In a state that is nearly 40% black, my university is pushing 14%. To my knowledge, in the Ole Miss Panhellenic Sorority system, there are three black girls. There is, to be fair, another set of sororities (sisterhoods, maybe, I lack the training in terminology) designated especially for black female collegians. But there are black people in my sorority house, all the time in fact, because we at Sorority H have Help.
Just about every sorority (I’d wager to say every) has Help. Fraternities too, maybe, who knows—I don’t spend time in those houses unless the drinks are free. They work as our cleaning ladies and cooks, making our chicken Caesar pita wraps for lunch and then wiping down the long shiny-wood tables once we’ve spilled our Diet Cokes or left our frozen yogurt cups sitting out and sweating. It’s fine for them to work in these places—they aren’t all black, but they are all under-educated and willing to do as much as possible for their employers. The only part of their employment that bothers me is the common practice of referring to them as “Help.” Unabashedly. “It’s just who we are,” a Sorority H alumnus told me when I confessed how I felt about it. “It’s just what we always say.”
The Help (a.k.a. WHITE PEOPLE SOLVE RACISM!) is really, really popular. Book clubs were all about it for a while, and—surprisingly, very surprisingly—I actually enjoyed the movie. Lit kids that I know have ventured snobbishly into the idea of rewriting Stockett’s novel and making it more powerful and visceral from the skeletal ruins of such a potentially quality plot that was, simply put, poorly executed. I can’t tell you what I think, because I was not for the life of me going to read it, and I still haven’t, and I won’t. Have Help been romanticized, oversimplified by this book, though? That is my question. Not all were (are) bitter or self-empowered like the strong black women of the novel/movie.
I know that from my own life—my dad was raised largely by Help. He was born in the first year of the ’50s, grew up on a dairy farm, and never seemed to want to talk about any part of his life before he turned nineteen and moved overseas. I know precious little about his nurse, whose endearing nickname was Mae-Mae, except that she appears, in the one picture we have, to love my young father very much. He told me once that his place of comfort was curled up in Mae-Mae’s lap. (He also told me that, living on a farm, he didn’t realize he and his sisters were the only white children among those of black tenant farmers and farmhands until he was twelve years old.) Mae-Mae, whose real name no one knew, came to work every day in their house for eighteen years, moving through the four children and their needs, and frying good chicken. She was not an empowered woman out to free herself from stereotype or aiming to change her conditions. Mae-Mae was happy to have a job.
Apparently even when I was young, there was a black farmhand around named Lester. He lived on the outskirts of the Locker farm and was a close ally of my dad’s, who helped my dad plant soybeans and raise the beams for his (our) first home. My mother has told me the story twenty times, and it never fails to do anything but frighten me, of how one day passing Lester’s house she looked at his mailbox and realized the man’s name was Luster. She expected my dad to be shocked when she told him, but he shrugged as if this were something that had always hung in the back of his mind and had simply never warranted the effort of remembering.
Racial offenses in the South are, for the most part, comparable to this minor yet memorable one of my father’s. But these offenses were (are?) part of the condition of Help. Luster didn’t care that his checks were made out to Lester, he cared that he was getting the checks. My family was probably not the most racially discriminate in the world, but they probably weren’t the most friendly or accommodating either. I wasn’t around to write about it.
So the idea of Help in my sorority felt oppressive once I thought about it, but not anywhere near something I could offer resolution for. I just felt like they were probably underappreciated, if not underpaid. It’s easy to think that this would be true: On the large scale, Ole Miss is not known for colorblindness. In 2010, the longstanding school mascot, Colonel Reb, was finally forced off the field and replaced by a black bear. Colonel Reb is exactly the man his name implies, a confederate colonel. Not necessarily racially motivated of course, but still. Legislation is being pushed—yes, apparently this issue concerns the Mississippi government—to restore Colonel Reb, much to the disdain of many “forward” thinkers. On the smaller scale, even my sorority, among several, got in trouble a few years ago for the girls who donned blackface for a “gangster”-themed party. It has become necessary to remind us before social functions or costume events that this is not appropriate. These two factors imply one truth about the Help on campus: It wouldn’t seem that they are properly appreciated.
But my thoughts sort of shifted this summer, though, when my many sorority sisters began firing out emails and Facebook posts about one of our Helpful cleaning ladies whose house had burned down “on the other side” of Oxford, and offering to take donations, collections, cards and words of support. My housemother was cooking food for the lady’s two boys. Someone got them brand new furniture. Even though donations from the well off and well-adjusted are not always an indication of inward grace, these few days of generosity grew into something legitimate and constant. I don’t know the woman, but the girls who live in the H house do and claim to love her. I use “claim” because I can’t guarantee they do, but I can hope and I can hope and I can hope. This tragedy ended up making me feel better about my Greek life, though—that we can, on the whole, be appreciative and on a first name basis with the Help, who I (and many others, I do not mean to imply I’m the only one disconcerted by it) cannot make myself call Help.
I’d like to thank the Academy for recognizing my acting like I know what I’m talking about. I’d like to thank my current boss for inspiring me to write about race. Mostly, though, I reckon I’d like to thank the South for my upbringing—for allowing me to lay witness to some of its greatest fallbacks and greatest attempts at overcoming the loss of a War that lost us our dignity. Race is an issue in the South, but it is not the issue that should define us. Health, education, and socioeconomics are issues with more potential to be definitive. Race, more than an issue, is a factor and set of demographic factions within each of these more pertinent issues.
You may have your own Lesters, or Lusters, or women with burned-down houses cleaning up your dinnertime mess, or something better that can teach you more than they could teach me. I am not in Jackson or New Orleans or Arab, Alabama, but I am doing my best to understand the whole of the South and its attitudes. This is not academic or levelheaded, but it is heartfelt. This is not what I deem our biggest issue, but it is an issue, and it is part of my life. I do not intend to seem crass. I have no desire to seem like I really and truly know what I’m talking about, or that I understand the subject’s breadth. I do know, though, that Help are real and not glorified in any way like Hollywood portrayed… never really asked many questions in the sorority house besides if I can have some egg whites with my grits now, please.
You grow up in a tolerant Southern household and then move to a state, and state of mind, that embarrass you. But instead of letting it embarrass you, you let it teach you, and you take it in, and do your best to pass it along, and if you don’t do your best, at least you’re trying. Or maybe at most, I’m trying.