I have been seeing lots of chatter about the book The Help. It is exciting to share something new and cool, so I have been enjoying the reactions to the book from the people I love. I have, however, read a few things on Facebook that are a little cringe-worthy, in my opinion.
The one that keeps repeating on me—like a bad meal—is the sentiment that goes something like this: Can you believe that people used to really think like this? And there are still people like this today??
I love how the author is so authentic to the time and place of her book, but I don’t think there is even an implied invitation to scorn the mentality of racism. Racism is something I see as a literary device to The Help, NOT the subject in and of itself. Far more interesting to me is the deeper portrait of individuals and how they fit into an unforgivingly stringent society. If this is so, then the comment, ‘Can you believe…?’ is one that smacks of blindness. It would be comical if it weren’t so very sad.
I see how relevant this world of The Help is to me, in my little life. I can imagine it is relevant to just about anyone. As people, we like boxes and we box other human beings up in ways that help us feel safe and in control. We categorize, incorporate and marginalize all as a matter of course. The social mores of any group become more closely followed than anything as trivial as law. You sped on your way to the party? Who cares! You burp your way through a cocktail line? You might want to think about moving.
The protagonists in The Help do their part to defy the mores of their world. They take a risk and hope that eyes will be opened to the truth. Dehumanizing humans is wrong, whether you do it to exclude or even to include. Skeeter was ‘in.’ Her best friends were ‘in.’ But to stay ‘in,’ she had to stop being herself, just as much as a maid was required to leave her personality, hopes and dreams at home before coming to work.
This is something that begins in school, and only becomes more subtle once all the parties become so-called adults. Social pressures to perform as expected are profound for all the players. While we imagine that those lower on the totem pole are most interested in changing the scene, we overlook those at the top who are just as trapped by the rigidity of the roles we institute.
Of course the maids in the book risked their lives by talking with Skeeter. But so did Skeeter. She lost everything, too. The beautiful reality for her, though, was the loss turned into an unexpected freedom. Discovering she’d been replaced among her friends by the next cardboard cut-out wasn’t nearly as profound as the discovery that she no longer wanted to be there. She no longer had to toe the line to maintain approval.
The maids also lost things in exchange for new freedoms. But I think the biggest thing many of them lost was fear. Christ tells us to not fear those who can kill us because all they can do is kill us. That verse always makes me chuckle. What a profound thought! One worth internalizing. Once we lose that fear of others, we realize how dead we had been before. And we were dead supposedly so that we could live!
So, I really don’t think this is a book about race, a nation’s shamefully slow recovering from slavery or the South. I believe it is about life. I saw it as a call to live for truth without fear. We can stand in defiance of the Hillys and do the right thing. Or we can choose to be blind and fearful, unaware even when a book is written all about us and our friends. We can get rid of all reminders of truth, let hateful people make our choices for us and go through it all over again the next time God offers the opportunity of life. For me, I’m letting the Hillys of my life go.