Chicago, IL – Oprah Winfrey recalled her grandmother’s greatest wish for her: “I hope you get some good white folks like I have.”
Ms Winfrey, the media mogul, remembers, “My grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid, her mother before her was a slave. My mother was a maid.”
Experience had taught her grandmother that domestic work was one of few career options available to black women. The best that she could realistically hope for her granddaughter was that she would become a maid in the home of a benevolent (white) employer.
When Ms Winfrey accepted an honorary Academy Award, an “Oscar”, in November as a recognition of her humanitarian work, she highlighted her against-the-odds personal narrative by telling the audience about her female relatives and the chequered dreams that they had for her. With tears streaming down her face, Oprah reflected on the profound effect that the film The Help, a fictional story about African American domestic workers in early 1960s Mississippi, had on her. It reminded her of the limited possibilities that were available to her mother, grandmother, and women like them.
This week, The Help and its cast compete for their own Oscars. The occasion of the imminent award ceremony alongside the occurrence of “Black History Month” in the United States merit a consideration of exactly why a woman’s most heartfelt prayer for her children and grandchildren would be for “good white folk”.
It is no secret that sexual assaults of black women occurred with great frequency within private residences throughout the long history of legalised captivity and the century that followed emancipation.
It was widely rumoured in the late 18th century that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of Sally Hemings, a slave who worked in his household. In recent years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society have independently released statements asserting the “high probability” that the former president or, perhaps, his younger brother Randolph, was the biological father of some or all of Hemings’ six children.
In her 1861 autobiography, Harriet Jacobs, an escaped captive, reveals that a girl’s 15th birthday – “a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl” – marks the beginning of heightened sexual attention by her “master”. She remembers, “My master began to whisper foul words in my ear” and, “He told me that I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.”
Other autobiographies suggest that unwanted sexual attention and advances occurred at an even earlier age. Olaudah Equiano, in his autobiography, writes about the behaviour of slavers on transatlantic ships in the late 1700s: “I have even known them to gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.”
“It has been estimated that the average African American, whose ancestors survived the hardships and abuses of slavery, is at least 12.5 per cent white.”
Despite the end of legalised slavery and the arrival of the 20th century, the abuses continued. In 1925, future US senator and ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond, who would later publicly state that blacks and whites should be kept apart everywhere, including the household, fathered a daughter with his family’s 16-year-old black maid. A The 700 Club profile on Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Thurmond’s daughter, identifies the pregnancies of black maids by their white employers as “a common social occurrence in those days”.
In recent years, there have been plenty of examples (or allegations) of men behaving badly with women of all complexions, which makes it easy to imagine how much worse the experience was for black women in the past: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “love child” with his maid. President Bill Clinton’s “not appropriate” relationship with an intern. Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly chasing a hotel maid through the halls of his suite naked.
Although not every bedroom tryst was an assault or a rape, the differences in power relationships – “master” and “slave”, or employer and employee – makes it difficult to determine if the women involved had agency. It is not a question of whether the women could say, “No”, but whether their “No” had the power to curtail the sex act.
It has been estimated that the average African American, whose ancestors survived the hardships and abuses of slavery, is at least 12.5 per cent white (as if one can really quantify blood by percentage or “drops”). DNA tests reveal that this whiteness tends to emerge along paternal bloodlines. They evidence the fact that most African Americans have at least one ancestor who likely was “raped” by a white man and, of course, have an ancestor who was white and a sexual aggressor.
In a public statement, the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) critiques The Help for failing to depict the fact that “African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers”.
However, there are moments when the film hints at this history. Towards its end, Minny, who is played by likely Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, walks down the driveway of her employer’s home. The husband of the woman for whom she works drives up and parks behind her. Afraid of being alone with him, Minny runs. She eventually grabs a fallen tree branch to use as a weapon to fend off his advances. Her reaction is explained by her belief that he might be trying to kill her – to kill a strange black person caught trespassing on his property. It also reveals that she lives in a society in which the man can do anything to or with her body; a stick won’t stop a bullet but it could prevent a sexual assault.
“On average, approximately ten African Americans were lynched every year in Mississippi between 1882 and 1930.”
The AWBH further alleges that the film’s “[portrayal of] the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well-dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness”.
At times, The Help resembles Mean Girls but set in the early 1960s. The pettiness of the “cool” crowd in Tina Fey’s 2004 high school film comedy rivals that of the group of young white women and mothers in The Help. The racism of the sorority of young employers appears to be more a product of boredom – housewives who don’t do housework imagine ways to distinguish themselves from the help – than political calculation. This masks how widespread, well-accepted and deeply ingrained anti-black racism was during this time period.
On average, approximately ten African Americans were lynched every year in Mississippi between 1882 and 1930. Many of these lynchings were family affairs with hundreds (and, occasionally, thousands) of white men, women, and children in attendance to see the final act of hanging. Elsewhere, I have written about the popularity of lynching souvenirs – body parts severed from the deceased black body and sold as keepsakes at these events.
The real-life equivalents of the middle-aged maids in The Help were surrounded by the threat of racial violence. Past abuses continued to echo into the present. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and murdered for whistling at a white woman in a town only 100 miles away from Jackson, Mississippi, where The Help is set. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, after the Montgomery Bus Boycott – which proved successful thanks to the efforts of domestic workers – and nationwide sit-ins, the real-life maids of Jackson, Mississippi lived in a society swirling in racial tension, anxiety, paranoia, and violence.
Ms Winfrey’s grandmother’s wish for “good white folks” was simply a hope that her granddaughter would find employers who would treat her with respect. It was a dream that she would end up working in a household where she would not be subject to harassment, abuse or assault. It was an aspiration that she would find herself surrounded by people who would see her as a person (and not as an object or property). Her words also spotlight the extent of discrimination and the limited career possibilities available to African Americans in the years preceding the Civil Rights Movement.
Black History Month and stories like The Help invite us to consider the history of race and racism within the United States. Although it is rarely forward-thinking to consider society in such stark contrasts – black and white, good and bad – such an approach can help to bring the past into focus.
Harvey Young is a professor at Northwestern University, where he holds appointments in African American Studies, Radio/Television/Film, and Theatre. He is the author of Embodying Black Experience, and winner of the 2011 Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the National Communication Association.