In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August. Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents. Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak. We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).
In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth. You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are. What’s the deal? Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch. It’s as though the South is invisible.
According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.” There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help. Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much. A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.
I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times. As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly. Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing. You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence. It can be anywhere: in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes. The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.
When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies. Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table. And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women. It helps explain reality television, I think. Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling? How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?” I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.
My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.” Another way to put it is that these people become invisible. We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.
I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature: “WHAT were they thinking?” At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on. My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?” Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out? But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up. And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job. This is not a state issue. But let’s not go there.
Mainly I have been thinking about the help. The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses. They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining. And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it. Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them. “Let’s stand up and do something.”
I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable. But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst. There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.” Find it if you can. No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt. Don’t forget it. Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.” In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”
I am embarrassed by this law. We can do better. Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers. We didn’t even offer them a ride home. Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off. It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out. But that didn’t seem to get in this law.
A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves. They work hard and pull themselves up. I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain. It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.
Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children. Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not. It’s a mess, I admit. But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.
We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians. We were rude to strangers and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there. And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.
I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped. I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs. But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.
We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law. We can do better. We should do better. I pray we will.