Valerie Boyd dismisses “The Help” as “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation,” which portrays its most openly racist character as a “cartoonish” “walking stereotype” whom viewers will find it all too easy “to distance themselves from.” By the same token, Anne Helen Petersen — while finding some redeeming qualities in the film — has criticized the novel it’s based on for presenting a fairy-tale heroine who’s unbelievably “altruistic and likable,” as though racism were “something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it,” or “something that goes away just because you love your maid.” (More critiques of the film are rounded up here.)
Not every thoughtful viewer who’s seen the film has reacted so negatively. Via Twitter, I came across this blog post from Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, who found the film more nuanced than Boyd suggests, and writes:
What I think rubs us the wrong way is the depiction of the genuine feelings that the maids and nannies developed for the women they worked for and the children they raised. It seems anathema to the concept of involuntary servitude and caste structures. But I ask you: Doesn’t it further degrade the experience of the black maids to deny that they were able to love the very people who oppressed them? …
This is dangerous territory for African Americans to concede. If we allow that whites and blacks forged friendships, affections and even fell in love with each other in the midst of slavery and segregation, can we still villainize whites as our oppressors?
What all of these responses are calling for, even if one finds it in “The Help” (at least in some measure) and the others don’t, is an acknowledgment of humanness all around — a grappling with the hard reality that no system of humans oppressing other humans ever lines up with all the “good people” on one side of it and all the “bad people” on the other, that there are no monsters or saints among us but just the ordinary run of messed-up people, “suspended in webs of significance that [we ourselves] have spun.”
These are important points to make. Fiction is always most compelling when it blurs the stark contrasts of the morality play. Also, as a descendant of white Southerners I’ve never understood why we’re supposed to find it more comforting to believe (as simplified morality-play stories of Jim Crow logically imply) that white Southerners were disproportionately mean and stupid for generations than to confront how culture/law/society can make bigots out of even the likable, funny, thoughtful people among us.
But I suppose, putting on my historian’s hat, that I have a different problem with stories like “The Help.” A lot of latter-day Jim Crow storytelling, it seems to me, goes out of its way to invent implausible white characters — such as “The Help”‘s plucky young writer who uses black maids’ voices to launch a literary career — in a way that suggests not so much an unwillingness to confront the real history as an unawareness of it. If you want to write a feel-good story about white housewives awakening to the injustices of Jim Crow and organizing against it, you don’t need to contrive one, because there were actually such housewives. If the actual history of black men and women’s organizing is often absent from stories like “The Help,” so too is the actual history of white men and women’s organizing. This organizing was often more self-interested than principled, at least in its beginning stages; it certainly didn’t represent the majority opinion of white Southerners in many places; and it surely can’t compare, and needn’t try to compare, with the steely courage of the Southern black men, women, and children who marched and boycotted and voted even though it might get them killed or tortured. But the activism of white moderates and liberals against the reactionary politics of massive resistance is a story worth telling in its own right.
Consider, for instance, Muriel Lokey, the Atlanta housewife shocked into action when Georgia segregationists threatened to shut down all of the state’s public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board. In 1958, Lokey was among the founders of Help Our Public Education, an organization of Atlanta parents which was instrumental in shifting public opinion in Georgia away from massive resistance and keeping the city schools open in August 1961, when the school board implemented a carefully choreographed token integration plan. Its work done, the group disbanded shortly thereafter. Later, Lokey went on to become more radical in her activism. She became involved with Father Austin Ford’s Emmaus House, an Episcopal ministry founded in 1967 and offering a wide range of social justice services — after-school programs, help with welfare rights and labor organizing, bus trips to the Reidsville prison for families of prisoners — and directed its Poverty Rights Office, which published from 1970 to 1993 a newsletter for the poor people of Atlanta (you can read copies here, or learn about Emmaus House’s ongoing work here). In 2008, Emmaus House renamed the office the Muriel Lokey Center in her honor.
In 1958, though, it was simply concern for children like hers, whom scorched-earth segregationists were willing to sacrifice, that propelled Lokey into action. In an oral history interview, she later recalled HOPE’s origins in her more mundane political task of organizing carpool groups at her children’s elementary school:
Well, I never liked [segregation], you know. But … nobody was doing anything about it. I remember the family servant, Will, he was called the butler, lived in a little house in back of my parents-in-law and Will told me one time, that — I don’t how he happened to feel free to communicate with me — but it made him unhappy that he couldn’t go to Piedmont Park. But you know, there wasn’t anything that I could do about it, you know. I only got involved when the school crisis — the school crisis came to a head in 1958, and I had a front-row seat in watching the dramatic change. For awhile I climbed on the stage and played a role in the drama. I knew most of the actors by their first names, this was because my husband and I had shared an interest in public affairs … and the massive resistance laws said that all the schools in the state would be closed, rather than desegregate. And the idea of closed schools was not a good one, and people began to talk about it. Before that we really hadn’t talked much about it, even though the decision came down in 1954. … I knew a lot about it because my husband had been in the Legislature, and so that fall in 1958 I was busy arranging driving groups with other mothers, and when I was doing that I would talk to them and I would say by the way did you know that there’s this — the schools might be closed. … And some of us were talking about it and we wanted to do something about it. And two of the mothers that I talked to expressed a lot of interest … and we talked with some others and got small groups together.
Now, admittedly, the real story of HOPE would be challenging fodder for a Hollywood film. For tactical reasons, the group decided to limit its membership to whites only, as historian Paul Mertz explains in his article on the organization. Some members found this policy difficult to support, and one, Harry Boyte, ultimately resigned over it. As I’ve written about before, the troubled history of desegregation in Atlanta does not, overall, admit of much celebration. But if nothing else, HOPE’s story belies cartoonish stereotypes of Southern women doing nothing but sitting around and drinking lemonade — or, alternatively, being spunky ingenues who decamp for New York. Key to understanding HOPE is that the women involved already had experience with political organizing. Lokey’s husband had been a state legislator, and she had long taken an interest in public affairs. The group hired “a professional Girl Scout executive” as its executive director, and also benefited from the membership of Frances Pauley, “an experienced activist” who, as state president of the League of Women Voters, had worked to open that organization to black women.
Frances Pauley, born in 1905, grew up in the segregated South and devoted her life to the battle against discrimination and prejudice in the region. Her activist career spans five decades, from the 1930s to the late 1980s. Frances first took up the cause of social justice in the era of the Great Depression and New Deal; she helped establish public health clinics for the indigent in DeKalb County, Georgia, immediately adjacent to Atlanta, and brought a hot lunch program to the county schools. After World War II, she joined the Georgia League of Women Voters and for the next fifteen years used the league to support racial desegregation and the broader issues of democratic citizenship raised by the civil rights movement. Then, caught up in what she calls the “new movement” of the 1960s, Frances, as executive director of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, encouraged interracial organizing, advocated enforcement of constitutional rights for African Americans, and, more generally, championed improvement in the well-being of Georgia’s blacks. From 1968 to 1973, school desegregation consumed most of her time and energy. As a civil rights specialist for the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), Frances deployed federal authority to move recalcitrant school districts in the South into compliance with school desegregation regulations. She retired from the federal government in 1973 and turned her attention more exclusively to poverty. In 1975, at the age of sixty-nine, she founded the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization (GPRO) and coordinated its efforts with and on behalf of the poor for over a decade. Even after her “retirement” in the late 1980s, Frances continued to work, if less energetically, on poverty, homelessness, and gay rights.
What can we learn, then, from the lives of these women and the others like them throughout the South? (At the height of massive resistance, there were organizations similar to HOPE in several states.) We can learn that organizing is hard; that it requires experience and shrewd leveraging of pre-existing social and political networks; that making headway against a system of oppression requires more than simply an instinct that the system is wrong, though that always has to be the starting place. That the politics of the carpool line can sometimes flourish into a more thoroughgoing activism over a number of years — that people don’t become heroes overnight. That people, and the systems of oppression they build, are complicated — and resistance, too, is complicated. That in any culture there are probably those who find the dominant hierarchy troubling, if you want to go looking for them — but they may disappoint you if you’re looking for a heroine that a perky young starlet can plausibly play.
As Anne Helen Petersen concludes in her post on “The Help,” “even bad films can start good conversations.” I think the story of HOPE, paired with “The Help,” could be excellent fodder for high school and college classes, book groups, discussion boards. Was HOPE’s decision to remain all-white justifiable? How far can or should we expect individuals to transcend the dominant culture of their time and place? How did Southern women both perpetuate and challenge segregation through the intimate encounters of the household? Why are women like Frances Pauley so often left out of mainstream histories of the Jim Crow South, even though one might think their stories are appealing and heroic?