Saturday, January 21, 2012

"You is kind." But what about courageous?

I've always appreciated a story my dad once told us kids. He said when he and my mom got married (mid 60s) he invited an older black neighbor to the reception. He was just a nice guy who had always treated the neighborhood kids well, and since my dad liked him he sent him an invitation. The man showed up... with tears in his eyes! It was the first time anyone from the nearly all-white neighborhood had invited him to something like that, despite the fact that he had lived there for quite some time. It wasn't something my dad did with much thought; he just invited people he considered friends.

Last weekend Jamie picked up a movie called "The Help." I knew the book had been popular (something about a young woman coming home to Mississippi from college... ) but it didn't catch my interest. The title sounded odd - turning the verb "help" into a noun - but lots of authors try to be clever like that. Well, it turns out it's not that clever after all - "the help" is referring to "the household help," as in maids (although you wouldn't know that from the birds on the book cover). I didn't grow up with maids or servants, so the only "help" was my mom cleaning up after us kids (and we'd have never dared think of it that way). But anyway...

In the movie the young woman just home from college interviews "the help" - the black maids who work in the homes of the well-to-do white folks in the early 60s - about their lives and experiences. They not only clean and cook meals, they also raise the white children for mothers too busy with social calendars. They also face daily racism and prejudice and aren't even allowed to use the same toilets. They have few rights and can be fired for the smallest thing or nothing at all, thus cutting off the meager earnings their own family depends on. And it was a movie that made me feel very uncomfortable; seeing the way people treated those they considered their inferiors. It's not about the violence of racism, but rather the effect of casual racism.

And it made me glad I grew up in the time and place I did and for the way I was taught to respect others regardless of race. But it made me wonder, what if I had grown up in a time and place when racism was normal and accepted for white folks? How would I act and what choices would I make? After all, those people who neglected to invite my dad's neighbor weren't bad people - quite the opposite, in fact: some very good salt-of-the-earth people - but they were a product of their time and place. I just hope that if I'd been in such a time and place I'd have had the courage to look beyond race and skin color and be both kind and courageous... and I hope that I am always that way in the here and now.


  1. What a touching story about your father. Thank you for sharing. Jon and I actually rented that movie not too long ago. We really liked it. After watching we just sat back and thought about the hypocrisy that existed, in feeling the maids weren't good enough to use the same toilet, and yet were good enough to raise their children.

    1. Thanks Liz. You know, the thought of those beautiful southern homes and Southern Hospitality and manners and such seems so nice and charming until you consider the ugly role racism and discrimination played in it all. It almost makes me want to read the book.

  2. Well, my sister Rebecca asked my dad about this and he said the man's name was Albert Fritz. He was the president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP from 1957 to 1965. Kinda cool.