“The Help” immediately plunges into a time capsule capture of Southern Society; Junior League meetings, bridge clubs, and cliquey women’s groups with leaders hell-bent on maintaining the status quo. And in the early 1960s, the status quo calls for segregated bathrooms and “the help” raise children slated to be their future employers. These legions of domestic servants treated barely better than slaves live in fear and a world of Jim Crow laws.
Young and aspiring writer Skeeter, along with maids Abilene and Minny are easy to root for while pretentious Hilly’s actions are downright evil. The bits of humor and warm-hearted relationships make the weighty subject enjoyable to watch and cheer, and sob over.
Having neither lived in the American South nor spent much time there, I have relied on history books, movies, other media, and a few acquaintances for exposure to this foreign lifestyle. And as with most historical fictional stories, I was left wanting to know more. Here are a few resources I found that added context and depth to the time period of “The Help.”
Lest we delude ourselves into thinking that Brown v Board of Education was an easy change for the U.S., the archives of the State of Mississippi provide original documents from the “Mississippi Sovereignty Commission,” organized to stop the tearing down of the walls of segregation.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (Commission) was created by an act of the Mississippi legislature on March 29, 1956. The agency was established in the wake of the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Like other states below the Mason-Dixon Line, Mississippi responded to Brown with legislation to shore up the walls of racial separation. The act creating the Commission provided the agency with broad powers. The Commission’s objective was to “do and perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states . . .” from perceived “encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof.”
One of the pivotal moments in the film is triggered by the assassination of Medgar Evers, a young civil rights worker from Mississippi.
Learn more about the legacy of Medgar Evers from NPR:
It’s part of Medgar Evers’ legacy — paid for in blood — and stamped on the lives of Mississippians, from the state capital in Jackson to the cornfields of Newton County where Medgar Evers grew up.
“It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don’t choose to live anywhere else. There’s land here, where a man can raise cattle, and I’m going to do it some day.” As NPR’s Melanie Peeples reports, those words were written by Evers in 1954, part of a magazine article where he tries to explain why he didn’t just leave the state and its harsh inequalities.
Medgar Evers didn’t get a chance to grow old and raise cattle, but his friend Y.Z. Walker, now 77, did.
Listen to the interview with Walker about growing up in segregated Mississippi on NPR: Legacy of Medgar Evers
A number of years ago I worked with a woman from North Carolina who had transplanted to Northern California. We were both in our first apartments after college and learning to make our way on our own. She was a fantastic cook and had a way with Southern staples like fried chicken, Bar-B-Que, and cobbler. She made it very clear that her knowledge of cooking and home making did not come from her mother (a physician) , but “the black woman who raised her.” Having grown up in a working class Hispanic household in California, she had to explain exactly what in the world she was talking about. The movie brought our exchange immediately to mind, and I’ll be reading the book that the movie is based on and also the one below. A non-fiction account from their own words:
In Telling Memories Among Southern Women, Susan Tucker presents a revealing collection of oral-history narratives that explore the complex, sometimes enigmatic bond between black female domestic workers and their white employers from the turn of the twentieth century to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Based on interviews with forty-two women of both races from the Deep South, these narratives express the full range of human emotions and successfully convey the ties that united — and the tensions and conflicts that separated — these two mutually dependent groups of women.
A touching story of courage, I’ll need just as many tissues the second time I see “The Help”