Sunday, August 14, 2011

This Is Not Really About the Book

I read the book The Help a few weeks ago.  I resisted reading it, to be honest.  I tend to shy away from books that "everyone" is reading for the sheer fact that I see not reading these popular books as some sort of silent rebellion against being told what to read, see, think etc.  But, I needed another book.  And several bookish friends that I trust had good things to say about it, so in a couple seconds I had it downloaded to my kindle.

I enjoyed the book.  I wasn't going to see the movie.  I spent most of the book waiting for the bad part to happen and the movie commercials seem to turn it into a happy clappy comedy.  But, to be completely honest, I thought I was reading a fairly accurate portrayal of life in the South in the 1960s.  And I thought it was great that these lovely, hardworking black women were getting a voice through the telling of their stories.  And we all have our stories.  The author of the The Help has her story.  I have my story.  But, so many times our stories never intersect with other people's stories in a way that creates meaningful dialog.

And this, is where my own ignorance comes in.  And this is when I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers who opened my eyes to a different perspective.  And I am not going to debate the merits and critiques of the book.  Because really, it is not about The Book, at all.  It is about me being honest  that as much as I think of myself as a person who is accepting of people no matter the color, the religion, the culture, I think this about myself  from the safety of my day to day life, really never having to deal with the issue of race.

My question to Kelly was this: 
"what is it we need to be doing to create change? How can we be a real help and not just condescending? Because, like those who are afraid to ask the questions and look dumb (myself included), I really believe that if given the tools, there are many of us who are willing to do what it takes to break through the divide that still exists."

And maybe I believe this because it is easy for me to say.  But, I really did want to know what I could do to be a part of the solution.  Kelly's answer to me on twitter this morning was this: 
 Figured if I just kept SAYING it, folks would eventually hear me and then we could have a really good discussion about this topic. Not just the book. And? AND? Having mainstream bloggers start the discussion, too. It's not just my job or other black writers.

And so, I promised that I would.  And I am.  And I admitted that I was scared to start this conversation here because I was worried that I might say the wrong thing and show my ignorance. But, I have to admit that I probably don't know much more about racism and civil rights than what was taught to me in school.

Because my story is that I grew up in a pocket of Southern California where the biggest minority groups were Asian and Armenian.  I had friends who were first generation Americans from Greece and from Serbia.  I had a friend who was white, and when her mother remarried, her black step-father legally adopted her.  At a father-daughter banquet we voted them the father-daughter pair that looked the most alike due to her frizzy hair.  Was that racist? Or, was it, as we took it, a fun gesture that really only meant to us that it didn't matter whether you looked like your father or not; that family is what you make it.

Part of my story is a black college roommate that used to call me "whitey."  Once when she called me that I almost called her "blacky" in return, because we were friends and we were joking around.  But, I stopped myself and never asked why it probably would not have been ok for me to call her that, but it was ok for her to call me "whitey."  

My story is that I live in Northwest Indiana, not too far, but far enough away from Gary that I can pretend it doesn't exist, if I chose to.  In my fairly small neighborhood, there are several black families.  We don't hang out, but we do talk.  You know, we say "good morning" or "have a nice day" on our way to the rest of our lives.  Then again, we tend to hide from most of our neighbors, no matter what the color and sometimes we talk about being hermits.  My husband works in a school with a growing population of black families.  The school that I work in has five in a student body of nine hundred.  We don't have a race relations problem at my school, because I am sure that those five students are working as hard as they can just to be like everyone else.  We have more of a problem with students harassing a student who may or may not be gay.

My story is also the fact that I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the persecution of the human beings by other human beings during World War II.  Ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank in for a 7th grade book report, I have learned everything I could about that period in history.  I have read as many books as I could get my hands on.  I have watched the historically important movies.  I have read how the United States interred the Japanese.  I have read about the horrors that prisoners of war endured overseas.  I learned about how in Hungary, they disguised their view of Jews as second class citizens, through the use of forced labor camps.  I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  I have been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  And yet, I can not say that I know much about the history of race relations in the United States.  I saw the movie Roots.  I read my history books.  But, until I started taking a look at the book list on Mocha Momma's post, I didn't know anything more about Rosa Parks than her refusal to move to the back of the bus.

Part of my story is that these little tid-bits are just a small part of my life.  And race is not something I have to think about every day if I chose not to.  And I wonder, should I feel guilty for something that I have had no part in creating or perpetuating? But, then again, what have I done to be a positive agent for change either?  

My start, my very small start, is writing this post.  I am not an activist.  But, I am someone that cares about treating people with dignity and respect.  I am not writing this so that I can feel better about myself.  I am writing this because it needs to be talked about.  It needs to be written about.  And as Kelly said, the conversation can't only be from black writers.

My next goal is to read all the books on that book list plus a couple.  This is not to look well-read or obnoxious, but with the goal of truly understanding.  I will probably never get to the truly understanding part, but, I would like to get to the part in which I can have an educated conversation, even if it is only based on facts and not experiences. The guilt of the past might not be mine.  The guilt of the present might not be mine either.  But, I own my ignorance, and I would like to find the best way possible to fill that space.  

Kelly ended her post with "We can talk about race in a real way or we can talk about cake. I’m choosing the former."   I would like to challenge my own friends, whether they have read The Help or not, whether they have watched the movie or not, to find a way to talk about race in a real way, and not just about the book.

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Erin said...

This was so open and honest. Thank you.
About race relations in schools...we have a big proble
. I believe we have more African-American students than you and we had some huge, real, SAD problems this year that were by and large ignored. In this day and age, it breaks my heart how easily an 8th grader can sling the n-word.

Stephanie Wilson she/her @babysteph said...

I'm excited about this conversation. I do think I'll finish reading the Help, but will be following along cautiously. But yeah, not even about the book, so much more that I want to be mindful of.


Mocha said...

Wow, you really took up the challenge! I'm afraid to say "thank you" because I don't want to take all the credit. Not when I think about all the race issues in our country, having its first black president, and the huge uproar of criticism against "The Help" right now. There is a ton that I've read this weekend. I can barely keep up. So many of them are bookmarked for later.

This right here: "...race is not something I have to think about every day if I chose not to." is just about as truthful as it gets. You aren't bragging about it, you're just stating a truth for yourself. In race relations, that's ENOUGH.

Erin and Steph, I loved your comments, too. (Well, Erin's was heartbreaking, but the fact that she's concerned and sees the disparity is good because now she can bring it up!)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and difficult. I read the book, read your post, and then read the post you linked to. Thank you for sharing all as I have been having many of the same questions after reading the book. Much food for thought on a subject that is vital for us, as mommies of the next generation, to be proactive on.
Well written as always.

Michele R said...

I think you wrote a really good, honest post.

The book came out years ago and I read it over a year ago. I couldn't put it down--really enjoyed it and I have made a date with a friend to see the movie this weekend. Many of my friends (who are all different) enjoyed the movie with all its parts including the painful ones.

I think any author has the right to write about whatever she wants. White authors have written about the South in thousands of books. Agreeable or not, The Help and its and movie have people talking and that is good.

I'm glad that in the early 1960's Harper Lee wrote about essentially her childhood in Alabama and her black maid/nanny. My son read it last year and it was so amazing for his classmates, who represent 40 races and nationalities to discuss it and how much their lives are different. And no one was offended. The local school is public--it just happens to be the most diverse in my state and officials believe in the country as well. By diverse I means representation almost equally of white, black, latino, asian, other.

Through my children's social studies classes I have learned about slavery in virtually every continent historically. Through my children I have heard that my eldest has been called Whitey at school. Through my children I see that many black males particularly say to each other, "Hey Nigga" in an affectionate term and I see girls and boys on Facebook using that word to each other daily.

It wasn't right that you were called Whitey by your roommate long ago and you knew it and that is something that is not PC to talk about, I feel. Your blogger friend commented that Erin's comment above made her sad but she did not acknowledge you being called Whitey. And I have to disagree in her comment above that "there is a huge uproar" about The Help.