Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Help brings back memories

I avoided reading "The Help" for a long while. I didn't really give myself a reason why. I knew I would read it at some point and had to wait until I was ready for it. And then yesterday afternoon I picked it up and started. I would read whenever I could between gaming, cooking dinner, cleaning, etc. I finished it this evening. And now I understand why I was avoiding reading it. It made me remember a lesson I was forced to learn as a Yankee child growing up in Texas.

I was a tomboyish child. I ran faster than the boys and climbed trees higher than the boys, and when the boys pulled out their BB guns they wouldn't let me take a turn because they knew I'd show them up. I really didn't like playing with girls my age because they all seemed focused on boys and sex and Barbie dolls, stereotypical girl activities that just seemed boring to me. I'd much rather go outside and get dirty and feel the blood pumping through my body as I ran.

At that point in my life, I had only ever had one girl friend, Kathy, and I had lost touch with her after we moved to Texas. And in Texas, we moved around a LOT. But in my tenth year, we moved to Jonestown, Texas, and I met another girl who was a tomboy like myself.

Michelle was brilliant. She ran as fast as me, so sometimes I won a race and sometimes she won, which seemed just and fair. She loved to climb trees and she loved animals, too, and we both loved listening to Michael Jackson. We were the same size - both of us short for our age - and we swapped clothes all the time. My mother worked but Michelle's mom stayed home, so I found myself hanging out there after school whenever I could. I was loyal to my mother's cooking but felt that Michelle's mama came in a close second place.

Summer was nearing its hottest point when I asked Michelle's mama to do my hair up like Michelle's. I remember she gave me an odd look and asked why. I told her I liked the idea of having my hair up, out of my face and off my neck in this horrid heat. She said she'd do it, but only if my mother said it was okay. So I called my mom and had her talk with Michelle's mama, and I remember she still had that odd look on her face, and talked in a hushed voice so I couldn't hear what she was saying. But when she hung up, she smiled brightly at me and said "Your momma said it was okay. Go on, Michelle, and fetch the box of ribbons."

Oooh, I loved the box of ribbons. It was a fairly big box with all sorts of lovely hair accessories. I was just girly enough to want to be pretty, and in my mind the prettiest hair of them all was Michelle's, with all those barrettes and ponytails and ribbons. Michelle's mama sat me down in front of her and just ran the brush through my hair a while. "I never felt hair this soft before," she said quietly, and Michelle and her brothers and sisters had to all touch my hair.

That was the first time I learned that it wasn't just our skin color that was different. Our hair had a different texture too. And I quickly learned that my scalp was far more sensitive, as getting it pulled into tight cornrows hurt like hell. But I endured, determined to have the same hairstyle as my best friend.

We also realized there was another the cornrows grew more numerous, the paleness of my skin began to shine through. The rest of my skin was tanned a dark brown from the hot Texas sun, but my scalp, under the thickness of my hair, had remained lily-white. "We need to do something about that," Michelle's mama murmured. "Otherwise you are gonna get sunburn on top of your head."

"I know!" Michelle was jumping up and down. "Use the henna you put on your white hairs, mama!" Thus I ended up getting henna smeared on the freshly exposed regions of my scalp, until the skin matched the color of my tan. I jumped up and looked in the mirror, and grinned. My hair was in pretty little cornrows, all neat and even, and I loved the feeling of the little braids with their barrettes brushing against my back. Best of all, when I went outside with Michelle, I could actually feel a breeze on the back of my neck for the first time in months.

Michelle and I decided to ride our bikes down to Lake Travis and practice skimming rocks. We flew down the road towards the lake, passing some beautiful large houses and then into a neighborhood with ramshackle homes, with garbage in the yards and rusted cars in the driveways. I'd been this way once before, but never with Michelle. My mother had disdainfully referred to this neighborhood as "Redneck Central" and we usually rode our bikes the long way around. But it was so hot and muggy that we didn't want to ride another six blocks to avoid it. Giggling, we slowed at a corner to look both ways.


I blinked in shock as something hit the back of my head and started dripping down onto my shirt. A moment later, a head of rotted lettuce struck Michelle's shoulder.

"F*cking n*ggers! Get away from our property!"

I turned to look. We had stopped at a corner by one of the miserable looking shacks, and a kid a few years older than us had thrown the lettuce and whatever it was that had hit my head. He was wearing a black tank top and torn jeans, and the start of a scraggly beard was hanging limply from his chin. "Get your black *sses out of my sight!" he screamed, then reached into the garbage can by his side and pulled out a couple of used tea bags, and threw those in our general direction. I felt frozen to my bike, unable to move.

The screen door behind the boy slammed, and his father came out. I felt a moment of vindication - surely his daddy would paddle his butt for such behavior, swearing and throwing things like that! But I was wrong - way wrong. The man stooped down and picked up a large heavy stick from the yard and started walking towards us with slow, steady steps, a wicked smile stretching across his face.

My shock was broken when Michelle grabbed my bike handles. "Let's get out of here!" She looked panicked, and it was that expression on her face more than anything else that snapped me out of my paralysis. We both flew into action and pedaled faster than we ever had before, out of that neighborhood and away from the corner of confusion and hate.

We arrived at the lakeside, breathless and sweating. I took off my sandals and sat on a rock, dangling my feet in the water. Michelle sat next to me and I turned to her. "Can you believe that? What the heck was their problem? Do you think they were drunk or high or something?"

Again, the look on her face stopped me. It was almost identical to the funny look her mama had given me when I had asked her to do my hair. "What? What am I not getting?" I knew from her expression there was something I was missing.

She let out a big sigh, and then grabbed my forearm and held it against her own. "Look at our arms," she instructed. "What do you see?"

I looked for a difference. "Um...I have more hair on my arms than you do?"

She sighed in exasperation. "Look at our color. What do you see?"

For the first time, I really looked at the difference. "Well, what do you know?" I laughed. "I'm tanned nearly as dark as you are!"

"Exactly! And with your hair up like that, those white men thought you were black too."

"Wait. You mean...they were racist?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, they certainly weren't open-minded, now were they?"

"But....but racism doesn't exist anymore! Martin Luther King got rid of it long before we were born! It's illegal! ...isn't it?" The realization was hitting me now, and my eyes were filling with tears.

My friend just sighed, and turned my head to look at the back of it. "You have egg yolk in your hair." She pulled something from my scalp and handed it to me. It was a piece of eggshell. "Sit in the water and I'll wash it out."

I sat there as my best friend in the whole world washed rotten egg out of my hair. And I cried. It was my first experience with racism. I lost some of my innocence that day, and some of my faith in the belief that the world was a good place for all people. I realized that I was afraid - afraid to ride my bike back in that neighborhood, afraid to see those people again. Afraid to feel their hate beating away at my soul. And when Michelle quietly began to undo the cornrows that I had been so proud of?

I let her. Because I was afraid.

And I realized, when I finished reading The Help, that this memory was the reason I had avoided reading the book. That long-ago memory of blind hate, the sudden nasty realization that I didn't live in a fair world, the fear - the mind-boggling fear that those people would show up at my house with sticks to beat me - and the realization that my best friend in the whole world had to live with that fear EVERY was just a lot for a ten year old to handle. Some days it feels like it's too much for me to handle now, and I'm in my mid-30's and a lot more jaded about the world.

I strongly recommend reading this book. Sometimes we need that jolt, that sudden impact of knowing that the rest of the world doesn't follow the same morals we do. That in some places, there is still racism and prejudice of all kinds.

It will never change as long as people turn a blind eye.

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