[Posted as part of an email dialog in response to Joyce Ladner's comments regarding the movie "The Help" which was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett.]
Dear All — Sisters and Brothers —
I propose that we move the conversation beyond The Help. Alice Walker's approval of The Help does not mute the voices of other Black women who disagree with her green light on it. To suggest otherwise is polarizing and evolves out of the same history of Whites attempting to pit Black women against each other. Black women if we continue to respond — we give others the power to define the discourse about Black female lives. After a certain point, our responses are mere reactions. Let's get on with creative thinking about the issues of today. I do want to remind us that Zora Neal Hurston, whom Walker admires and quotes, said, "it seems to me that colored women are the mules of the earth."
Alice is one voice alongside a large group of Black women who expressed their critique of it. The community of dissenting voices includes Black female historians and women who have worked as maids. Don't their voices matter too? One Black woman cannot speak for millions of Black women. To argue that Alice does reminds me of the tactic that Whites employ of choosing a Black leader and making him/her the legitimate spokesperson for all Black people. In the long run, it matters less what White people think than how we as Black women decode and express our lived lives.
What my mother and other Black women say about their lives working for White women cannot ignored or silenced. My mother as a young woman worked for a White woman who asked her to clean the toilet. When my mother set about to put on gloves to do it, the woman screamed at her, "Nigger do you think you are too good to wash my toilet with your own hands." My mother walked out never to return. She and my father worked overtime and instilled in us from infancy to adulthood a desire for education and a desire to excel so that their children would not experience the indignities of working in White homes. Historically Black colleges were filled with students whose parents were as determined as my own. Not, only did they want better for their children, they wanted better for themselves. My mother went to nursing school and worked as a nurse. Their courageous and loving prodding provided my generation with the foundation to achieve and resist.
Lastly, as long as racism/white supremacy exists, we are not beyond identity politics. Both of these ism begin with the notion that White is the highest and normative identity. All other ethnicities are inferior and culturally deprived. They organize the world this way. If this is not true, then why are a million Black men and youth in prison? Why are Black women the largest group of unemployed women? Unless, you believe that these realities exist because of Black deficits, then you must admit that identities count.
White people cannot oppress us because we are Black and turn around and then say that our blackness/identities do not matter. This position of post identities hides a dangerous racism that is as old as America — the attempt to make Blacks invisible. Despite what Whites believe, Black people must claim and unite around our common identities — not as a means of oppression the way whites do but as a means of resistance and survival. I feel that after beating us up for being Black, then Whites turn around and say we cannot express your life as a Black person or continue to position it within systemic white supremacy. Who speaks for Black women? WE do! Not one but many!
My story: I remember going to work with my best friend who needed to bring in extra income because her parents had nine children. We were about fourteen, and the White girl in the household was twelve. I called her Vikki and she demanded that I call her Miss Vikki. I adamantly refused and her grandmother called my mother and told her that I sassed Miss Vikki, My mother retorted, I am glad to hear that she is doing what I taught her. My friend and I never went back. We still tell this story today awed after all these years that Vikki had the audacity to think we honor her and dishonor ourselves.
Casey, you say that Black women have always noble hearts. That's true but Whites women bent our backs in their homes and in the field. We suffered in their homes and in their fields from sun up to sun down — our legs popping with varicose veins and our hands rough and calloused and our bodies giving out far too early. As far as suffering, read what Rufus Barrow Jr. Professor of Ethics says in his paper on King and Suffering: "THE DOCTRINE OF UN EARNED SUFFERING:" He says: "The claim that suffering as such has redemptive value is incomprehensible to many oppressed people. If suffering itself has redemptive value, why resist oppression and injustice? All one need do is passively accept his suffering, for great will be his reward in some distant future and place beyond this world. If suffering as such were redemptive, it would be reasonable for oppressed people to simply accept all that is done to demean and undermine their humanity and dignity. Therefore, an important question would be, who benefits most from such a stance?"
Finally, I must say that King makes it clear that a Beloved community is not the same thing as Black people giving up our identities. He had no reason to demand this because Black people never used our common identity as organizing tools to oppress and create in other Blacks a disdain and hatred of White people. Instead from the very beginning and in the midst of enslavement and captivity, Blacks sang " I love everybody in my heart- and you can't make me hate you in my heart. My people taught me that hate is a bitter bile that soils the hater and the hated. Black literature is rich with voices reminding generations of Blacks not hate Whites. This is my history as a southern Black woman- what is yours?
Copyright © 2011, Ruby Sales
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