The Help calls to mind two intense and fuzzy childhood memories

The movie The Help is out. It concerns the complicated, intimate, unequal relationship between African-American domestic workers and the affluent white families who employ them. I haven’t seen the movie. Its reception calls to mind with surprising intensity two fuzzy memories from my early childhood.

Until I was six years old, we lived in Teaneck, NJ. For much of this time, a grandmotherly lady helped out some of my relatives. She would occasionally babysit for me. I hardly remember her, except that she was very nice.

I lost a lunch box one day. My mom asked this lady if she had seen it; she had not. A few days later, the lady announced that she had found it. I was delighted to have it back, especially since it was in such pristine condition. Of course, some time later we found the original lunch box in whatever crazy place I had left it. Apparently worried that my parents might believe she had taken it, this lady had purchased a replacement. At that point, my mother had known her for maybe twenty years.

Around that same time, our family was close to our neighbors. Their children were cared for by a young black woman whose name I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten. She slept in their basement. My dad did a lot of work around the house, and happened to have some extra moveable partitions. He gave one to her, so that she could have some extra privacy.

That night, the neighbors stormed over. They informed my parents that if they had wanted her to have a partition, they would have bought her one, and that my father had made an inexcusable intrusion into their home. There were some harsh words. Our families maintained polite but frosty relations from that moment forward.

I find both these memories painful, even forty years on. I’m not sure I can exactly say why.

Postscript: A reader emailed asking if the woman in the first story was African-American. She was.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

7 thoughts on “The Help calls to mind two intense and fuzzy childhood memories”

  1. That was a moving comment. I’m looking forward to seeing the film, and hopeful at the prospects of it bringing about more discussion of race and class in our lives.

    Things have certainly changed. But in many ways, they have not. Millions of people still work for poverty wages. And taken broadly as a class of worker, there are distinct disadvantages they face that are not entirely dissimilar to what was so starkly a racial matter a few decades ago. In fact, I wonder as I type this, whether the racial differences are still as stark. We took a vacation up the California coast this summer and witnessed many fieldworkers who were all Hispanic, as far as I could tell, and likely undocumented. We’re used to the lowest forms of labor – in status, difficulty and pay – being done by minorities.

    While we can I think agree that most overt racism has all but disappeared, at least as a primary factor in employment, structural problems remain in which large sectors of society are disenfranchised and almost destined from birth to lives of poverty and desperation. And to the extent that any of us partake in the economy, certainly when we purchase services that directly require the labor of minimum-wage employees, we are exploiting their lack of empowerment. The notion that they are all completely free individuals who could easily have decided to go to school and become lawyers or highly skilled workers is a convenient fantasy.

  2. You can’t figure out that you’re uncomfortable with the indignities suffered by the working class, indignities you have never had to go through because of your class privilege?

    I left my wallet on a bus in Brentwood (where I live). A wonderful lady found it and went to considerable trouble to track me down, even though she couldn’t speak English. I picked up the wallet from her house in a neighborhood with people who are obviously poorer than and not-as-white as my neighbors. First thing the family told me was when they saw me was, “We didn’t take any cash, the wallet was empty!” They were worried about this. I wasn’t, as I didn’t have cash in this wallet in the first place. Even if I did, why would I be anything less than trusting or grateful towards people who returned my wallet?

    Ah… when I realized why they said this it hurt my heart. Classism, racism, xenophobia… how can it not pain you if you see it?

  3. These stories strike me, as a Brit from a society where class divisions dominate racial ones, as expressing the strains of the universal upstairs/downstairs relationship.

    There would be a lot of comic potential in a colour-reversal situation where a rich black (or, in the UK, Asian) family hires a white butler and/or housekeeper and/or nanny. It’s a bit unlikely but today entirely possible. Has this lode been mined?

  4. James Wimberley: count me as a huge skeptic of your claim.

    But maybe growing up American has stunted my imagination. (People try to say the same thing about Mexico. Still not buying it.)

  5. I don’t see how having an employee living in one’s home would ever be less than uncomfortable for everyone.

    On the other hand, the lunchbox situation — that one I could imagine being fixed.

    I think Eli’s right — we still have a whole bunch of issues not getting addressed.

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