Monday, August 15, 2011

A Little Mississippi in All of Us

I went to see "The Help" at the Davis Theater this weekend and I suspect I wasn't the only one at the Sunday matinee who thought, "God, I'm glad I'm not from Mississippi."

Not that I've ever met anyone from Mississippi, ever visited the state or plan to, but I've got a pretty good idea--thanks to TV and the movies--of what it's like to live there: it's hot and humid and racist. It's almost like Mississippi exists just to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

And walking out of "The Help," I did feel pretty darned good about the fact that I've never said the "n" word, never treated another person like property, never refused to let someone use my bathroom based on the color of their skin. I like to think that if I were raised in the Jim Crow South, I would have been, to borrow from "The Help," a Skeeter, not a Hilly.

Which is precisely what many find offensive about the film and the book on which it was based. It lets white people feel good, even heroic, about a decidedly woeful period in American history. We're all Skeeters now. Well, at least those of us who voted for a black man for president.

Except that any thoughtful person, of which I count myself one, will, after patting herself on the back, have the presence of mind to say, "Whoa, not so fast."

It's easy for us Yankees to feel superior to our Confederate counterparts until we take a look around our cities and neighborhoods, our schools and dining rooms. Back in Ohio, where I grew up, black people were so rare in my cozy little suburb that I can recall the name of every African-American student in my high school (not just my class, the entire school)--there were only five so it's really not such an impressive feat. I've lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years and in that time I've made a fair number of friends and acquaintances: single, married, older, younger, gay, Jewish, Serbian, gluten-free. Not a one of them black.

There are no black people in our condo building, just as I can can guarantee there are precious few white people living in certain areas of Chicago's South Side. Ride a Red Line train toward 95th Street some evening. If there are any white people still on board after Chinatown, it's a safe bet they're going to a Sox game. Take the Lakefront Bike Path south of McCormick Place, heck, south of the Museum Campus, and watch the hordes of white cyclists, runners and yes, a few diehard rollerbladers, dwindle to a trickle.

While black and white in Chicago typically breaks down along South Side and North Side boundaries, there are sizable Latino and Muslim populations in my little neck of the world. But you wouldn't know it from strolling through Lincoln Square most any day of the week. Ocktoberfest, May Fest, Apple Fest, Folk & Roots Fest--these all draw predominantly white crowds. The Latinos are over in River Park picnicking and playing soccer and volleyball. One of the city's few events that routinely attracted residents of all colors and creeds, the lakefront 4th of July fireworks, was canceled this year, leaving us all to celebrate the founding of our melting pot nation in our own segregated enclaves.

It would be simple to view "The Help" as revisionist history, or history filtered through the guazy kind of lighting that keeps Barbara Walters looking wrinkle-free and dewy at the age of 108. It's more challenging to look at "The Help" and see ourselves, in 2011. "Separate but equal" is alive and well in Chicago public schools. Wealthy white people are still relying on "colored" people to raise their children--look at all those Latino nannies.

And what of the bathroom situation, the rallying point of "The Help"? A few months ago, a repairman came into our home to fix our dishwasher. While I normally wouldn't feel the need to point out his ethnicity, for the purpose of this essay it's important to note that he was Latino. Before getting down to work, he asked to use the bathroom and, having had a few bladder emergencies myself, I responded, "Of course." He was so grateful, you'd have thought I'd just offered to pay off his mortgage. "Do people really say 'no'?" I asked him. Oh yes, he assured me. Plenty of women would rather have their serviceman waste time driving around looking for a McDonald's or an empty alleyway to pee in than admit them to their bathroom. Maybe they would do the same if the person were white, or a woman, but there's a part of me that suspects not.

So, my apologies to Mississippi. Turns out you're not so different from the rest of us.