Our family maid, Demetrie, used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don’t count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. Demetrie used to tell us all kinds of stories about picking cotton as a girl. She’d laugh and shake her finger at us, warning us of it, as if a bunch of rich white kids might fall to the evils of cotton-picking, like cigarettes or hard liquor.
“For days I picked and picked. And then I looked down and my skin had bubbled up. I showed my Mama. None of us ever seen sunburn on a black person before. That was for white people!”
I was too young to realize that what she was telling us wasn’t very funny. Demetrie was born in Lampkin, Mississippi in 1927. It was a horrifying year to be born, just before the depression set it. Right on time for a child to appreciate, in fine detail, what it felt like to be poor and female on a sharecropping cotton farm.
Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Plunk, she’d talk to us all day.
And God, how I loved to talk to Demetrie. I’d sit in my grandmother’s kitchen with her, where I went after school, listening to her stories and watching her mix up cakes and fry chicken. Her cooking was outstanding. It was something people discussed at length, after they ate at my grandmother’s table. You felt loved when you tasted Demetrie’s caramel cake.
But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her lunch break. Grandmother would say, ‘Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,’ and I would stand in the doorway itching to get back with her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating.
That was just a normal part of life, the rules between blacks and whites. As a little girl, seeing black people in the colored part of town, even if they were dressed up or doing fine, I remember pitying them. I am so embarrassed to admit that now.
I didn’t pity Demetrie, though. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. If anyone asked her how many children she had, she would hold up her fingers and say three. She meant us, my sister Susan, my brother Rob and me.
My siblings deny it, but I was closer to Demetrie than any of the kids. Nobody got cross with me if Demetrie was close by. She would stand me in the mirror next to her and say, “You are beautiful. You a beautiful girl,” when clearly I was not. I wore glasses and had stringy brown hair. I had a stubborn aversion to the bathtub. My mother was out of town a lot. Susan and Rob were tired of me hanging around and I felt left over. Demetrie knew it and took my hand and told me I was fine.
My parents got divorced when I was six. Demetrie became even more important to me then. When my mother would go on her frequent trips, Daddy put us kids in the motel he owned and brought in Demetrie to stay with us. I’d cry and cry onto Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad, I’d get a fever from it.
By then, my sister and brother had, in a way, outgrown Demetrie. They’d sit around the motel penthouse playing poker, using bar straws as money, with the front desk staff.
I remember watching them, jealous because they were older and thinking one time, ‘I am not a baby anymore. I don’t have to take up with Demetrie while the others play poker.’
So I got in the game and of course lost all my straws in about five minutes. So back I went onto Demetrie’s lap, acting put out, watching the others play. Yet after only a minute, my forehead was against her soft neck and she was rocking me like two people in a boat.
“This where you belong. Here with me,” she said and patted my hot leg. Her hands were always cool. I watched the older kids play cards, not caring as much that Mother was away again. I was where I belonged.
The rash of negative accounts about Mississippi, in the movies, in the papers, on television, have made us natives a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride.
Still, I got out of there. I moved to New York City when I was twenty-three. I learned that the first question anyone asked anybody, in a town so transient, was “Where are you from?” And I’d say, “Mississippi.” And then I’d wait.
To people that smiled and said, “I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there,” I’d say, “My hometown is number three in the nation for gang-related murders.”
To people that said, “God, you must be glad to be out of that place,” I’d bristle and say, “What do you know? It’s beautiful down there.”
When a drunk man at a roof party from a rich white Metro North train type of town asked me where I was from and I told him Mississippi, he sneered and said, “I am so sorry.”
I nailed down his foot with the stiletto portion of my shoe and spent the next ten-minutes quietly educating him on the where from abouts of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Henson, Faith Hill, James Earl Jones, and Craig Claiborne, the food critic for The New York Times. I informed him that Mississippi hosted the first heart transplant, the first lung transplant and that the basis of the United States legal system was developed at the University of Mississippi.
I was homesick and I’d been waiting on somebody like him.
I wasn’t very genteel or ladylike and the poor guy squirmed away and looked nervous the rest of the party. But I couldn’t help it.
Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person that raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.
I wrote The Help while living in New York, which I think was easier than writing it in Mississippi, staring in the face of it all. The distance added perspective. Amidst a whirring fast city, it was a relief to let my thoughts turn slow and remember for awhile.
The Help is fiction, by far and wide. Still, as I wrote it, I wondered an awful lot what my family would think of it, and Demetrie too, even though she was long dead. I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history.
I was truly grateful to read Howell Raines’ Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Grady’s Gift:”
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.
I read that and I thought, how did he find a way to put it into such concise words? Here was the same slippery issue I’d been struggling with and couldn’t catch in my hands, like a wet fish. Mr. Raines managed to nail it down in a few sentences. At least I was in the company of others in my struggle.
Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly. Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.
I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse, for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi. But also, that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics, that I didn’t have the ink or the time to portray.
But what I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960’s. I don’t think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck, could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. In my book there is one line that I truly prize:
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.
I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.
I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.