“The Help,” recently viewed in our home, seems to shed light on a time and a place which I had not experienced. The connections with racial equality, and therefore with the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, should be obvious.
Of course, it wasn’t just about racial equality. King thought, spoke, fought for the rights of every human being to be treated with respect and with dignity. This over rode distinctions of class, gender, race, age.
I did not imply by my opening statement that I was not alive at the time period depicted in the movie. I was a little kid. Our family, however, lived in western Pennsylvania, culturally far from the Jackson, Miss., in which the film takes place.
My paternal grandmother had an African American woman who came to clean her house weekly. She did not hire her because grandma was wealthy, which she was not, but rather due to infirmity. It was just a big help to have someone come and do the heavy cleaning.
I do not remember the lady’s name, but I do remember that I was not permitted to call her, or any other adult, by a first name. I do remember that her first name was Peggy, because I called her that once and got in a decent amount of trouble for it. She was not a maid; she was a person who sold a service, which my grandparents purchased weekly.
Excitement over the coming of the cleaning lady, for me when I spent those summer weeks at my grandparents, revolved not so much around anything else, as it did around the attendant presence of Henry, the lady’s son who was around my age.
Because my cousin, who was seldom there, also kept a bicycle at our grandparents’ home, there was always a spare bike for Henry and we could go bike riding.
On more than one occasion, we were invited to swim in the next door neighbor’s pool, by Leslie, the teen girl who lived there. Leslie’s last name was Wagner, and her grandfather was Honus Wagner, a famous shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Wagner’s baseball career took place before Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball, but there was never a “color barrier” at Leslie’s pool. We all swam together. A couple of times, Henry’s older sister, who was about Leslie’s age I guess, came over. It never occurred to us that the two probably went to school together; that was teenage business and no concern of ours.
I do not remember a time frame for any of this, but it had to have taken place before I was 10 years old, for I was at that age, when my grandma died, and my grandpa had preceded her in death. That would place it in about the same time frame as “The Help.”
This is not to imply that there was no racism in western Pennsylvania. There certainly was and still is. It is merely to convey that it wasn’t legal and that families who felt that way were not backed up by public approval.
Nor, is it to imply that my family made a big ceremony of being non-racist. It was simply a non-issue for us. People were people, Henry was my playmate, his mom worked for Grandma, and that was that.
Like so many other kids growing up in multi-cultural areas and multi-cultural families, it took me years to realize that not all was as it was with us.