I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett soon after its publication several years ago. Having grown up in the South in the ’40s and ’50s, Stockett stirred some long forgotten memories, but soon they were again stored away in the recesses of my brain, then came the movie—wow.
My Father’s family was “Old Money” Atlanta Aristocratic Socialites. I never saw my grandmother in public without white gloves and a little veiled hat. The deJarnettes of Atlanta had a summer home on Saint Simons Island and their own first-class rail car. They lived in the swanky North Side. My four aunts had all attended the finest finishing schools and, along with my grandmother, were southern ladies of the finest order.
Here is the “wow” of The Help. My grandmother and aunt who lived in Atlanta had servants. The role of the servants in my Grandmother’s house could have been the basis for the servants in Stockett’s story.
Fannie had her servant’s quarters in the basement of grandmother’s house; having never married, she lived there. Fannie was a large woman with the blackest skin you can imagine. She wore starched dresses of blue or white with a white apron and preformed all of the domestic chores: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, grocery shopping, and yes, silver polishing. Each time I see the picture of Aunt Jemima on a pancake box, I think of Fannie. She did have an additional job. She was the surrogate mother for any children born into the family or living there. I only lived at my Grandmother’s (Actually my Aunt Mary’s) house for a prolonged time just after Daddy got out of the Army following WWII; but then only occasionally for a month or two at a time. I did live there for one summer while Daddy was away training for a new job.
My relationship with Fannie goes back as far as I can remember. That wonderful black woman (I was forbidden to call her a lady) loved me as deeply as one person could love another and I loved her back. When we were at Aunt Mary’s I was either in Fannie’s arms or tagging at her feet, often holding the hem of her dress. When thunderstorms came Fannie would hold me ever so tightly nestled up in those huge breasts where I felt safe and secure. When the big people went to the table for dinner, I got the best seat because I got to eat in the kitchen with Fannie. She always saved the sweetest of the sweets for me and when I was big enough to eat adult food, I got the crispiest chicken parts and the best pieces of pie. Often when my naptime came, I would go to Fannies’ quarters, and we would cuddle up in her bed, she only long enough to get me to sleep. Oh, the stories, she told me. They weren’t the kind of stories one read in a book, but stories out of her vivid memory of her childhood and stories that had been passed down from the time of slavery; always good stories, never bad stories.
On February 21, 1949, my heart was absolutely broken, as was Fannie’s. My relationship with her was severed. No longer was I allowed to eat with her, but had to go to the “big table” with the adults. No more naps in Fannie’s quarters or hearing her stories of childhood, no more being cuddled when I was afraid. Fannie was no longer permitted to be my best friend, playmate, protector, or comforter. It is as if a steel barrier had been dropped between us. From that date on Fannie treated me with the same formality she treated the adults. No matter how much I cried, pouted, fussed or pled, I was cut off from my best friend in the whole world. I didn’t understand that until years later when I started to understand racial prejudice.
The Help took me back to those most hateful of times. From the time I was a young man, possibly from the time I turned six, I knew there was something dreadfully wrong in my family’s attitudes to black people. Mother and Daddy called them “niggers” which, even then, caused my skin to crawl. When I was 16, I asked my Daddy why they so disliked black people and he went into a lengthy explanation.
“Blacks,” Daddy said, “simply aren’t like us, they don’t have souls. They are inferior creatures that God made to serve the white races.” He told me about their low morals and intelligence and said they carried all kinds of horrible diseases Daddy predicted that eventually they would begin to intermarry with whites and would dilute the white races. Society would regress to the lowest common denominator and ultimately everyone would be diminished and society would regress. This is why the black races and white races must not be integrated. Even at my young age, I knew in my heart that he was wrong. However, how could I really know since I had no knowledge of blacks except for Fannie and the black maids that Mother hired? I remember once when I was 9 or 10 Mother had a maid named Beatrice who asked me something and I answered, “Yes, m’am.” Boy, did I get it for that. I was not to respond to blacks with “m’am” or “sir”.
My folks didn’t believe in being cruel to blacks, they simply believed blacks were inferior and, while they should never intermingle with whites, they should be treated decently. Sadly, they never accepted that the only difference between the races is pigmentation.
In my 11th grade year, I remember that my Dad was head usher at our very large Methodist Church and I attended an usher’s meeting where Daddy was laying out the plan of how to resist if blacks tried to integrate our church. An attempt would not have been pretty and I remember thinking how terribly wrong that was.
Now I am stirred up and shall continue with my anti-discrimination rant, just because I want to.
When I first went to work at Grady Memorial Hospital, it was completely segregated. Two wings of the hospital were whites only and two wings were blacks only. There were separate emergency rooms, surgical suites, O.B suites, medical floors, and surgical floors, identical but separate. The black nurses and doctors were restricted to the black areas while white personnel worked the entire hospital, except white females never worked with black males. I worked there for a year, then it was off to college at Emory-at-Oxford, a division of Emory University, there were no blacks there.
After two years at E-A-O, I went in the Army so that I could finish school at government expense. There I was in constant contact with people of every race. I was a squad leader at basic training and two of my guys were blacks. They were both fine, intelligent men. I went through medic’s school then advanced medic training at Ft. Sam Houston, TX where my best friend was a black guy from Philadelphia. We became the best of friends and spent many hours playing chess and engaging in philosophical and religious discussions. I used to get mad at him when we went to San Antonio. We would walk into a restaurant, bar, or store and, if he even discerned the least bit of prejudice, he would buy a pack of gum, or ask an innocuous question then leave. He said that fighting it (racism) wasn’t worth the effort. When we graduated from school, I was assigned to Ft. Bragg and him to a unit in Germany. I had a 16-hour layover in Atlanta while he had an 8 and knowing that I could not take him home (I lived just a few miles from the Airport) I spent those precious 8 hours at the airport with him. I am so thankful for that special time because he was killed in a freak accident seven months later.
Following my hitch in the Army I went back to work at Grady and ultimately became Director of Respiratory Care and Life Support Technologies. At its zenith my department had 60-plus employees equally divided between black and white. We had several conflicts in my neighborhood because a couple of times a year we hosted department parties at our house and some of our neighbors were quite belligerent about it.
Years later, I entered the Methodist Ministry and our first church was in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. The folks there were lovely and gracious to us, but with very little education. One Sunday after we had been there 6 months or so, one of the church leaders walked up to me after church and said, “Preacher, wha’d you do if a nigger wanted to join our church?” I answered, “Well, I’d meet with him and, if he was sincere, I’d receive him into membership.” My parishioner’s face scrunched up, turned bright red and the most evil look came over him as he replied, “You ever do and I’ll blow his black ass and yours out of this world.” In that moment I realized that I had said the wrong thing.
The Ku Klux Klan was very active there and occasionally when we drove into the parsonage driveway we could see a glow over the hill (called nigger hill) behind us and could hear the KKK chants. I found that very unsettling. I confess that I never had the courage to preach against the evils of racism due to fear for my family. I realize today that it is just as well, since I certainly wouldn’t have changed anyone’s mind.
Today I enjoy many friends of all races and I am so grateful that God protected my heart from the hatefulness of prejudice. When I meet someone, I simply see that person. I am not aware of skin color, eye shape, hair texture, I simply see a soul that God loves.
Over the years I have learned that most racial prejudice is rooted in fear and ignorance, and is never rational. I have read somewhere that it is rooted in tribalism and was about maintaining one’s possessions, hunting grounds, or agricultural lands. Differences in dress (costume) signaled the enemy and so people learned to fear those who are different. I have no idea just how correct that theory is, but it at least gives me some rational reason for such an irrational way of thinking.
In closing I highly recommend, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, both book and movie.