Are you one of those people who run out and buy a book because Oprah liked it or it’s on somebody’s best-seller list or you want to be the first among your friends to read it? Or are you someone who dislikes hype, is busy reading four other books, and waited years before picking up Harry Potter number one?
Reading habits often put me in the latter group. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (Penguin Books, 2009) was given to me several years ago, and it languished on the shelf long after the movie left theaters and even regular appearances on cable ended. A couple of weeks ago I wanted something “lighter” to read and picked it up. “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …” said its yellow and purple cover. “Yeah, right.”
Suddenly I was in 1960’s Mississippi with new and complex points of view. What was it like to be an angry black woman, a quiet, thoughtful black woman, a black woman who raises and loves the boss’ white children? What is to evolve into someone who understands in contrast with someone who never will?
Once I finally picked it up, I never put it down. It may not be on the same literary level as To Kill a Mockingbird, but its message is strong and vital to a society that must live together in order to survive.
Things may be better for black people living in this country today, but they are far from equal. Equal rights for all are there on paper, but until anyone can go anywhere, be married to the person of their choice, or are paid equally for equal work - or are paid enough period, inequality will be a way of life. There will always be those who do the work versus those who take the credit, and those who are afraid they’ll catch something if they get too close. The Help goes a long way in taking down the walls - but I can’t help but wonder: Will it ever be enough?
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Jim Crow Laws
Many southern states enacted “Jim Crow Laws” designed to separate the black and white races. Schools, restrooms, movie theaters, drinking fountains, restaurants and public transportation required blacks to use only those areas designated for them. White lawmakers proclaimed “separate but equal” facilities for all, and black Americans were never allowed to use “white only” services. Those who did paid with serious personal injury or even their lives. The laws, if not the attitudes have been overturned. School-segregation was declared unconstitutional in 1954, and other laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ku Klux Klan
There are those who still believe the so-called “white race” is superior to any other. One well-known group: The Ku Klux Klan which is still active today with its roots going back to the end of the Civil War. Historically the group and its many unrelated branches run far right politically, targeting different races, sexual orientations, political agendas and religions. During the height of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s, the Klan terrorized black neighborhoods with kidnappings, lynchings, murders and burnings.
The characters in The Help live in Jackson, Mississippi. The black neighborhood is terrorized when neighbor Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers (who was actually killed in June 1963) is murdered, creating even more fear. Realizing the threat the maids lived under and appreciating the brave stance they took to tell their stories is critical to understanding the power of The Help.