Yesterday, my very best friend and I watched The Help together. Unless you've been living under a rock lately, I'm sure you've heard all about this film and maybe even seen it once (or twice or three times!) yourself. Yesterday was my first time, and at the end of the movie I was completely caught off guard by how emotionally drained I was, and how totally effected by it I became. (check out the trailer if you haven't already)
The Help is centered around the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. It was a time period that I could relate to more easily than trying to envision slaves picking cotton or being sold on ships. I remember my mother telling me stories about their housekeeper and how she cooked, cleaned, and helped raise her and her sister. That really blows my mind, to think that this was the world that my parent's grew up in.
But what really saddened me about this movie was the reality that so much of this division between whites and blacks is still prevalent today. I sat in my chair watching so many young, white girls crying over the scenes in this film -scenes that if you can sit through and not be effected by them, you are surely not human- and I wondered how many of them think that when they step out of the theatre and go back to their everyday lives, everything goes back to the way that it was. Where because we are white, we forget or don't even realize that so many people (not only blacks) are struggling for equality.
Aside from the racial slurs that I hear almost daily, including those directed towards our very own president, there is an inequality in the poverished neighborhoods which directly mirrors scenes from The Help that I still have chills thinking about. Some of you may remember hearing about a government funded program that Michael Moore discussed in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, called Welfare to Work. This program, although born from good intentions, was an ultimate failure because it bused women (many of whom were mothers) hours away from their homes for jobs that barley paid minimum wage. These mother's left for work before their children got up for school, and returned late in the evening right before they were going to bed. I think most of us can agree that when children are left unsupervised, more times than not it's a negative experience. As I watched the Maids in The Help get on buses and travel to the white neighborhoods where they worked, I couldn't help but think about these women effected by the Welfare to Work Program as they got on similar buses headed to similar jobs.
But on a personal level, this film embodies not only the sole reason I decided to become a Social Worker in the first place, but also the sole reason that I am desperately trying to get out of this field completely. When I was in college, I wanted to make an impact in my community and more or less 'change the world.' I was obsessed with learning about inequality between Whites and Blacks, especially about how our government holds lower class minorities back (for more on this, read the book Code of the Street), because I thought that if I could just change a few lives and other social workers changed a few lives, we'd be making progress in no time. As a student, I really had no idea how long it takes for any progress to be made, and I really had no idea how hard minorities had it until I started meeting families and doing home visits.
Furthermore, I underestimated how hard this work really is, especially when you're paid next to nothing to do it. On my very first week at my very first job, I remember sitting in an empty closet reading client files. I literally felt sick reading about the abuse and neglect that these children had gone through - no wonder they were acting out in the ways that they were. I still get that sick feeling and have even sat in my office with the door closed crying on several occasions after reading some of the files of clients on my caseload. These kids have lived through things that most of us have only envisioned in our deadliest nightmares.
Aside from reading the files, it's a whole different ballgame meeting with children and their families for the first time. There are barriers that a white social worker has to break through, as I have had to pay for things that others in my race have done (past and present) which have caused a great deal of mistrust and even hatred at times. Many families don't say very much when I first meet with them, and when they do it's usually to the tune of 'what does a young white girl such as yourself know about our community'. It takes a lot of time to build trust with them, and get past the overall hatred that many of them (rightly so) feel towards my race.
Every day is emotionally exhausting, because I get to see first hand exactly how our government keeps minorities from success. Our City schools resemble jails moreso than classrooms, and aside from the normalcy that's placed on 17 and 18 year olds still failing 9th grade, most of them will graduate without knowing how to read. I get to watch grandmothers and mothers trying to raise young men who have never met their fathers, and these boys are so desperate for a male role model and some sort of protection that they begin participating in gangs. I watch these same boys as they sell drugs in order to pay for their grandmother or mothers medication, because without this money they would be left to suffer a disease without relief. I see young girls getting pregnant at age 14 because they are so desperate to feel loved. Many of these girls are in relationships with grown men who abuse them, repeating the cycle of abuse that most have learned from the relationship with their fathers. I get to hear about children who have found bodies on the street and had to cover them up and call for help, and then heard stories about how the police never came for that incident or really any other time they've been needed. I see people self medicating with illegal drugs, prostituting so that they can pay bills, and attempting suicide over and over again because life the way it is has become unbearable. As you can imagine, it becomes overwhelming after a while.
I think that there is no better time for The Help to have surfaced than now. It's important that we are reminded of our history, no matter how difficult it is to watch. It's important that we catch a glimpse of how hard others have had it, so that we can learn and grow as individuals and make sure that things only continue to improve -- because we have a long, long way to go (although it is important to give credit as well to how far we have come). Please do not be fooled into thinking that The Help is a period piece displaying the way things 'once were'. Minorities are still struggling, and we are far from equal.
My hope for this film, is that people will continue to watch it and continue to be changed by it.