Sunday, February 12, 2012

Real Tragedy Never Ends...

In his novel, No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer said, "Real tragedy never ends; it goes on hopelessly forever. Achebe was referring to a situation in Nigeria, but he could as easily been talking about racism in the U.S.

In a Black History Month special, I spoke to the Bartholomew County Library in Columbus, Indiana. My talk was promoted as "From The Help's Point of View." (For my thoughts on The Help, see another blog entry.) I am writing here about a discussion on race, that perennially taboo subject, in a "mixed" group--meaning blacks and whites in the same room. I am actually weary of talking about The Help, but the book/movie has obviously hit a nerve in America; two nerves, actually, one black, one white. Despite enormous progress, the U.S. is still a racially divided nation. It's just that the division is now no longer socially acceptable or legally viable.

Most blacks know that the vast majority of whites never want to talk about racism, so like them, I have often tiptoed around racial issues or broached them in a way designed not to offend delicate white sensibilities. In the words of one audience member, "We have swept racism under the rug for so long that the carpet has become too lumpy to walk on."

I decided to do a little cleaning under the rug; to invite a candid discussion. The audience was small enough (about fifty people) and mixed enough (about ten blacks, one self-identified gay man, a Hispanic family and the remainder white) so that we could have a discussion and easily see who was speaking.

I began by declaring that we are all the same, but perceive things differently because of the circumstances of our births and our particular experiences. I then asked how many people there had worked as domestic help--about four hands went up, one of them white. I asked how many had employed domestic help—about twenty hands went up, two of them black.

I shared with the audience that most blacks saw The Help, both novel and movie as a sanitized version of what actually happened in Mississippi in the 1960s. At the time, blacks were being killed and mercilessly beaten for trying to register to vote, among other things. I also pointed out that despite the title, the book was Skeeter’s story, not the story of the help. Skeeter is the one who triumphs in the end. We don’t know what happens to the black women she leaves behind, yet the tremendous popularity of this book is an indication that most readers find this storyline quite satisfying. Several members of last night’s audience agreed that it was an inspiring book because Skeeter had helped the black women fight back.

I discovered that many whites felt that by reading and enjoying The Help, they now better understand blacks and have taken a step toward improved race relations. They did not want to hear that this “lovely, moving story” is barely credible. In their keen disappointment that I did not see it the same way, they accused me of making “too much” of a work of fiction; after all, one woman said, “It’s not a documentary.” My response was that millions of book sales and a popular movie had made much of The Help. I am merely trying to understand why this not-particularly-profound work of fiction has struck such a chord. The discussion went on from there even including the “N” words—nigger and Negro.

I don't expect that any hearts or minds were changed, but we talked openly about racial misconceptions and the world did not explode. A bit of dust was cleared from under the carpet, but it's still plenty lumpy.

Here are some of the memorable exchanges.

A woman expressed her disappointment in my talk because she had come expecting to hear an "uplifting" story about how I went from being a maid to a successful writer.

Another woman thought I was exceptionally brave to speak the truth about racism to a largely white audience, although she lamented she could tell it didn't do any good.

When I was asked what Indiana was like while I was growing up in the forties and fifties, I responded, "It was as racist and segregated as anyplace below the Mason-Dixon line, except that there were no signs that said White and Colored." A woman on the front row who appeared younger than I am, felt privileged to interrupt me by shouting, "That's not true!" I asked if she was disputing the accuracy of my experience. She said I was misrepresenting Indiana. In order to disprove what I'd said, she told us a story. When she was a child her parents took the family to a Howard Johnsons somewhere in Indiana. There was a sign on the door that said No Negroes Allowed. When her parents saw the sign, they put the family back in the car and drove away. This should have been an ironically funny story, except that she was using it to "prove" that not all whites were racists because her parents weren't. Such are the distorted lenses through which race is viewed in America.

Another exchange occurred when someone admonished me for talking about racism when things are so much better now. Then another member of the audience shared his experience of a month ago. He is a corporate exec who was calling on a client in Martinsville, Indiana when the building in which they were meeting was surrounded by Klan members in full regalia.

The fact that he lived to tell the tale is an indication that things are indeed better now.