I read about Kathryn Sockett, this new author, some time ago. She had written a book about black maids raising Southern white children. I resonated with the story right away and couldn’t wait to read The Help.
I grew up in the Bahamas Islands with a professional mother who worked in real estate and later owned tourist shops in the Bazaar. We always had a maid that worked at our house and was home after school. This wasn’t because we were wealthy by any means – these women worked cheap and were often employed illegally. As a kid in the late sixties I didn’t wonder about this arrangement. Unfortunately our maids didn’t stay with us for long so I never grew attached. We had high spirited Jamaican women with their lovely lilting accents enticing me into our kitchen to taste their fried plantains. There were quiet hard working Haitian women who only had a few words of English but signed and pointed animatedly so that I understood their meaning. And even Bahamian women with proud attitudes who were insulted by the job and sat and watched television with me.
I was in awe of these women—their rich ebony hands on my pale freckled arms made me long to be like them. Dark. Strong. Passionate. They spoke their minds around the bosses kid, I never made a peep anyway as I was drunk on their foreignness yet their differentness seemed so natural to me. They lived in their bodies danced and sang while they made beds, mopped floors, and cooked exotic meals I was far too tentative to taste. I learned the song Yellow Bird and longed to fly away with them when they left.
I grew up a minority in a country that was learning how to be independent and was achingly proud; many natives were prejudiced towards foreigners regardless of their skin color. I know what it’s like to be judged by what I look like not who I am. But the dark skinned women who wove a colorful patina on my monochrome world opened my eyes to a new way of being and living that was alive and free of any judgment for my shyness, pale skin, or lack of culinary appreciation. They accepted me as I was and gave me the greatest gift—I was free to be me.
Watching Kathryn’s book come alive on the screen last week was an emotional tug-of-war. These women’s stories were the weapon of choice for justice and what was right. When I wasn’t laughing out loud I was crying either tears of heart rending grief or rivers of joy.
When Aibileen asks Mae Mobley to remember what she told her for the last time and Baby Girl recites,
“ I is kind. I is smart. I is important.”
Skeeter summed it up with this description of her relationship with her maid Constantine,
"Oh, it was delicious to have someone to keep secrets with…It was having someone look at you after your mother has nearly fretted herself to death because you are freakishly tall and frizzy and odd. Someone whose eyes simply said, without words, "You are fine with me."
Joy. Rivers of joy.