Thursday, April 11, 2013

H is for History and The Help

Mississippi is steeped in history. I'm much more aware of the fact that segregation laws were in place so recently that there are people still alive now who lived it, despite it never being a huge issue in my lifetime.

I like to think that I'm not racist, but sometimes I feel like maybe the things I do could be construed the wrong way. The other day at the gym where Jo and I were the only white people, I had forgotten my water bottle and huffed my way over to the drinking fountain. A very big, muscly black man walked by as I stepped up to the fountain, and I nodded at him all out of breath, thinking that he was just passing into the other room to tackle a different machine. He stood off to the side as I got my drink and when I finished I realized that he was headed to the water fountain at the same time as I. Maybe it wasn't anything, but I felt a little silly for marching over and taking the first drink, and I wondered if maybe he thought it very white and overbearing or snobbish of me, or if perhaps he was just being a gentleman by stepping to the side to let my dainty self go first. 

Regardless of how he perceived my lack of attention to what others were doing around me, it reminded me that not long ago it was illegal for people like the two of us to even drink from the same fountain. Or to work out in the same gym for that matter. It seems, and maybe I'm putting too much into it than is accurate, that people here remember those days much more often and perhaps with much more resentment than people in other parts of the country do. High school proms were segregated until 2008 in Jackson, MS. The reasoning behind it was that it happened to work out that way or something, but it sure does shed some light on the way things are here. In some ways--mostly political--it seems as though I've stepped back in time and I'm still facing issues that I thought were resolved even before my time. 

Here, a huge market for businesses is that they are one of the first or only "African American owned". When I began to hear that over and over in advertisements, I wondered why it was such an accomplishment--not that I mean to demean it or even dismiss it as important; it just seemed to me that in a country currently being led by an African American, why (other than perhaps the obvious marketing tools, or course, which I recognize as effective where 70% of the population is African American) is it such a huge deal to set things apart from being African American owned. Then I realized how huge it really is--the fact that we have an African American president, and that African Americans have excelled so much in business and other realms when  not too many years ago they were deemed property themselves. 
The Help 

Even in the sixties (which was when The Help was set), after they had legally been emancipated, African Americans were thought of as property to be bequeathed to one's posterity. I still have yet to read the book, but the movie The Help is so touching and so frightening (in the sense that history was so recent). 

I've been told that African Americans here in Mississippi and perhaps the wider South have a general attitude of feeling entitled (a quality that I think most Americans possess), and that because of this there is a general lack of good customer service. The lack of good customer service I've definitely experienced here, but not solely from African Americans. With The Help in mind, I can't help thinking most of the time that perhaps African Americans along with Native Americans and Japanese Americans have more of a justification for feeling as though they are entitled to something. An apology, maybe? The chance at being president or major corporation owner? Or the opportunity to never look a person in the eye when checking their groceries over the scanner... Who's to say, really? 

I think living here has given me a chance to see things in a different perspective. I can see just how much history is part of every day lives in some way or another whether we realize it or not. And as a skinny-ass white girl, I've been very grateful for this opportunity to diversify my life a little more and to venture into unknown cultures where I've already made friends I'll never forget.

What history affects your every-day life?

Write on!


  1. First, the book The Help is sooooo much better than the movie. I love your thoughts on the culture of the south. We learned so much when we moved to Georgia. I know I'll be a better person for expanding my life. Unfortunately one of the things we learned is that prejudice still exists. Call me naive but I had thought it mostly a thing of the past. Nope, still going strong in some areas.

  2. I have The Help sitting in my to read stack. Hopefully I will get to it soon. I recently moved to the FL panhandle. I grew up an hour from the Canadian border so it is quite the change.
    Simply Sarah

  3. I've never been to the south since being older and aware of how life in the US works. I was born in FL and lived in VA when I was 3-4 but don't remember any of it. I've lived in the Pacific Northwest since I was 5 and its all I know personally. It's pretty diverse here but I know prejudice exists here. Like one commenter said, it still exists. What I've heard is that it's more in your face in the south, people aren't afraid to say what's what. Here people hide it. I didn't really know I was different until college. I mean, I was raised with my Filipino culture via my parents and grandparents. But, I'm "American" by birth and only speak English and have lived here my whole life. I just have darker skin.

    Anyway...very interesting topic. I'm glad you tackled it.

    Come check out my A to Z! Jen Hemming and Hawing Again