Last night, I re-watched The Help, one of my favorite movies about the treatment of Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s–and the fiery truth-telling words some of those maids with the help of a brave journalist hurled back into the white community.
My movie selection was the right one for the moment. Call it Kairos. For two reasons.
First, I’m at a point in Unlikely Sisters, my memoir about my friendship with fellow breast cancer survivor Edwina Sanders, where I’m trying–somewhat artificially–to capture the baggage of growing up African American in Birmingham, Alabama. Edwina has a talent for describing her life in vivid language, but the fact is that I’m an educated white girl with little firsthand experience with prejudice–at least, of the racial kind. While Edwina’s life was just beginning in the early 60s, the same time period reflected in The Help, her momma and daddy (and their mommas and daddies) endured the kind of ridicule and humiliation that the characters in the film brought to life. And in 2016, I see the remnants of that history, when Edwina accompanies me to a place that caters to a middle class, predominantly white clientele. Edwina told me once that a store I’d taken her into would normally stop her at the door to check her bags or keep a watchful eye on her as she walked around inside.
But the scene from the film that really captivated me was an exchange between the main character, Skeeter, a white woman who ultimately captures the stories of the help in writing, and the maid who raised her, Constantine. We see Skeeter as a teenager sitting outside of her house crying, telling Constantine that she hadn’t been invited to the high school dance, that the boys in her school think she’s ugly. It’s an insult that stings given Skeeter’s mom’s legacy as a beauty queen and all-around popular girl in her hometown.
Listening intently, Constantine reminds Skeeter to ask a key question Constantine has taught her to rely on when hurtful words are sent her way: “Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” The answer, of course, is no.
Lately, I’ve needed a bit of Constantine’s wisdom. I’m one of five rhetoric scholars in a department of literature folks and I’m frequently reminded of the need to justify the work that I do. I’m all about doing the rhetorical footwork to find an audience for my words and to craft those words (and occasionally, images) in a way that resonates with my readers.
Sometimes, though, I’m confronted by those who don’t understand the power of effectively placed public prose, or the painstaking research that goes into such pieces. Too often, I think, many of my colleagues look at my journalistic work and see fluff–not the hours of interviews; reading of scientific research reports, health data and policy statements; stacks of correspondence with key sources; and most importantly, the continuous refining of language (i.e., multiple drafts) to present my work in the most digestible and credible way.
So, am I gonna believe all them bad (assumptions) them fools throw my way?
I think not.