Thursday, September 1, 2011

Daughter of The Help

In Tribute to Mildred Emery, Died 7/4/2011 
(Music video so adjust your  speakers)

Relax; I’m not going to critique The Help, not the book or the movie. No musings on Katheryn Stockett’s right to tell the story of a group of Black working-class women. Still the spirited debates and differing opinions got me to thinking. I’ve been part of the scathing comments, but recently I sat quietly and listened to praises. From Black folks.

First, at the beauty shop on a Friday afternoon and the next day, Saturday morning, from ladies at a prayer breakfast at church. No one was offended by the dialect, or that these accomplished Black actresses were cast as maids. What they saw, and I’m really inserting my opinion here, was a tribute to their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and other women they knew and loved.

To be honest my initial reaction to the book and the movie was WTH???!!!?? (Lord, forgive the slip!) However, my opinion on the entire subject has evolved as I listened to all sides.

You see I’m a daughter of The Help in a very real sense. My mother, Mildred Emery, was a maid- or a popular joke back in the day was to substitute the title Household Technician (From Florence on The Jeffersons). She worked for years doing exactly what the ladies in The Help did, cleaned up after, waited on and cooked for an “old money” southern white family. Most of her female friends were The Help. These women were funny, resilient, sassy, mean, irascible, stubborn, honest, and on and on. In short the women (and men) I grew up watching gave me some of the best material any budding child author could hope to have.

Which brings me to my mother: a larger than life character who starred in my life for decades (Thank you, God!). One of my earliest memories was of her in our tiny kitchen cooking, and at the same time dancing and singing to a Bobby Blue Bland vinyl record blasting, Turn On Your Love Light, Baby, Let It Shine On Me. She taught me to turn housework into a jam session!

Across the busy street that divided our world from the world of her wealthy white employers, mama was The Help. Yet in our world mama was a leader in her church and neighborhood. She was a member of at least four women’s clubs as I recall. She got dressed up and attended banquets, led groups and did a host of things that I’m sure her employers never knew about. The same is true of her friends. I’m sure their employers would have been astonished at the lives their help led.

So in a way I’m glad that a popular book and movie tells one part of their story. I hope Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis get Oscar nods. I think mama would have enjoyed the movie. I know some of her elderly friends have had a good laugh, and feel like the actresses did them proud. But I also know that any book or movie can only tell one part of the story. I’m happy to know the other parts, and to be a member of the generation that is the sequel to The Help. We're the women fed, clothed and educated on money earned by maids. Our mothers, grandmothers and aunts said, "Yes'm" and put up with a lot so we could run after dreams of being writers, actresses, doctors, lawyers, pilots and more.

Which brings me to a subject related to writers, how readers make our stories their own. We carefully plot stories and craft characters, and we have our own idea of what we’ve created. Once we release those stories they are no longer just ours. Readers can, and often do, interpret our creations in very different ways. They bring their own life experiences and emotions to our stories. Stockett wrote Skeeter’s story for some. Emma Stone is listed as “the star” of the movie. In mama’s world the stars are named Aibileen and Minny.

Now excuse me while I dance to some more Bobby Blue Bland.

Lynn Emery


KeVin K. said...

First of all, Lynn, my condolences on the passing of your mother in July. I lost my father around Thanksgiving and my wife Valerie lost her mother earlier this year. Things do get better, but not as fast as you'd like; we're all still in what the 12-step program folks call recovery.

Second, in addition to giving us a clear cameo of your mother, this is an excellent essay on role of writer and the impact and/or perception of her creative works by readers and the readers' cultures.

As a white male I recognize I've got clue none on how to assess the authenticity or accuracy of Ms Sockett's work. I've not read the book and have no intention of seeing the movie (though I am a fan of Viola Davis' work). However, I have been following the controversy surrounding The Help with interest, hoping that at some point it would turn into a dialog. The controversy itself and the fact it exists are the jumping-off point for the column I'd intended to post this weekend. Now I'm thinking I'll wait two weeks rather than crowd your essay.
And to think about some of the points you've raised.

Chicki said...

Wonderful post, Lynn! Thank you for opening your heart to us.

Liane Spicer said...

Lovely post, Lynn. Thank you for sharing on an issue most of us black and mixed-race folks can very much identify with.

As for the material your elders provided a budding writer... The WIP closest to my heart began as an essay, My Grandmother's Prayers, about the larger-than-life figure of my childhood, my maternal great-grandmother. It was rejected unread by the only market I submitted it to, and as time passed I realized that 10,000 words could not really do justice to my memories of Isabella and her influence on me. There was just too much material there (compost, Heather Sellers calls it), too much rich humus waiting to fertilize my fiction.

Who was this paragon great-grandmother of mine? She was The Help, or 'Mummy' to the children of the white family who lived in the valley where I was born, children she had raised along with my mother and numerous others, only three of which were her own. When I knew her she had retired, but I heard the tales and witnessed the hugs from her white 'children' when they saw her in church or in the street.

Over the last five years or so I've listened with rapt attention to my mother's reminiscences of her childhood with the grandmother who raised her whereas before I would roll my eyes because I'd heard the tales so many times before. I've acutely aware that when her generation goes, the stories yet untold will go with them - unless we preserve them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Not my genre of book or movie. I do think it's important to get to a placed where writers aren't constrained by such rules as you can't write from another group's perspective. As a male, I've very seldom tried to write from a female perspective but I did in my last work and I hope it comes off well.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lynn, I extend condolences to you on the passing of your mother. My mother too, was the Help some fifteen to twenty years before I was born.

She lived in a different time, different culture, different country to the United States, but the Apartheid-like policies and treatment was the same. I still recall some of the stories she told about her experiences and that of her first cousin who was also the help.

Though the book, The Help, and the movie may be a work of fiction, it brought to light a whole culture that has been in the shadows just waiting to be told. Whether that story is told by a white woman or a black woman is of little significance. The fact is, it is being told and consequently the experiences of those women are coming to light.

Great post.

Lynn Emery said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. The entire issue about who wrote The Help, and how the characters in the movie and book were portrayed intersected with me thinking about my mother's life.

As a writer I would personally feel foolish telling another writer they can't write about black people because they're white or whatever. I've written about murderers, and I'm not one (but if I'd gotten away with it would be dumb enough to tell you? Kidding folks, don't call the police!).

Seriously, my real point is that any book, no matter the author, can only show one slice of the story.

I wrote this post because I want people to know the other side of The Help, from the daughters and sons.

I also find it endlessly interesting to find out how readers see the characters and stories I created. I've had some real surprises!