A few months ago, I was having lunch with a friend who is an avid reader. She is always telling me about the latest book she has read and sometimes I am envious of the fact that she reads so many books in such a short period. On this particular day she was wound up about a book she had just finished and strongly suggested that I read it. I decided that this is a “must read” and bought the book.
As I began reading it I became somewhat emotional with mixed feelings ranging from anger to sadness to joy and even sympathy. After reading a couple of chapters I could not continue and thought it best to put the book aside and maybe go back to it at a later time. The book: The Help.
I am not sure whether my initial reaction to the book was based on my experiences and those of my mother and other women I have known who worked as maids; or because it was written by a white woman or because my friend who recommended it is white. I do know that I could relate to the maids. I worked as a maid right out of high school and my mother who had a college degree worked as a maid after leaving the work force to raise her children. Even though both of us were educated and spoke “proper grammar” in the eyes of our employer we were still just maids. Our experiences were not as bad as the ladies in the book but humiliation in any form is demeaning.
After a few weeks, I returned to the book with the intent of finishing it and taking away the positives from the story because it is well written. Just recently, I saw the movie. What bothered me most about the book and the movie was not the content but the message readers and viewers may take away. Many bring with them a preconceived impression of blacks and black families based on stereotypes passed down from generation to generation. In many ways the story reinforces some of the negatives with few positives to offset those negatives. As I read the book I reflected on an experience I had in the 1980’s because someone made an assumption about me based solely on my race.
I describe this experience in detail in the prologue of my memoir, The Road to Someplace Better. After leaving my days of working as a maid; getting my undergraduate degree from Howard University; being awarded an MBA from Harvard (the first black woman to get a Harvard MBA); I was well established as a successful entrepreneur by the late 1980’s. To promote my business and make important contacts in the business world I joined selected organizations. One such organization was a prestigious women’s organization whose membership was comprised of highly successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives and government officials. A member living in New York decided to have a cocktail party at her apartment and invite members who lived on the East Coast. I resided in Maryland at the time and saw this as a great opportunity to expand my horizon. With great anticipation, I booked a hotel room and plane ticket. I gave special attention to my attire, carefully selecting an outfit which I felt was appropriate for a successful entrepreneur.
After a short time to relax in my New York hotel, I dressed in my stylish knit suit and with my mink coat warmly tugged around me, I headed to my evening out. As I entered this elegant building on the upper eastside, the doorman greeted me warmly and pointed me in the direction of the elevator. I rang the doorbell and was greeted by an elderly white woman, whom I later discovered was the mother of the hostess. She was visiting from someplace in the south. I smiled, announced my name and informed her that I was there for the cocktail party. Her greeting was not very warm but I thought nothing of it. She turned and asked me to follow her. Within a minute I found myself standing in the kitchen. She thought I was the maid and was there to serve the party!
My first feeling was that of anger as I thought: “This is 1980! How can people be still making assumptions like this”? My next thought was that my attire should have indicated otherwise. How many maids show up for work dressed as I was? I immediately informed this woman that I was a guest. The look on her face was priceless. She quickly showed me to the room where other guests were gathered. For the rest of the evening she was like an appendage, not letting me out of her sight.
As I scanned the room of guests, I saw that I was the lone black woman in attendance. Nonetheless, that was no justification for anyone to assume that the only black person had to be a worker instead of a guest. My feeling toward this woman went from anger to sympathy. This may have been the first time in her life that she has been in close contact with a black woman other than one who was a maid. We are a product of our environment and teachings.
In my opinion some important messages from The Help are:
1. These were courageous women who did what they had to do to support their families.
2. They worked for a better life for their children; note the woman who needed $75 to get her son registered for college. Not much attention was given to this.
3. Some of the employers did have a conscience but were afraid to follow what they knew was right.
4. It is easy to be influenced by those with whom you associate.
5. Racism is taught. Children do not see race as an issue until they learn it from others.
These are just a sampling of some of the messages. Today, an important question each of us can ask ourselves is: “How do I relate to and treat people of another race as an employee, co-worker, neighbor, etc?”
Causes Lillian Lambert Supports
American Cancer Society, American Heart Assn, Howard Universit, Impact 100 of Richmond