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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Help

Our last book club selection was book entitled The Help. It tells the story of white women from Mississippi and their "help", the black maids who raised their kids and cleaned their houses. The book is well-written and deeply engaging. I was actually sad when I finished it as I had gotten so involved in the characters' lives, I almost felt that some good friends had moved away when I didn't have their story to retreat to day after day. The book is startling in its portrayal of white racist behavior towards the black women who serve them day after day. Your jaw remains open as you consider how these privileged women entrusted their children to these folks, yet would not allow them to use the same bathroom as they did. Little thought was ever given in the minds of the white women as to the sacrifices their servants were making towards their own children in order to provide for the white kids. The story is complex and told from a variety of points of view. There are 3 main heroines in the story: a young white woman not willing to buy into the lifestyle that her mother is dying for her to embrace, that of wife to an elite and influential young white man. Instead, she decides to get to know the maids and ventures out to help them tell their story. 2 of the black maids figure prominently in the story and their own journeys are deeply moving and often heart wrenching. The role of their church in the midst of the oppressed lives is deeply powerful.
I was deeply moved by this book. The story format made me want to interview some of the folks from our church who likely have a pretty amazing story to tell about how they ended up here in Sweden and where along the way oppression has been part of their journey. I was aware that the behavior of the white women was shaped by their culture...in a sense, it was all they knew, but I was forced to consider how we learn to move away from the aspects of our culture or upbringing that are fundamentally harmful to another or just plain wrong. Racism is not right and should never be excused with a simple, "That's just the way it is." Very sad to see was how unhappy these rich, privileged white folks could be. The friendships of the white women had a flavor that was quite different from the deep bond of friendship and loyalty that the black women shared.
I was challenged to consider where in my life I might be carrying blind spots towards others. How do we learn to know our blind spots, the attitudes that are shaped by our upbringing, culture and surroundings but might still have a deeply racist, or sexist, or oppressive bent to them? We all learn prejudicial behavior somewhere and rare is the person who is exempt from any prejudice. I was challenged to think about the privileges that I have in my life, where I have power and prestige and perhaps don't use them to the best end. Where do we find the fortitude to go against the grain of our peers, family, culture and speak out against something that we know will create an uproar or bring on conflict? I don't have all the answers, but I'm working on it. I don't want to be silent because it's easier. I want to be able to stand up for what I believe in and advocate for those who are being oppressed.
This is a great book. It challenges us on many different levels. The lives of the white women are almost caricatures in nature and yet they are so deeply real that you cannot simply dismiss them either. The book is set in the 60's and we are certainly living in a different era and yet...how far have we really come? It continues to fascinate me that on the whole, whites tend to think we've come such a long way while minorities are wondering when a real break through will happen. I'm mostly trying to listen to the voices of those who are less privileged than I, more deeply wounded by society's attitudes and allow them to sharpen my own sense of what is really going on in our world.
SIDE NOTE: I recommend viewing the film 'Glory Road' for a look at how tough it was for African American athletes to break into the world of Division I college athletics. The film is based on a true story and tells the story of an amazing and courageous coach who went against the tide of his times and opened up doors for athletes of color to participate at the highest level in college sports.