Wednesday, September 7, 2011

elizabeth, hazel, and the help

I guess it’s time to see The Help. It was and is such a buzz book in the stores. People I know who normally disdain pop culture have told me, in a kind of confidential whisper, “You really should see it.” And now my 84 year old mother, who never goes to movies, saw it with my sisters and exited the theater in tears.

I was intrigued by my friend Sue Zumberge’s description of conversations she’d had about the book with African-American and white customers in her St Paul store, Common Good Books. While some black readers and viewers have loved the book, others have been bothered by the idea of a white woman writing and owning this story. This seems to me a dead end argument that, carried to its logical conclusion, would make our literary landscape even more ghettoized than it already is.

But the more interesting critique is the suspicion that, as one black viewer put it, “this is a feel good movie for white people.” Reading this, I could almost hear defensive hackles bristling across the land, as well-meaning white New York Times readers encountered and dismissed the idea. But I think it's a profound idea, and it gets to the heart of our stubborn contemporary perceptual divide when it comes to race.

For many whites, slavery and Jim Crow are long lost historical artifacts, and no need to dwell on them. Nasty and embarrassing, sure, but we can't feel personally responsible for social atrocities committed by our great-grandparents generation. (And of course, our particular relatives are never implicated anyway.)

The self-evident truth that racism continues to operate in every area of our lives is met with indignant skepticism. Indeed, there’s a ludicrous but increasingly confident movement asserting that white people are the new oppressed minority.

Meanwhile, for African-Americans, racism and oppression are not just a piece of unpleasant history, swept aside in 2008 by an enlightened electorate. The most repugnant, institutionalized practices were routine until not that long ago. The legacy of racism has never been honestly confronted in the manner of, say, the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. And by any of hundreds of statistical measurements, not to mention one’s own eyes and ears, racial bias continues to undermine aspirations in Black communities across the land, the Obamas in the White House notwithstanding.

The premature rush to pronounce racism dead, the declarations that we don’t need affirmative action programs anymore, the puzzled frustration on the part of some whites with blacks who won’t just forgive, forget and move on- these attitudes understandably elicit skepticism among black people about the sincerity and degree of true acceptance behind them.

One great way to help understand the debate can be found in David Margolick’s excellent new book Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, just released from Yale.

If you don’t recognize the names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, you’re forgiven. But if you don’t know their story, you should.

When Little Rock Central High School was desegregated in 1957, with the help of court orders and the National Guard, the nine brave fifteen-year old black students who attempted to attend were surrounded each day by screaming, hateful mobs of whites. In one shocking photo that quickly became iconic, a stoic young black woman calmly carries a notebook as she walks to the building; directly behind her, wearing a face contorted by rage and hate, a young white woman spits epithets.

Elizabeth and Hazel.

As I’ve sold this book for the past three months, I’ve been surprised at how fuzzy memories have become about this episode. Booksellers of a certain age recognized it immediately, but younger booksellers often listened to this story as if hearing it for the first time. (This alone speaks volumes about how well we’re teaching this history.)

Margolick is a master journalist, and the book works as a refresher course on the early days of the civil rights movement through the lens of the Little Rock events. But what makes it keenly relevant to the discussion sparked by The Help is the evolving, unlikely personal relationship between the two women.

Incredibly, both grew up and continued to live in Little Rock, unknown to each other. But after 30 years, Hazel Bryant picked up the phone and called Elizabeth Eckford, and asked for her forgiveness. A twenty-plus year adult relationship ensues, a friendship that veers from kumbaya to fracture and back again. One of the main fault lines in their personal story, as in our current national conversation, has to do with trust and sincerity.

Despite Hazel’s heartfelt and seemingly genuine atonement, Elizabeth begins to suspect that she doesn’t grasp the enormity of the injustice of which she’s been a part. Initially, Hazel clings to the notion that she really didn’t know why she was part of the mob, she was just following along, she was only fifteen and, indeed, racism may not have even been her motive. Elizabeth doubts this conveniently naïve narrative, and begins to withhold the easy forgiveness she’s being asked to confer.

When I first approached this manuscript, I expected and wanted a story that would build to an Oprah-like finale. If these two women could find peace and friendship, why can’t we all? That is, a feel good moment for white people.

Instead, Margolick has given us much more- a richly textured, profoundly personal historical snapshot, complete with all the ambiguities and loose ends that inform our continuing racial divide. The photo may be from 1957, but, as the skewed reactions to stories like Kathryn Stockett’s book and film make clear, the image still resonates in 2011.

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