Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on "The Help" Part II

As I mentioned in my last post, my wife was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, where the novel The Help is set. Her childhood memories include a quiet, unpretentious black maid named Rose, whose responsibilities were mainly cleaning and ironing -- at least as far as my wife recollects. The rationale of many white families was that they were providing much needed employment in exchange for services that made their lives a little -- or a lot -- more comfortable.

Becky and I spent two months in Zimbabwe in 1985, part of which time was spent on a tobacco farm owned by a white couple. At the time, white farmers were still the dominant force in Zimbabwean agriculture, with entire villages of black Africans working for them. Wanting to identify with the Africans, we elected to sleep on our air mattresses in the huge tobacco shed next to the villagers' huts. After a few nights, however, the rats had eaten holes in all our air mattresses, and the farmer's wife persuaded us to spend the last remaining nights of our stay in the house.

The first morning, we awoke to a tray of tea outside our bedroom door, provided by the household staff. When we were invited to go on an overnight excursion to our hosts' cabin at Lake Kariba (the world's largest artificial lake), the "help" came along to do all the cooking. 

As a middle class white American, I felt ambivalent about the treatment we were receiving. Sure, who doesn't enjoy a little pampering. But what was my vague sense of guilt about? It just didn't feel right.

Since that time, President Mugabe's policies have driven many of the white farmers not only from their land, but from the country. I have to rejoice, on the one hand, that the land is under the primary control of the majority blacks; but the objective truth is that many of those white farmers used agricultural methods that, if brought back today, would almost certainly improve the greatly deteriorated Zimbabwean economy. (The Zimbabwean situation is far more complex than agricultural methods and has more than anything to do with a despot clutching inordinate power.)

What do we do with all this? What is our personal responsibility? The way I see it, I am to live a life that treats all people with the respect and dignity I believe we were all created with. The places I see this happening on a regular basis are unfortunately few and far between.

I will say this in closing: most of us white Americans and Europeans are a long way from understanding what it truly means to be a minority. Since we cannot change the color of our skin, even if we wanted to in order to conduct some kind of experiment (or move to South Africa), the best we can do is examine our own hearts and "see if there be any wicked way" with regard to people of other color.