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Appreciation for women who worked as “The Help”

I invited my mother to go with me to see the movie, “The Help,” thinking it would be a chance for us to talk about a part of her life that she never shared much with my sisters and me when we were growing up. She refused. “I’m not going to watch black people being ruled over,” she told me as we sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast. “It was tough in those days. It was tough.”

My 80-year-old mother worked as “the help” for many years in the 1950s and 1960s, cleaning the homes of white families and taking care of their children. She worked for one family with three children then practically raised another girl after her mother died when the child was four years old. Later, she helped take care of a disabled man.

“I didn’t have any choice,” my mother said about her work for white families. “It was hard to get jobs doing anything else.”

My mother told me she did not like having to be a servant. She didn’t like that the white families just took her services for granted. She didn’t like feeling that she was invisible to the people who ate her food, slept on the sheets she washed and left for work confident that she would keep their children safe. (Publicity photo from The Help shows actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer who portray maids in the movie.)

The white family with the three children, she told me, regularly got home after the 5 p.m., when my mother was supposed to leave. But they offered no apologies, extra pay or the option of changing her hours. So my mother left home early and returned late to her own children and dealt with the disregard for her time until she found another job. The $18 a week she earned helped pay the bills and buy food at our house, which my parents bought in 1957.

“You never had to go through that,” my mother told me. “You never had to have white people telling you what to do.”

So the mantra in our house when my sisters and I were growing up was this: Study hard. Get a good education. Do your best.

All of us went to college.

I will watch “The Help” with heartfelt respect and gratitude for the black women who bravely and quietly did what they had to do to help their own families.

 

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