Imagine you are told you are responsible for raising the children in a household, but since you carry any number of diseases as an African American woman, you are not permitted to use the toilets in the house although you must clean, change diapers and cook creative meals.
In addition, you must teach each youngster proper manners but you can never eat with family members or even in the same room with them. Your pay is so poor you are capable only of minimal subsistence. As an inferior being, you are expected to serve — obey without question or comment — or be fired.
You are allowed no real feelings because a black maid is incapable of having them. Yet, the children you care for fall in love with you and not their biological parents. You are their mother; you are their source of daily inspiration and love, you ease their pain when they hurt mentally or physically or spiritually.
All daily household chores are yours while you keep these children occupied so unaffectionate parents may go about their wasted day: fathers to manage their plantations or businesses, mothers to fritter away their time with frivolous social activities and/or cosmetic procedures.
An inhuman life impossible to imagine — certainly! But such was the plight of the subservient women who labored as housemaids following the Emancipation Proclamation. With the Civil War ended, black women and men were now free — free to become poorly paid, hated slaves of wealthy whites in the deep South.
In The Help, Aibileen and Minny dare to describe to a white woman the outrages they suffer as housemaids. The young white female is Skeeter, who leads two lives: 1) She acts interested in the meaningless social life of her mother and her own friends; 2) As an integrationist, Skeeter secretly wins the trust, and more importantly, the hearts of black maids who want their stories of mistreatment and enslavement known to the world. From earliest childhood, Skeeter disbelieved the ghastly prejudiced legends about black people.
Skeeter’s interest in a book-writing project comes from two sources: 1) She endured the death-like shock she suffered when Constantine, the maid who raised her, suddenly evaporates. Her abrupt absence and love from Skeeter’s life was so heartbreaking that throughout The Help, Skeeter resolves to uncover why this woman disappeared and where she has gone.
2) In addition, Skeeter hopes to become a writer. A New York book editor tells her to write something she is excited about, something she finds fascinating, something intriguing, shocking, or even troubling. To Skeeter, the non-being of Constantine immediately sparks her creative genius resulting in The Help.
My humble praise for this work can only add to the voluminous praise Kathryn Stockett has already received for The Help. The story she tells is a must-read to expose the plight of American “colored” women who eked out their existence under the heavy thumbscrews of white women and men in the American South.
Her tale is not easily forgotten. It should not be. It is an emotional ride, at times filled with disgust, hatred, sorrow; but then relief, joy, and a small dose of happiness as its God-spirited characters develop strength to live on in spite of ego-shattering bigotry. The Help will stay with you. It will not disappoint.