Monday, September 12, 2011

How Do We Treat "The Help?"

Some people are calling the blockbuster film "The Help" a chick-flick. Personally, I see it (and Kathryn Stockett's wonderful book that inspired it) as a compelling account of the battle for dignity in dirty work.

If you aren't familiar with the story, it's a 1950s tale of black women in the Deep South who are domestic workers ("the help") for white middle-class women who treat them, at best, as mindless or invisible. Confronted with a sudden opportunity, the domestics decide to risk everything to tell their stories to a national audience. And those stories are unforgettable.

Take Aibileen, an aging domestic worker who has lovingly raised many white children, only to see them grow up to be as condescending as their parents. Aibileen is a far better mother to the toddler she tends than the girl's real mother will ever be. And Aibileen's knowledge of cleaning and housekeeping is so extensive that she becomes the anonymous source for a local newspaper column.

What breaks my heart is that Aibileen is actually fulfilling her calling in life -- doing her work with such mastery and originality that the world ought to take notice. Instead, she is dismissed, derided, and humiliated. That's why she is willing to assume great personal risk to share her story with the world. It reminds me of the incredible response my co-researcher and I received when we started surveying zookeepers, another under-appreciated group. They practically fell over themselves to tell us about their work.

The movie made me think about how I treat "The Help" -- the people who do the mundane and unglamorous jobs that make my life more convenient and more pleasant. Do I sometimes look right through the custodian or the food service worker? Am I missing opportunities to be inspired by their excellence because I'm so caught up in my own professional importance? Do I sometimes forget my own words from my BYU speech?: "We do great violence to the souls of those who offer their callings in less-glamorous ways when we consider them invisible or treat them as minor cast members in the great drama of our professional lives."

On a final note, since we're talking about domestic labor, I just have to share the lyrics of one of my favorite songs from the musical "Working." The words are adapted from an actual interview Studs Terkel conducted with a cleaning lady. Her fatigue, her yearning, her hope -- it all moves me (as does the powerful gospel tune it's set to). Brilliant!

Mama worked just like her mama before her, 
Domestic workin' was their trade.
They was laundress, cook, and live-in help, 
Thursday girl, babysitter, and a hotel maid;
They worked six days a week, all day long
Never could get out of debt.
Those were the days when the minimum wage was... anything you could get!
They was Cleaning Women without faces
Coming and going on a first name basis.
You're talkin' to somebody who knows... and after too many years... Lord!
I dont' wanna be in one more laundry room; 
I don't wanna pick up now another broom,
One of these days, just wanna sleep til noon!
All day long I'm thinkin', my kids is in the streets somewhere,
But the lady of the house don't think you thinkin' half the time.
Always talkin' round you, like you ain't even there.
It's gettin' so it does somethin' to my mind!

I've got a daughter with a head on her shoulders, 
Purdy as a picture too! 
She ain't gonna hide that purdy face behind 
Kitchen doors, scrubbin' floors like her Mama do,
If my legs don't give out and my back hold up, 
I'm gonna make her a better day; 
You'll never see her gettin' down on her knees, 
Unless she's down there to pray! No more...

Cleanin' Women, without faces
Sh'gonna walk in-a on this last name basis! 
She'll be the first in this family 
To have a face you can see! 
She ain't gon' be stuck inside no laundry room
When she sweepin' she be pushin' her own broom 
Day may never come when she can sleep til noon,
But long as she can get up singin' her own tune
Only that day 
Can't come too soon!


  1. Love this. Decency is not a "chick feeling" any more than films about social conditions and relationships are "chick flicks." The world would be a more efficient and productive, as well as pleasant, place if we found excellence "where ere tis found."

  2. Ron and I loved this movie It really made us think about how we treat others and how others were treated not that many years ago.

  3. This is great, Jeff. It is way too easy to go through life overlooking "the help". I have to share a story. In the Executive Education Center where I often teach classes, we have a lot of people who you might consider to be "the help" -- the good people who sweep the floors, serve the food, clean the classrooms, etc. I realized a few years ago -- and I'm not proud of this -- that I wasn't really noticing these folks. I realized that I had been guilty of making them feel invisible. It was a painful realization for me. I set a goal to get to know them better, to learn their names, to find out a little bit about each one, to visit with them before class. What a rewarding investment! I met a man named Leonard who works for the custodial staff. He's the guy who comes in during breaks to clean up around each student's seat. He always has a smile and a good word, "Hey, my man! How you doin'?" I know he is the same with the students when he sees them. But I also know that he is often invisible, overlooked. I ran into Leonard about a week ago before a class I was teaching. He told me, with some pride, that he was celebrating his 10th anniversary in his position that very day. Ten years of faithful service, ten years of behind-the-scenes efforts to make the university more livable. Ten years of invisibility. When a faculty member reaches some important milestone, we make a huge deal. But Leonard's milestone would come and go with perhaps a pat on the back and a "keep up the good work" from his supervisor, and not much more. That seemed very unfair to me just then. I asked Leonard to come in at the beginning of class so we could recognize him. He sort of hemmed and hawed and said he would try ... but he didn't come. For someone who is accustomed to being unseen, I suspect the idea of that sort of recognition was uncomfortable. So, during a break, I found Leonard's supervisor and asked him to persuade Leonard to come into class after the break. Leonard finally did show up as we were about to start class after the break, looking shy and self-conscious ... and, I believe, pleased in spite of himself. I had him stand at the front of my class of high-powered Executive MBA students. I reminded the class that Leonard was the one who made sure the classroom looked nice. I saw many heads nodding and smiles of recognition. I told them that today was Leonard's 10-year anniversary as an employee of the university. They burst into spontaneous cheers and applause, standing to recognize his dedicated service. Grinning broadly, Leonard mumbled a few words of thank you. It had been his pleasure to serve, he assured us. He then shuffled quickly out of the room. I honestly don't know if Leonard appreciated that gesture or not. I may have just made him uncomfortable. I do hope it made his 10-year anniversary at the university more memorable. But even more than that, I hope it made him feel that he isn't really invisible. And I hope that those of us who saw his smiling face never allow ourselves to take Leonard, or any of the other "help" we encounter in our lives, for granted again.