Monday, October 3, 2011

The Help, The Crucible, and Witchy Women

Two pieces of literature came to a crossroads in my mind last week.

I finally got around to reading The Help, Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel and movie, which depicts the conflicted relationships between African American housekeepers in the South and the women for whom they worked. That same week, as a fulfillment of my daughter's Social Studies homework, I re-watched the movie The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller's famous play about the Salem witch trials.

The Help is an amazing book. I loved the varied perspectives and the way it illuminated a slice of history that I know very little about. I found myself cheering for Abileen and Skeeter who were brave, wise, and wonderful women, each standing up against the repressive culture of their time. At one point in the novel, I came upon a date - 1963, and was shocked to realize that this period of American history happened during my own life time.

I was born in 1965. Since I grew up in the Midwest, my experience with racial inequality was somewhat limited. I went to a well-integrated public school. I never witnessed, first hand, the racist actions that caused riots and made headlines in the 1960s. Perhaps that is why it seems so far away from me - like it all happened a long time ago. The book showed how recently desegregation occurred and the hateful acts it inspired.

The novel focuses on the relationships of a group of Southern women and their help. The white women were smart and cultured. They loved their husbands, their children, their friends. They are not so different from the women in my own suburban neighborhood who put on spandex workout pants and earphones for power walks in the mornings and push their kids on park swings each afternoon. They are, in effect, "any woman" - the women you and I meet each day.

Yet, they had a chilling capacity to be cruel and to self-righteously justify their inexcusable actions.

These women felt compelled to put the black women who fed their children and cooked their meals in their "appointed place." They felt it was their moral, civic, and religious duty to emphasize the differences between the two cultures. They were scandalized if anyone challenged their thinking.

To Hillie, the self-righteous leader of the pack, making her "help" use a separate toilet was seen as her religious duty.

In The Crucible, Miller examines Salem, Massachusetts, a devout early American community. Conservative to the extreme, the townspeople frowned on immodesty and certainly on witchcraft. So, when local girls are found to be casting spells, the community turns a speculative eye around to find a scapegoat.

The town blamed their fears on whomever they did not like. They pointed a finger at an impoverished beggar woman who made them uncomfortable. They pointed another finger at a woman who was too outspoken. Surely, these women must be witches. The victims of the witch hunt were told to confess to witchcraft, or be put to death by hanging.

The Salem witch hunts fed on insecurity, hostility, and lies. It relied on the fact that people wanted to put blame on someone other than themselves. They wanted to protect their own family and their "Christian" community at all costs. They used religion as an excuse.

I found the similarities between these two pieces of literature frightening. How often we use the mask of religion to disguise our own hatred, insecurity, and contempt. How often we emphasize the differences of others to make ourselves feel more secure. How inexcusable it is that we throw the name of God into the mix.

It happened in Salem and in the South, and this kind of prejudice and cruelty still happens today.

As women, we sometimes blame the failures of society on men. We point to war and politics as examples of poor male leadership. But, as I reflected on both of these important novels that focus on women, I realized that the moral tone of our culture and the raising of our children is heavily influenced by the women.

The Help points out that the hatred of women can be just as destructive, "Womens, they ain't like men. A woman ain't gone beat you with a stick. . . No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set of tools they use, sharp as witches' fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em."

The white mothers taught their Southern children that prejudice was okay and that the color of skin should determine value. In a particularly poignant scene, the housekeeper, Abileen, tries her best to counteract their efforts with the child in her care.

She says, “I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain't a color, disease ain't the Negro side a town. I want to stop that moment from coming - and it come in ever white child's life - when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites. ... I pray that wasn't her moment, Pray I still got time.”

She fears her efforts may be in vain. The children raised by black housekeepers often grew up to forget the love that nurtured them. They forgot the truths about worth and mimicked the prejudice of their mothers.

I am a mother. I am a member of a community. I am a woman, and a religious woman at that. But, I hope to God that I never act like Hilly.

As Stockett so nicely says, "We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."

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