Selling Old Style Racism As The Royal Treatment
Kathryn Stockett is the author of The Help. It’s a fictional story about a black woman who goes to work for a white family in post civil rights era Mississippi. Coincidentally, Ms. Stocket was born in 1969 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and had a black maid who took care of her white family. Although based on her childhood experiences, the story is not about her childhood or about her family’s housekeeper Demetrie.
Ms. Stockett says that even though she grew up in a town with a one to one black white ratio, she never had a black friend or a black neighbor or a black person in her school or any interaction with black people other than their maid Demetrie. The black woman went to work for her family fourteen years before Ms. Stockett was born. She actually went to work for her grandmother and stayed for more than thirty years. The only relationship with black people that Ms. Stockett experienced was the one where the white people, a complete family unit with parents and children, hire a black woman, a woman without any interactions with her own black family or community, to wait on them.
Ms. Stockett claims that her black maid was one of the closest people to her. From her perspective, their maid was treated like a queen who wanted for nothing. She adored the black maid as much as she adored her own mother. While her mother was always busy, Demetrie stood in and played games with the white children and never got cross. It was the black maid who knew to rock them when they had stomachs aches. It was Demetrie who went with the children to the doctor because Demetrie knew how to get the children to sit still for their injections and whatever procedures they needed.
Black Demetrie knew the young Ms. Stockett and her siblings better than the parents did. But on the other hand, Ms. Stockett admits to some embarrassment at her inability to truly appreciate the complex nature of the role Demetrie had to play in their lives. For more than thirty years this black woman waited on this family. Every single day that Ms. Stockett saw her only black friend the maid, the black woman would be seen wearing nothing other than her stark white maid uniform. Ms. Stockett was blissfully ignorant of the true nature of the relationship she and her family had with the hired help.
Ms. Stockett says that the maid knew the unwritten rules of acceptable and unacceptable black behavior established by the white people of Mississippi. She writes that while laws supporting segregation were erased, the rules supporting segregation were not. In order for the black maid to be accepted in certain white people circles, she had to have that white uniform. In order for black people to exist among these white people, they had best submit and accept their secondary status.
But stuck in the oblivious world of her childhood, Ms. Stockett wants to maintain her claim that Demetrie was a queen. The black maid wasn’t allowed to use the same bathroom facilities of the white people. The black woman had to use a bathroom located on the side of the house. The black woman was not allowed to use the same utensils as the white family. The black woman wasn’t allowed to wear anything but her white uniform. The black woman sacrificed a life with her own family in order to keep her job. Does Ms. Stockett honestly think that this black woman felt like she was the recipient of royal treatment as she cleaned behind white people?
Ms. Stockett and her family never saw their black housekeeper as an equal. They never appreciated her as a valued member of their family. She was the help and she was only the help. Like many black people who are admired by people in the white community, the reason white people admire these black people is because these black people are accepting their position as nothing more than the staff to white people. Unfortunately, by being the go to person for white people, Demetrie allowed Ms. Stockton and her family to develop an impression that the natural order of things was that black people are treated like royalty when they are given the privilege to wait on white people.
If someone hired Ms. Stockett’s mother to be their servant, if they forced Ms. Stockett’s mother to use an outhouse and eat with her own special set of eating utensils because she was not allowed to share the eating utensils of everyone else, I seriously doubt if Ms. Stockett would think that they were treating mom like a queen. If her mother had to surrender her identity and wear nothing but a white uniform in order to be accepted I doubt if she would mistake it for anything other than what it truly is, a not so subtle reminder that the dreams and goals of the help takes a back seat to the whims of the employer.
Back in the day black people who completely devoted themselves to their white employers or owners were called house Negroes. Some black people were more than happy to adapt to whatever life the white establishment defined as acceptable for black people. A lot of these black people were more willing to identify with the white family that would make them use the outhouse and eat off their own supper dish instead of identifying with the black community full of their peers that had to work out in the field. Some black people would embrace the subjugation of the black community.
Unfortunately, I have little doubt that if Ms. Stockett’s black friend was alive today, Demetrie would absolve her white family of anything and everything that could have been construed as poor treatment. The black maid Demetrie made her choice some time ago. More than likely there would be no hard feelings. Ms. Stockett can feel safe that there was nothing but love between her and the only black person she ever knew in her life who wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom in the house or eat off the same plates as white people but was somehow treated like a queen. Most house Negroes were more than happy to support the subjugation of black people as long as they lived better than the general subjugated population.