I have to be honest with you when I say I didn't make it through the book. I think because it made me uncomfortable and perhaps hit a little too close to home on certain things. Of course this won't stop me from seeing the movie as I find film almost always easier to digest.
The story will mean different things for different people. If you're not from the South, I don't think you'll understand it very well. Or at least, it won't pull at your guts as hard as it did for someone like me. Someone who was raised by a black woman from birth.
Her name was J.E. Roberson and she worked for my grandmother. She was what was known as "The Help".
J.E. was a perfectionist on many different levels. And like Minnie from the book, she was known for her cooking throughout East Texas. Even when she became too elderly to work for my grandmother, I would visit her on Saturdays as I knew she would always have something to eat. She was either baking a nut bread of some sort or her fried pies which my mother would bring home by the dozen. We would sit and visit and she would always tell me stories of what an absolute mess I was as a child.
The toughest thing for me with this book meant coming to grips with the relationships that were fostered between black maids and white children. The book deals with a lot of other issues during those times but this would be the underlying bitterness that made it difficult for me to get through.
Among other issues during the sixties was of course the discrimination. East Texas came to the party a little late during the Civil Rights Movement. How late you ask? The movement started in 1955 and extended to 1968. When I reached seven years of age, there was still a black waiting room at the doctor's office. I know because my Uncle was our doctor and his office was at the back of the medical building. We never went to the front door as he was family which meant walking through the all black waiting room to see him. I was born in 1967 so if you do the math, that was 1974.
During this time in my childhood, the Methodist church was on the move to break down racial barriers and pushed equality during our Sunday school classes. The movement even made it's way into our elementary schools as in one instance, I remember a black boy named Terri who was made to stand up while our first grade teacher told us that he was no different than any other child in the class. It was extremely uncomfortable for Terri as well as the rest of the class and I remember it made me very angry. It's funny the things you remember from your child-hood and that's one of those things I'll never forget.
Racism meant nothing to me nor did I understand it as the familiarity of black people was such a common thread in the fabric of my life. What really confused me was developing a deep relationship with the black woman that was essentially my other mother and trying to understand why we were all separated by some invisible wall of color.
Most interesting is the fact that this wall would grow stronger by the time I reached high-school. And to add to the irony, it was being built by the blacks. It was down right taboo for blacks to be seen or socialize with whites and they were chastised by their peers if they did so. The children that I had become so close to in lower school were now sticking to their own side of the halls. These same halls that their parents and grandparents fought so valiantly to enter.
I returned to these East Texas halls of my old stomping grounds only a week ago. On July 21st, 2011, J.E. Roberson would pass away at the age of eighty-one years. It had been down on the books that I was to sing at her funeral which was a tremendous honor. I've played in a lot of places over the years and with some pretty big names as well. But they will all pale in comparison to that little service on July 30th in Overton, Texas at the Zion Baptist Church.
I sang a song of love for the woman that raised me. But the love was not alone as the shadows of bitterness seem to always be present. The bitterness that wets the mortar between bricks.
Those bricks that make up the wall of racism.