(my first day of kindergarten, 1960, New Orleans, LA)
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought. – Kathryn Stockett
For my birthday, my sister gave me “The Help”, an eye opening novel by Kathryn Stockett, who weaves a fictional tale of 1960’s attitudes by the privileged white society of Jackson, MS towards their black “maids” who had lovingly raised them up as children. In the book, these children then grow up and continue the same dismissive and disrespectful attitudes towards “the help” that their mothers had.
The maids’ voices are perfectly captured in the book, and their personal lives outside their work are well documented. They are proud, upstanding people who did what must be done to maintain a living in those days.
The society women? You just want to smack them! But then our heroine gets to work to expose the system, and does so in a most satisfactory manner.
It is an unsettling book to read for those who hold no pretentions of racial inequality, and yet, for one who spent her childhood years in New Orleans, and had black ladies helping raise us up, I can remember those days.
One of the painful chapters in the book alludes to the “maid’s bathroom” that one of the society women insisted be installed in her garage “to increase the property value” of their house. But it really was because she didn’t want to have to disinfect the guest bathroom all the time.
Well, I remember there being a stall in the laundry room for Helen. It was Helen’s bathroom. Once, for some reason, we had to use it (backed up plumbing elsewhere?), and I have a distinct memory of thinking, “gee, I’m using Helen’s bathroom!” all the while looking around and thinking that it was somehow different, maybe even daring!
Later, when my parents expanded the house to add more rooms to accommodate 6 kids, that plumbing was incorporated into the “boys’ wing”. No more segregated bathrooms.
One interesting fact that I wasn’t aware of at the time was the integration of the New Orleans public schools in the fall of 1960. I had just started kindergarten that same year when Ruby Bridges became the first black student to desegregate the schools there.
According to the PBS series, American Experience/New Orleans, “Federal district judge J. Skelly Wright ordered desegregation to begin on November 14. On that day three black girls began first grade at the McDonough school and [Ruby] Bridges at William Frantz. With integration came protest and upheaval. A local citizens’ council called on white parents to boycott the schools…
When Bridges, who was guarded by marshals, arrived, she encountered mobs of white parents, who shouted racial epithets and threats. Integration supporters, including NAACP leaders and white activists, faced death threats. Bridges’ father was fired from his job, and the white owners of a grocery store refused to allow her family to shop. By the end of the week, only three white families remained in the Frantz school; all white parents had removed their children from McDonough.”
I did not attend either of those schools, but many families in the school that we went to pulled their children out as a precaution. I, of course, had no idea of the maelstrom that was swirling through the state, and it was only much later when I read my mother’s letters from those days that I realized that my parents did not cave in, but rather kept us enrolled in our public school. My father even signed a petition to keep the schools open; there had been a real possibility that the Legislature would close down the schools rather than integrate them.
Reading the letters about those days, I am proud of my parents for standing up to the peer pressure to yank their kids out of public schools. Their doing the right thing gave me an example to follow as I grew up, and I never once felt any sense of prejudice when I shared classes with other black students through the years. As a matter of fact, one of my teachers in middle school was a black woman. After my mom went to the Parents’ Open House, she mentioned in a letter that my art teacher was a black woman, but that I had never said a word about it. It just didn’t occur to me to do so.
All this being said, I know there are still those out there who harbor vestiges of racism to this day, and it continually amazes me that this is the case. My hope is that as generations of people are raised up to do the right thing, a new day will finally dawn.
One can only hope.