1963

1963 by Debbie

“Our thoughts are unseen hands shaping the people we meet. Whatever we truly think them to be, that’s what they’ll become for us.” ~R. Cowper

I’m currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I started reading it in Oregon and was pleasantly surprised to find that the little library in Three Rivers carried it. The book was recommended by another woman who worked for the same boss in Utah that I worked for in OR. The conversation about the book came up during a particularly difficult time at the Resort. Her quip was: “You’ll love it, the underdog wins.”

Our mutual ‘boss’ is undeniably a social and religious elitist. I can say that without reservations, not only because I know it to be true, but because I believe he would consider it a compliment. Because of the recommendation and from the title alone, I began reading with a mindset of being one of the mistreated/under-appreciated ‘help’ and was looking forward to the promise of winning in the end.

The setting is Mississippi, 1962-63. The story revolves around a group of young upper-class women, most graduates from ‘Ole Miss.’ and their “help”. The focus is primarily on the experiences of the black women who had no options but to work as maids, from their early teens on.

Stockett, the author, was raised in Jackson Mississippi. Her family had a black maid. She writes much of the book from the fictional perspective of a young white woman attempting to represent the life of the black women around her.

Stockett says: “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in 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.”

The time period was chosen, certainly, for it’s volatility. It was the time of the shooting of Medgar Evans, of Martin Luther King marches, a time period when the Jim Crowe laws were unquestioned in most of the south, certainly in Mississippi.

1963 was the year I began first grade in the tiny town of Middlebury, Indiana. On November 22nd of that year, C.S Lewis died before I ever got to write him a thank you letter for the innumerable ways his writings would eventually change my thinking and my heart. I remember that because he died on the day we were all sent home from because the President had been shot.

I recently read this quote by J.B. Phillips:
“Most people, naturally, have a somewhat restricted view of life, and they rely to a far larger extent than they realize on the vicarious experience of life to be found in books, films, and plays. Few of us, for example, have known at all intimately a detective, a dress-designer, a circus-proprietor, a pugilist, or a Harley Street specialist. Yet a skillful writer can make us feel that we have entered the very hearts and lives of these, and many other, people. Almost without question we add what we have read or seen to the sum total of what we call our “experience.” The process is also most entirely automatic, and probably most of us would be greatly shocked if it could suddenly be revealed to us how small a proportion of our accumulated “knowledge of the world” is due to first-hand observation and experience.”

In 1963, I had never heard of C.S. Lewis, I had virtually no knowledge of our 35th president and I’d never seen a black person. Since then I’ve read books and watched films and plays. But certainly, I’ll never begin to understand what it meant to be “the help” in the 60’s in the south. And how incredibly audacious of me to, for even an instant, put myself, if only in fleeting thoughts, in the same category. This book, these issues may lead to several other applications. For today, I’m narrowing it down to my need for an equal portion of humility and gratitude.

“If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed and color, we would find some other source of prejudice before noon.” ~George Aiken

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