On Help

First, a quick programming note: apologies to all of those whose comments were held for moderation until just now. My spam program was, unbeknownst to me, set up in the most aggressive fashion possible, and for some reason I did not receive email notifications of comments and thus did not see them until I logged in. All that should be fixed now, I think.

Earlier today I read Vanessa Bush’s Likely Stories blog post about a project she attempted that involved interviewing white families and their black servants, these many years later, about their experiences — only while she found the white families eager to talk, none of the black servants have been willing to be interviewed. At the time I thought, “Huh,” and contemplated what one could say about that in relation to Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help, which is a novel written in three voices, one that of a young white woman and the other two those of, you guessed it, black servants in the early 1960s. I enjoyed the book but was troubled, as I often am, by wondering if I liked it because I am white, and the narrative is one that allows me to feel superior and enlightened as compared to many whites in the South in the early 1960s. That’s all well and good, but if it doesn’t translate — and sometimes I worry that it doesn’t — into present day anti-racism, then it’s not really doing much good.

This evening, as I was casting about for a topic, I suddenly thought, “Well, of course, Vanessa Bush should interview Annie!” And then I stopped dead, because Annie has been dead for many years now, and because I would guess she would not talk to an interviewer either, whereas my family, I’d guess, would be quite happy to. After all, I am talking to you.

Annie worked for my great grandmother and later for my grandmother. When I knew her, she came to the house one day a week to clean, or to help my grandmother clean, or to clean under the direction (often somewhat confusing to outsiders — “iron the dining room” translates, in my grandmother’s household, to “vacuum the living room”) of my grandmother. As the years went on, they spent less time cleaning and more time fussing about cleaning, but cleaning days always involved lunch, which was always soup and sandwiches.

It’s easy for me to fall into sentimentality about all of this, to think of Annie as a family extension, but I think that way only when I remember her through the eyes of my six or seven or eight year old self. By the time I got to be twelve and thirteen and fourteen, I became more uncomfortable, and I rather dreaded visiting my grandmother during cleaning day, because I began to notice things. I noticed that Annie — whose last name I do not remember, if I ever knew it — always called my grandmother Miz Wallace and me Miz Laura and my mother Miz Judith. I noticed that she nodded a lot. And — and this will seem like the stupidest thing ever — I noticed that she was black.

I knew that, of course, and I could have told you that even when I was younger, but its full import did not come to me until later. I was raised on the Civil Rights movement: my mother’s best friend in high school marched on Washington in 1963, my grandmother had, at one time, a subscription to a newspaper put out by the Black Panthers, and the only time I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime as a child was when there was a special about Martin Luther King Jr. on television. But that was all abstract. I was educated but I was not experienced; I grew up in a very white state and went in the summers to a very white camp. I had ideas about freedom and equality and the brotherhood of man, but when faced with the situation of a black person in what was clearly a subservient role in my own family, I did not know what to do.

I do not think that my family were bad employers or were cruel or unfair in any way, and I don’t think we were quite as crazy as the sort of dysfunctional white family archetype that Bush describes. But if I try to imagine how Annie might have seen us, I fail. I can guess that her feelings must have complicated, a sort of mixture of affection and resentment, love and envy — but I don’t, and won’t ever, know. Maybe I can’t know: maybe those are stories that won’t ever be told. I like to believe that listening to stories helps us to apprehend the world, and that somewhere out there there is a story that would help us all understand, but I’m not sure such a thing exists — perhaps it is one that is yet to be made.

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