Friday, August 12, 2011

Help and Complicity

For the second Friday in a row, I purchased matinee tickets at the local cineplex and saw a movie on the big screen.  This time it was a daytime date with my wife to see The Help, a film adaptation of a novel she had just finished reading.  I haven't read the book, but I trust my wife's assessment that it was one of the better film adaptations.  The theater was surprisingly full for an afternoon showing of a movie without comic book heroes in it.  The under 50 set was vastly outnumbered by the over 50s, and carriers of the y-chromosome totaled only in the single digits.  Perhaps this latter demographic is explained by the previews, which make it seem like a chick flick.  And while there are no male characters of any substance, it definitely was not a chick flick.  It was a story of humanity in all our glory, shame, strength, and weakness.  If Viola Davis doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award, then there is something seriously wrong with the system.

The story is set in Mississippi in the 60s when all the white people had black maids to cook, clean, and raise their children.  It was so uncomfortable for me to watch this kind of society being displayed.  My first reaction was to be thankful that I live in the north in this decade, and so am not guilty of such blatant racism.  But then, I suspect the guilt goes deeper and is more complicated than that.  Last month it was announced that the median white household in American is worth twenty times more than the median black household (it was only seven times more in 1995).  Am I personally to blame for this?  I hope not.  Am I complicit?  That's tougher to answer.

There were two African-American women sitting next to me at the theater, and I kept wondering what I could say to them after the movie that wouldn't sound condescending or patronizing or otherwise white.  I wasn't coming up with much, but then was let off the hook since they got up and left very quickly at the end.  I suppose it is progress that we were sitting next to each other in the same theater, but I can't help wondering what their take would have been on all the white people in the theater reacting so positively to this Hollywoodization of the civil rights movement.  Has there been progress from their perspective?  What are the blind spots that we majority culture people have?

When we lived in Sierra Leone for a year, we shared an African maid with another teacher.  She walked up the hill to our compound six days per week to do all our cleaning and cooked lunch for us.  She got paid about $8 per month, plus a bag of rice.  It was the mission's policy not to pay the hired help more than those who worked in governmental jobs (like teachers), otherwise there was no incentive for them to pursue an education.  Instead they'd attach themselves to the white foreigners to cook or clean or be a night watchman.  We with our meager missionary salaries were kings and queens living in a land of poverty and despair.  I couldn't stand that part of our year there.  Based on that experience, I don't think it works for missionaries to come into a foreign land and maintain a radically different standard of living while ostensibly calling the natives to adopt our religion.  (Of course if I had paid better attention to Things Fall Apart in my high school literature class, I would have known as much already.  More recently, The Poisonwood Bible and The Purple Hibiscus should be required reading for all missionaries to Africa.)

Now I live on a nice comfortable street, where probably all of us are above the median household worth.  There is even an African American family who lives on my street.  We're not segregated any more are we?  My kids go to the big suburban school where most of the kids are white, but it's not like they have separate water fountains.  And certainly minorities aren't prohibited from attending there, right?  All they'd have to do is be able to afford property in neighborhoods like mine... which I guess according to the median household worth numbers isn't going to be any time soon.  Help!

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