Yesterday, I attended an afternoon viewing of “The Help”, the story of “Skeeter”, “Aibileen” and “Minnie”, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. The movie is a slow, soft glimpse into the relationships between white women and their black maids on the eve of the civil rights movement in the American south. Although necessarily entertaining, the movie’s soft pitch did very little to inform my sensibilities regarding this seemingly perpetual period of American history. However, my personal past has been summoned to reflect; and it is with tears, laughter and a light touch of embarrassment that I reminisce and celebrate the beginning and middle of my own journey.
I celebrate the influence of Cicely Tyson, a great woman, on and off the stage. She plays “Constance”, the maid who raised “Skeeter”. Constance is the energy that propels “Skeeter” toward a life independent of societal expectations. In 1988, Ms. Tyson gave a speech at the University of South Carolina that spoke to the depths of my soul, confirming that my path would be substantially different than that of my classmates. She told the story of her mother encouraging her to attend secretarial school. Much to her mother’s disappointment, Tyson realized, as she faced the typewriter for the first time, that she would be no one’s secretary. She was passionate about performing, which competed with and lost to her Pentecostal-Holiness familial influence and the security associated with having a “good job”. From that moment forward I was unapologetic about my major and my calling. My only uncertainty was the manner in which I would make a living within the profession of my purpose.
I am remembering the dressing down my mother gave my best friend and I when our college arrogance became too much for her to bear. Forgetting that Mother could clearly hear every kitchen conversation from her bedroom vent, my friend and I engaged in a rather haughty conversation about another friend of ours who was a collector of “pick-a-ninny” dolls, insisting that we would have never been a servant; much less own a doll that reminded us of such an indignity. My mother swooped down the hallway from her bedroom, into our coven of laughter and sprite condescension, and told us about ourselves; that we were spoiled and unappreciative; that if it weren’t for those maids, “your uppity black asses would not be here right now, sitting in my kitchen like you own the damn world”. We parted our lips to argue with her, and thinking better of it, knowing that in arguing we were subject to a future that would include dentures, we bowed to my mother’s wisdom and anger.
In the final dialogue between the women, “Skeeter” is reluctant to leave “Aibileen” and “Minnie” in the chaos that her book has created and as the influence of civil rights movement reaches their town. The women whose stories gave “Skeeter” a voice, personal power and gainful employment meet her protest with a loving rebuke and a gentle nudge toward her place in the future: “Step into your own life”, says “Minnie”. I whispered to myself, “Yes, ma’am”.
In the closing scene, Aibileen is found in tears walking (not running) away from a venom that only love and forgiveness can heal. She too walks into her future. The credits roll in concert with her stride and to the tune, “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige. It is in this background that my movie companion points to the screen and says, “I expect to see your name on movie credits one day”. I was moved beyond words, and fought to keep my tears at bay. In that moment I was reminded of every one of my supporters, my vocal allies and silent partners who love me; who are cheering and praying for me as I step into my own life. My love and thanks will never be enough, but I offer them nonetheless.
“…my best days are right in front of me,
and I am almost there ‘cuz now I am free…”
(Mary J. Blige, “The Living Proof”)