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ROSE NOLEN: 'The Help' stirs up memories and opinions, bad and good

Monday, October 17, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 17, 2011

Since I am scheduled to participate in a panel discussion next month centered on the popular book "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, I’ve been making notes on the subject.

The novel deals with the lives of African-American maids who worked in the homes of white Southerners in the 1960s. It was made into a movie that has been widely attended.

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The setting for the story is Jackson, Miss., and I have been trying to imagine what it must be like to have a movie made about one’s hometown and its racial history some 50 years later.

Most American cities and towns have experienced major transitions as they moved from segregated to integrated societies. I doubt that townspeople anywhere in the country would be pleased to have their dirty linen put on public display.

One can’t help but recall the fact that Monroeville, Ala., is the home of Harper Lee, who penned the best-selling "To Kill a Mockingbird" and, for whatever reason, never wrote another book. When I thought about it, I figured that was the only book she felt she had to write.

As far as the subject matter of "The Help" is concerned, it's a pretty rutted road for a lot of people, both white and black, to travel back down.

For whole communities of families and neighbors, the trip could be painful. The fact that people all over the country are looking only adds to the pain.

Still, stories like this should be told in every generation if that kind of history is never to be repeated. Most of us, after all, have selective memory files.

Many communities have racial incidents that some would prefer to forget, and it’s probably not a good idea to think that many have been spared.

There's a common belief that racial problems were worse in the South than in other parts of the country, at least more obvious in the South.  

A lot of it, I think, has to do with the manner in which racism was intertwined with what was commonly presented as "Southern culture," perhaps even practiced as a point of pride.

But, of course, racism assumed many faces and characteristics everywhere in America during the years when segregation was legal. Many African-Americans have stories to tell that describe their own personal experiences.

I don't know anyone who hasn’t been affected in one way or another by watching the movie "The Help" or reading the book.

I have listened to some who are defensive about the contents and must point out that not all white people are racists.

I have listened to others who resent the fact that the story was told by a white woman. Still others believe the maids were cast in a bad light.

I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have an opinion to share.

To be certain, the book and the movie have stirred up memories, both bad and good. It brought out once more the importance of learning to appreciate and respect other cultures.

I’m not sure all Americans understand the serious impact such chapters in our history have had on many people, and it offers yet another opportunity to think about it.  

The fact that the story is presented in comedic fashion indicates that the producers understand that many Americans are not prepared to deal with the issue up front.

I think they are correct.

I look forward to the panel discussion. It’s bound to be interesting.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at nolen@iland.net.


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