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Watching The Help in Birmingham

Surely you have read or watched The Help with more than a bit of discomfort, since Birmingham is practically a first cousin of Jackson, the setting for the story. Written by U of A grad Kathryn Stockett, we can share her shame of Jim Crow and appreciate that Stockett had to represent the south while living in NYC for years. No wonder she attempts to somehow atone for all of us in her book. We know “the Help” around Birmingham at the time no doubt had plenty of experiences they could share.

In the movie, one of the main characters, Hilly Holbrook, hosts a fundraiser for the “starving children of Africa” while, ironically, she disregards the basic needs of her own in-house help. This reminded me of an experience I had in Birmingham a couple of years ago, when I was a volunteer at a huge local rummage sale. At this sale, scores of used appliances are sold for $25 or so as a service to the community and fundraiser for community-based projects.

Before the doors opened, we got a pep talk from another volunteer telling us about  the legendary Ms. W, a customer some years ago who, with grateful tears in her eyes, came up to a volunteer to say she had done laundry for a Birmingham family for 28 years but had never had her own washer until now. While this story produced the expected misty eyes among us, would you believe an older woman standing not far behind me beamed proudly and whispered to all within earshot that the aforesaid Ms. W was HER housekeeper!

My partner volunteer (who was from Mississippi, BTW) exchanged a glance with me. When we got back to our work station, we thought it scandalous that this lady wasn’t downright ashamed. What kind of person lets a Ms. W wash her dirty drawers for almost 30 years without ever having a washer of her own? Ms. W no doubt even kept this lady’s children so the lady could volunteer at these rummage sales and similar events, feeling saintly about helping strangers while staying oblivious to her own Ms. W’s needs. For shame! That insensitivity is what The Help illuminates.

If you haven’t seen The Help yet, word is one of the best venues is The Edge Theater in Crestwood. Why? Because the audience is more balanced between black and white patrons, and you get to experience the film together as people who are trying to create a new south and appreciate when a Hilly Holbrook gets her just desserts.