August 12, 2011
© Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby
I don’t really remember whose idea it was for me to do it. It just got done. At least one Saturday out of the month, I would put on my black slacks and a crisp white shirt and my sensible shoes, and my mom’s church friend would pick me up and drive me to my job, working alongside her and two or three other women hired to serve at and clean up private parties. They weren’t really fancy parties, mind you. They were in private homes in ritzy Long Island neighborhoods like Bridgehampton and Great Neck and Old Westbury, where white women apparently didn’t have a problem paying black women a grip of cash to help make their fancy parties effortless.
We’d show up two hours before the party—set out plates and forks and napkins, fuss with the food and put it on platters, decorate. And when the guests came, we’d collect coats and pass hors d'oeuvres and, when everyone was finally seated, put food on their plates and keep their wine glasses full. The night would end with us cleaning up every morsel, every dirty dish, every inch of the kitchen and party rooms—quietly, while the lady of the house recovered from her hosting duties.
For my troubles, I got paid $10 an hour, plus tip—anywhere from $60 to $80 per party. For this then-10th grader, there was no grand pleasure or disgust with my duties. It was easy money—that was about it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Really, I didn’t think much more about it beyond my aching feet and which pair of Lee jeans, Polo shirts and cute shoes I’d spend my cash on.
But by the time I got to 12th grade, my catering job lost its luster. Maybe it was because I was older and had my eyes set on college and becoming a journalist and doing something amazing with my life. Or maybe the one hostess who demanded I clean her toilet (despite that I was there to work solely in the kitchen), and the two others who insisted on asking me repeatedly if any of my friends or I would like to work in their homes as full-time maids (despite that I was a straight-A student on my way to college on a full scholarship and had no friends interested in domestic work) made me open my eyes to this one true thing: In the eyes of the Mrs., I was not a person with goals and ambitions and dreams. I was the help. That was all they saw for me. And they expected that that was all I could see for myself.
Of course, I’m remembering these things today because one of the biggest movies of the summer, about the lives of black maids caring for white children in a staunchly segregated Mississippi town at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, is playing in theaters. Though I thought they had their problems (check out my thoughts on The Help here and the MyBrownBaby movie review here), I really liked both the book and the movie—appreciated them for their fine stories, superior acting and emotional tug. Come Monday, those who are familiar with the work will be giggling about Minnie’s “The Terrible Awful” and Hilly’s maniacal hold on her cluck of southern socialite friends and drying their tears over Aibileen’s sweet bond with her young, white charge.
But the scene that forever will be seared in my mind is the one of Minnie, sweeping over her young daughter’s maid’s uniform and warning her to remember to mind her tongue around her new white bosses—to remember that her mission as a servant is to be, well, subservient. The heft of that simple act and warning hurt my heart; here was a mother resigned to handing over her child to a life of servitude with no prospect of helping her do something bigger than clean the toilets of rich white folk. And here was a daughter (she looked no more than 15), signing up for it. Because she had no other choice.
I know that this was but a scene in one woman’s piece of fiction, but surely, there were women—black mothers—who, faced with limited options and trying circumstances, were forced to make similar decisions for themselves and their daughters. Surely, the ability for black women not only to dream out loud and in Technicolor but pursue those dreams is still a relatively new ideal, one that wasn’t really an option for my mother, or her mother or her mother either. But certainly one for me.
The Help reminds me how amazingly transformative the last 50 years have been and what a key role African American mothers played in doing what they had to do to keep their families whole and strong in the midst of great turmoil and constant danger, so that their daughters could one day have daughters who could say, out loud without retribution, “The world is mine!” and their daughters could live in the White House and birth daughters smart enough and accomplished enough to one day be president. The beginnings of these things happened in my lifetime, mind you—in my 43 years.
It has been years since I stood up to those women at those parties—told the one that I wasn’t going to clean her toilet, and the others that they could keep their phone numbers, as I had absolutely no intention of being their maids. But every night, I look into my little girls’ eyes and I ask them about their dreams and encourage them to paint them with magic and color and light. Because they have that right.
Praise God, they have that right.
So I’m grateful for the very dramatic big-screen reminder of where we once were, the sacrifices that were made, and, despite the rancid political atmosphere that feels like an all-out assault on all that African Americans hold dear, how far we’ve come. It is a reminder that all of us—black and white—need to have in the back of our minds, so that we never, ever take any of what we have for granted.