My wife, son, daughter-in-law and I saw this powerful movie this weekend. I don't claim to be a movie critic, so won't overly pontificate on the merits and flaws of the movie. I will say that there are a number of extraordinary performances, and I won't be surprised to see Viola Davis's name on the list of Oscar nominees for 2012.
The story itself, based on the best-selling book by Kathryn Stockett, is one I find hard to shake. (I won't recount it here for the sake of those who haven't seen the movie yet.) My wife was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and seeing the movie through her eyes made it that much more poignant. My reaction of anger and shame reveals a particular sensitivity to the subject of race relations in American culture -- but we're mistaken if we think this is a strictly American phenomenon. More on that in my next post.
As we whites look at our parents' generation's treatment of blacks, there is a mixture of emotional responses. My Texan grandfather, a barber, refused to cut the hair of blacks or Mexicans. Not all whites were as openly hostile to African Americans; in my wife's Jackson, having black "help" was accepted as a normal part of southern culture. The attitudes of the white employers varied from blatant prejudice and condescension to a much more subtle form of racism. Many black nannies, as portrayed by Viola Davis, were so close to the children they cared for that they were like family. Though it is true that we tread on dangerous ground when we talk in stereotypical terms about that era (the notion of building a separate bathroom for the help, for example, was completely foreign to my wife), we can clearly talk about cultural trends that shift with each generation.
Not all whites were as hypocritical as the movie makes them out to be. Many were sincere, God-fearing families who believed they were doing the blacks a favor by providing them employment.
"They were doing the best they knew how," we like to say.
While that may be true, it makes me shudder.
It makes me shudder because I can't help wondering what our children will be talking about when they say the same thing about us. I have often wondered about the collective blind spots in our cultures: why did it take so long for us to realize the evils of slavery? Why have women generally had to wait so long for equal rights? Why has democracy still not taken hold in many nations of the world?
But the most sobering question to me is this: what blind spots in this generation will our descendants identify? Of course we are aware that our current world leaves much to be desired and hoped for. But a blind spot is just that -- what is it that is completely escaping our attention?