Monday, August 29, 2011

Patricia A. Turner on "The Help": Oversimplifying Falsifies History

I haven't seen the film version of Kathryn Stockett's book The Help, but I did read the book when it came out.  I thought it was okay, if not scintillating.  In my view, one of the most important contributions it makes is to offer us a slice of recent history--any slice at all--that we prefer to forget.  That we as a nation prefer to forget and dissemble about, even though it happened in the lifetime of many of us.  

It happened in my lifetime.  The story Kathryn Stockett tells is a story through which I myself lived, in key respects.  I grew up in a household in which a woman of color spent her days caring for my brothers and me, while her own children were cared for by someone else in the neighborhood in which she lived.  

One of my high school classmates, one of the handful of carefully selected African-American students chosen to begin the integration process in our high school in 1967, is now reading The Help, and finds it worthwhile.  I respect Alice's opinion about the book, since she, too, lived through that period of history that most Americans now choose to forget, though in a very different way than I did.

Her own mother was "the help" in the household of a wealthy family in our town--in the household of an influential deacon in my church.  I would in all likelihood not have gotten to know my classmate Alice as intimately as I now know her, had it not been for accidents of history that erased the color line--to a certain extent--for the two of us.  Those accidents include her having been picked to attend the "white" school in our town, and then, many years down the road, the fact that I was an administrator at an historically black college which she had attended, and on whose financial advisory board she sat.  And so the college reconnected us, and we have sealed our friendship now with long lunches every chance we get to meet, and with hours of talk about the world in which we grew up and what has become of it.

And I'm thinking of Alice and those conversations today as I read Patricia A. Turner's reflections on the movie version of The Help in the New York Times.  As Turner notes, the film plays a game that has been traditional in American literature from very early in our cultural history: it draws a simplistic, moralizing picture of black and white, in which each is easily identifiable and easily sorted out.

In particular, it implies that there were "good whites" and "bad whites" in the South of Jim Crow and segregation, and it saddles the latter with responsibility for the deeply entrenched racism of the region in which I came of age, while letting the former off the hook.  And yet, as Turner notes with absolute correctness, the longstanding, systemically practiced racism of the American South depended on both kinds of whites: on good and bad whites, on elite and trashy ones.  (And it also depended, though she doesn't spell this out, on the active and silent complicity of people across the U.S. for generations, who either stood by in silence or actually abetted the development of the Jim Crow system in the American South).

Turner writes:

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.

But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause. 

Turner's right: we were all in it together, we Southern whites (and we Americans throughout the U.S.).  Though the overt violence on which the entire system of racial repression depended may have been enacted by demi-monde white men, standing behind those lower-class men were always bankers, lawyers, judges, Sunday-School teachers, school principals, mill owners and contractors and on and on.  "Respectable" white Southerners may not have thrown rocks.  We may have hidden our hands.

But we supplied the rocks thrown by those whom we then affected to scorn, when their ugly racial violence gained nasty publicity for our region.  We spent years upon end carefully cultivating the overt racial animosities of working-class Southern whites, because it was in our best interest to pit working-class white people against black people, and so to divide those whom we exploited in order to maintain our dominant status in the social structures we had fabricated for our society.

It's important for Americans as a whole to know this.  It's important for the nation as a whole to remember this.  Americans have a famously short historical memory.  Even the recent history of the racial struggles that have occurred over the course of American history is now being revised, sorted neatly into simplistic black-white categories which permit the many of us who were implicated in the heinous racism legally enshrined in our culture in the recent past to exonerate ourselves of our guilt.  Of our crimes.

To pretend that we were the "good" victims of "bad" malefactors who held us hostage.  So that we can now proclaim--astonishingly--that we've resolved the problem of racism, been there and done that, and can move on to the social problem du jour.  Like protecting the nation against the unwarranted demands of poor folks who want to eat up our hard-earned dollars through tax handouts that support their laziness and immorality.  Or protecting it against the immorality of nasty gay and lesbian folks who want to destroy marriage.

In my own state, the former governor, Rev. Mike Huckabee, who is hard at work on the latter agenda, held a news conference a few years back on the steps of our state capitol in which he professed that he and other good, church-going Southern white people had repented of their prejudice.  Of their prejudice against black folks, that is.  

Been there, done that.  

And now we're moving on to a new, post-racial society in which good white and good black people can pull together, join the political party that represents God and post-racial healing, and begin reconstructing the Christian society that has frayed so badly in the past few decades.  While the very political party we're identifying with God and God's purpose for our nation rose to dominance in the latter part of the 20th century by appealing brashly to the very racial prejudice we "good" God-fearing Southern whites now maintain we've ditched, as we move on to the latest burning concerns God and the party God has anointed for our nation's reChristianization.

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