunshiny perfect, nor as bleak as it might have been. Although the publication of the maids’ accounts does come at a price, it was still satisfying for me to see Miss Hilly, who heretofore always thought herself invincible, also share in the outcome of the book’s publication.
Living in the South for a short time, I observed some of the strange, paradoxical relationships that existed there (at least around 1980), where whites entrusted the running of their homes and the care of their children to people they often considered helpless, naturally inferior, and destined for nothing but a life of servitude. My private day school always proclaimed it was not a white school, but I could only imagine, seeing the harassment a white, Catholic girl with short, “Brillo-pad” hair got from our classmates, what would be in store for the first black student who tried to enroll. I can still remember the look of shock on the faces of the kids in my 7th grade American history class (most of whom called black people “niggers”) when our teacher got up and told us a horrifying story of being taken by her white-robed daddy to a KKK meeting and announced, at the beginning of the chapter on the Civil War, that slavery was wrong. Having taken abuse while working in the service industry for several summers, including being accused of stealing (something that overshadows every maid’s work), I had no trouble identifying with the maids in the novel. Add to that the fact that with no one to protect them at the civic level—no black politicians or policemen—and the constant threat of “summary justice” by whites, in official or unofficial capacities, they weren’t much better off than the Jews in Nazi Germany.
But like anything else involving human beings, things are complicated. Those who think that it is the natural order of things can read how unnatural, tense, demoralizing it is, with maids raped, beaten, threatened with termination for speaking to people of whom their employers disapprove, or cheated out of earned wages with no recourse. And for those who think that the system of whites employing blacks to feed them, clean up after them, and raise their children is filled with unremitting evil, there are stories of deep love, of employers giving their maids paid leave to take care of family members maimed by white hooligans, of maids wearing colicky white babies for a year as they went about their duties (and getting chronic back trouble into the bargain), of an elderly maid who recalls “hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house. Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died. Each proclaimed their love as best friends. Swore that death could not change this. That color meant nothing. The white woman’s grandson still pays Faye Belle’s rent. When she’s feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen.”
Whether this employer-maid institution is what binds these Southern blacks and whites together, or what keeps them separate, is explored without necessarily being resolved. The fact that most people are aware of the social barriers cannot be denied, but whether they are really there or not is another matter Stockett has Minny and Aibileen debate.
Complaining about Miss Celia, Minny complains, “She just don’t see em. The lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.”
Aibileen responds, “I used to believe in em. I don’t anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain’t. … Some folks just made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.”
Minny asks, “So you saying they ain’t no line between the help and the boss either?”
Aibileen says, “They’s just positions, like on a checkerboard. Who work for who don’t mean nothing.”
Minny says, “So I ain’t crossing no line if I tell Miss Celia the truth, that she ain’t good enough for Hilly? … But wait, if I tell her Miss Hilly’s out a her league…then ain’t I saying they is a line?”
Aibileen answers, “All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”