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September 16, 2011 > Shared remembrances of 'The Help'

Shared remembrances of 'The Help'

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

Over 40 people from all walks of life, gathered at Eileen McDonald's home in Newark on a late August evening. "I was so moved after I finished reading 'The Help,' that I thought of a fun idea - to invite some friends to my home to speak about their experiences growing up in the South," explained McDonald who serves on the Alameda County Board of Education.

Written by Jackson, Mississippi native, Kathryn Stockett, the book has become a runaway bestseller as its readership spread through word of mouth, church groups and book clubs. Furthering the buzz is the current movie version, drawing large numbers since the beginning of its August release.

Set in the early 1960's, during the stirrings of the Civil Rights movement, the story details the harsh realities and bigotry faced by a group of African-American maids, under Jim Crow era laws. Even while caring for and helping to raise the children of their white employers, the maids are regarded as sub-human and made to feel invisible.

The book and movie portray the perseverance and fierce determination of these strong African-American women in the face of prejudice and adversity.

McDonald elaborates further on her reasons for the get-together, "I wanted to hear from people who lived the experience first hand," says McDonald. "While I organized the event for my book club and a few close friends, I quickly learned that there was a real thirst for discussion on this topic. Thankfully this special evening not only quenched some of that thirst but opened our hearts even more to encourage and celebrate the equality everyone deserves."

She adds that when the planned speaker unexpectedly canceled, she asked Bobbie Brooks, a retired Asst. Superintendent for Alameda County Board of Education, to contact others who could speak about their experiences. The women who agreed to participate shared a common bond - that of either having grown up in the South or having family there. Overall, as African-Americans, they had experienced varying degrees of prejudice.

Bobbie Brooks grew up in Louisiana, where her parents were sharecroppers. Her family migrated to California in hopes of a better life. Education was important to them and Brooks attended UC Berkeley in the 1960's. Her mother was a maid and later a cosmetologist, while her dad was a janitor.

Brooks spoke of seeing many African-American women in crisp white maid's uniforms on their way to work in the morning. She somehow felt that they seemed proud of her for pursuing her own dream of an education. Little did they know that, besides being a Drama major, she was something of a political activist, participating in many protests at the time.

But what surprised Brooks most was that even in "progressive" Berkeley, she endured being called the "N" word by the mother of a fellow student. "I was shocked," said Brooks. "My mother said to appreciate people for who they were, not their color. Don't let bad experiences rule your view of love and community."

To promote advocacy skills and to recognize overlooked academic efforts by African-American students, Brooks helped form the Southern Alameda County Alliance of African-American Educators, eight years ago. An annual event is held each spring at Chabot College, to honor students in six different categories. Last year the ceremony spotlighted 553 students. To help defray event expenses, Brooks states that donations are always gladly accepted through ( "This is important because these kids aren't being honored in their public schools. We can make changes ourselves," says Brooks. "The book reminds us of what a strong stock we come from."

Another speaker, Alma L. Davis, described life in Centerville, Mississippi, growing up as part of a family of eight. "Mississippi was one of the worst states in the union, regarding segregation. We went through a lot. My mother didn't work but my dad, as a sharecropper had to give 80 percent of the crop to the white landowner and could only keep 20 percent. He was a hard worker and was able to send all his kids to school," stated Davis.

Later on, Davis' father became a bus driver. She remembered that when the state wanted to integrate schools, whites decided not to send their kids to public schools but instead to private schools. "African-Americans couldn't even go near those areas where they were," says Davis. "I saw a lot of problems in Mississippi."

Davis adds that she went to a black school. "We were not allowed to mingle with white students," she says. "To see a movie, blacks went upstairs and used different doors. We had to order food at the back door of restaurants, because we couldn't go inside." Eventually, her father managed to save enough money to buy land and build a house, so that the family could own their own home.

Participant Deborah Raymond, who had grown up in California, spoke of a trip to the South when she was a young girl. "In 1961 I was living in Los Angeles and I went to Mississippi to visit relatives. My dad's mother (my grandmother) was dying in a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. Those days, all family members had to take care of their family in the hospital, not nurses," explains Raymond.

She was surprised about how difficult life was in Mississippi. "One of my aunts had 20 kids, another 22. The men had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to pick cotton." Raymond remembers an incident when she went into a store to purchase something. The owner first called her a derogatory term for a black child and added, "You've got to say 'yes sir and no sir,' when speaking to me."

Soon afterwards, rumors started going around town about her being an 'uppity girl' who had too many clothes, for a black child. Raymond's family was worried that something could happen to her. They immediately put her into a car and drove straight to Memphis, Tennessee and then on to Chicago, where she stayed until her father could re-join her.

"The movie and book are reminders of what had happened," says Raymond. "Racist people are filled with hate, but 'The Help' is about 'woman power' and the determination of the women."

At the age of 16, Wanda Williams moved from Louisiana to California, but she recollects attending segregated schools in the South. A clear memory is that she never went out alone but was always with an adult. The one time she went out at night with a group of friends, they were threatened and harassed by whites. Williams added, "Reading the book or seeing the movie provides teachable moments if people become conscious of how you treat others and about racism."

Cassandra Van Buren, a former Arroyo High School classmate of Eileen McDonald, shared her story. Van Buren's father was African-American and from the South while her mother was white and from Oregon. Van Buren grew up in San Leandro, where the family experienced housing discrimination but somehow, she explained, her parents were able to purchase a home. However, because she was light enough to pass for white or Hispanic, her parents encouraged her to do so. Van Buren wasn't comfortable with this charade, and when she was older, identified herself as African-American, which caused friction in her family.

Although not from the South, retired educator Vivien Larsen had her own share of prejudice. Coming from Chile, Larsen became a teacher in Oakland, assigned to some of the toughest kids; she proved herself up to the challenge. But, she felt that when she attempted to enter administrative levels of the education system, she was blocked due to racism.

Larsen admired the maids who were the focus of the movie/book. "A lot of strength was exhibited by the African-American women, working for others and then doing the same for their own home and family," she says.

Ultimately, what will be remembered from the evening was that those who gathered at Eileen McDonald's home, generously shared their thoughts, based on their own personal experiences. Just like 'The Help,' their painful, tearful and touching stories resonated with those present. Through talking and sharing of common experiences, perhaps the healing can begin.

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