Who Now Helps the Help?
In his essay entitled “The Call to Service,” John Erskine posed these questions:
Do you look on the unfortunate as your brothers, in temporary distress, or do you see in them objects of charity? Do you think your function is to serve, and their function is to be served? If by a miracle they should get on their feet, would you have lost your career?
Those questions caused me to think about the movie The Help. No, I have not read the book. The film’s most obvious biases were the usual ones: Southerners have historically mistreated Negroes, have underpaid them, have insulted them, have abused them, have even sometimes killed them. Nonetheless, colored maids, cooks, and nurses raised and loved the white children in the homes where The Help were employed. There are essentially two groups of women in the movie: the spoiled, beautiful, idle, well-to-do, and insensitive white women; and the hard-working, underpaid, loyal, loving, and sensitive uniformed colored women. Given that lineup, the story is simply one about the hardships and travails of The Help at the hands of the privileged young matrons. Ordinarily, such a tale would hardly qualify for a ten-minute, one-act, high-school play. However, that test is not applied to efforts to lambaste Southern whites for their never-ending offenses against blacks. The self-styled “good people” just can’t get enough Rebel-rousing. And neither can the book, magazine, and newspaper publishers and the TV and movie producers. Discrimination and diatribes against Southern whites are greatly encouraged. We are often reduced to the nation’s N-word. We are the objects but not the subjects of sensitivity training.
Apparently, the story takes place in the 1960’s, and would not be applicable to the present day—not because white Southerners have improved that much, but because very few of us have help anymore. Some years ago, I read a remarkable account of a black woman who worked for a wealthy family in Chicago. For many years she was exposed to the good manners, good taste, and good educational standards of the family. She and her husband had several children of their own, and she instilled in them the values she had learned in her workplace. Every one of their many children graduated from college, and several of them earned graduate degrees. She attributed what she had passed on to her children to what she had learned from those for whom she worked. She was not resentful; she was very grateful, but then she wasn’t in the South, and maybe she wasn’t referred to as The Help. Also, everyone knows there’s no racial discrimination in Chicago.
Many years ago, when I was young, we had servants. In my family’s modest home we had a maid five days a week, and a laundress one day a week. However, my maternal grandparents had three full-time servants: a chauffeur and butler, a cook, and a maid. Without dwelling on it, I’ll assume the servants needed to work in order to support themselves. You may not believe it, and frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn if you don’t, but each of the servants was treated as part of the family. They may not have been integrated round and about town, but in our homes they were much cared about as human beings. In fact, I was always much closer to my grandmother’s chauffeur, Joseph Augustus, than I ever was to my own father. Joseph even called me “Son.” And throughout our long relationships, we learned many valuable lessons from our servants, and they from us. Of course, in addition to having us, they had families of their own. And guess what, Scarlett, photographs of their children and grandchildren were displayed along with those of our own family.
Furthermore, their families were, with very few exceptions, law abiding, hardworking, respectful, and respectable. They did not commit crimes. They did not use drugs. They had no tattoos or piercings. The boys didn’t wear earrings and necklaces. They were always neatly and well dressed. Perhaps the professional do-gooders will say “they were afraid not to conduct themselves in those ways.” Just try to imagine the brutality involved in encouraging people not to commit crimes and use drugs! How fortunate we are to have overcome setting such examples.
The fact is that in spite of the many past instances and customs of racial discrimination, the two races have never been further apart from each other than they are now. There are no bonds, no connections of mutual benefit. We are all committed to that brilliant system established by the Great Society, “diversity without differences.” We are forced to acknowledge and respect different cultures without being able to discuss the differences. Oh, how insensitive sensitivity can be. And how very absurd.
There may no longer be any beneficial bonds between the races, but many destructive and detrimental influences continue. Consider the ways black music, dress, language, slang, jewelry, etc., have influenced white kids. You may not mind; I do. And consider the awful effects selfish and greedy politicians and “businessmen” have had on black society in efforts to get votes and to sell goods. Elected officials use taxpayer dollars to provide funds for black people to use to buy products. Under our current economic system, more and more consumers are sought, and it doesn’t matter how their purchasing power is provided. Public money for private sales is not only permissible; it is aided and abetted.
We’re on to something radical. Essentially, it has to do with the creation of a welfare society to maintain and sustain people as consumers. Every government program created by the Great Society made it possible for the unemployed to become consumers. Therefore, one must question whether big business is really opposed to the welfare state. This is a form of government capitalism, even though the terms would seem contradictory. Because such a domestic system is inadequate for unlimited sales, the emphasis is then put on worldwide free trade in order to have access to consumers everywhere.
So the Southern whites no longer have help, and the Southern blacks no longer have jobs. Government now provides what “benefits” the less-educated and less-prosperous people have. Poverty has been redefined. It can now mean an apartment instead of a private home; only two television sets and three cellphones; only one good car; and several pairs of hundred-dollar Nikes. Sadly, it can also mean graduating from high school and not being able to read and write above a fifth-grade level. It can easily involve a life of crime, drug use, and imprisonment.
It seems as if many aspects of the bad old days were much better than those of the good new days. Can we really take any comfort from the knowledge that the close and mutually beneficial relationships between the races that once existed have been torn apart and destroyed?
A strong case can be made that The Help was actually two groups, both the employers and the employees. There was a time in the South when most people, black and white, were servants who served one another in many helpful ways. Government has deprived us of that relationship. We must now be satisfied to cheer impersonally for our athletes. But little has changed for our New England acquaintances, who still sit in their yacht clubs in their lily-white towns and harshly judge those who have never owned a slave and who have worked to better the condition of those who were never slaves. How sad it is that The Help are now solely dependent on the government for help. To answer John Erskine, everyone’s function is to serve. Thus, they can never lose their careers. We have lost ours.
Ben C. Toledano is an author and a lawyer.
This article first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.