Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Help

I just finished reading "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. In short it was a fantastic book. Set Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement it is the story of a young white woman that doesn't fit into the deep south she's returned to after college. She finds herself pursuing a career in writing rather than the large house, proper husband, children and social clubs that are the assumed and appropriate paths for her life.

In her attempt to find a career she ends up as the writer of a housekeeping advice column, something she knows nothing about and she's forced to go to a black maid for the answers. This unexpected back and forth between Skeeter and Aibileen starts to pull out stories about the relationships developed between the black maids and their white employers. The stories turn into a book and the book threatens to disrupt the lives of everyone, white and black, involved knowingly or unknowingly.

The story was so compelling because it was told from the point of view of Skeeter, 24 year old white female college grad, Aibileen, black maid, and Minny, black maid. Each  has a unique perspective and experience in race relations, for lack of a better word, both positive and heartwarming and negative.

The confusion, the affection, the antipathy, the unresolved feelings of superiority and embarrassment over the lack of basic respect between these women is laced throughout the stories. What does it feel like to be black, working for a white family? What does it mean to feel affection for the one who cleans your house and yet have a sense of entitlement and superiority at the same time? How do you deal with potential consequences when some have the means of escape and others are stuck in the life they were born into?

I was ten when we moved to Africa. While living there we had a maid. The day after we moved in we had a number of women show up at our door looking for work. It is a strange position, with our US history of slavery and prejudice, to hire a black African maid. And, of course, Kenya has it's own history with being a British colony. But, it is also an accepted and expected way for the more wealthy to provide jobs and income to those that need it.

Our maid was Mary. She was kind and trustworthy and hard working. She cleaned the house, (I envy my mom for not having to clean the bathrooms!), did the laundry and I'm honestly not sure what else she may have done. I was mostly at school when she was working at the house. I simply took for granted the clean rooms and clean clothes. I suppose I did the same with my mom when we lived in the states but I was also aware that a maid was taking care of me. A black African maid.

Nairobi Skyline
credit: kenya-advisor.com 

Mary lived in the servants quarters that was included for the apartment complex we lived in. She had a little boy. During the first two years we lived there she had a little baby girl that she named after me. When we were back in the states we heard that she'd had another baby girl that she named after my sister. Two babies named after the two girls she cleaned up after.

I've wondered what Mary thought of us. What she thought of me. Was I kind and respectful? Was I appreciative? The history of slavery wasn't between us but the sensitivity on the subject was in my mind. Even though I had no personal history of dealing with the black American community, no first hand knowledge of the civil rights movement and no opportunity to have a relationship with a black American, I still carried the questions, the guilt, the remorse, the uncomfortableness that comes from questioning past actions.

Rift Valley
credit: kenya-advisor.com
It's a complicated world...for a 10 year old or a 35 year old...


  1. Very thoughtful, and you were not alone in your questions and emotions! Do you realize you are now as old as your parents were when they and their family arrived in Kenya?

  2. Thanks Sarah for sharing your thoughts about "The Help." After reading the book, I had discussions with my daughters as we reflected on our Kenyan experience with "househelp." I would love to read writings from the Kenyan point of view on working in wazungu houses. Thanks for blogging.

  3. @Teatree - It's amazing and terrifying to think of traveling around the world with 2 (in your case 3) little kids to a place unknown - and that you made it seem so normal and adventurous in the process! Hindsight makes my parents look even more incredible!

  4. @Jean - a Kenyan point of view would be so fascinating! I wonder if we could get our "help" to share with us freely now that the years have passed by...