In my junior year in high school, I started a business writing English papers for my sister’s sorority sisters. I charged $10 each and my specialities were Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. When business hit a lull, I worked on a novel of my own. Called Mildew on the Magnolias, it was mostly about southern women, but the sub-plot was about two men who’d come back to Mississippi after the war, gone to college on the GI Bill and, when the burdens of marriage and children took over, went into the insurance business.
Another thing they had in common: both were ‘civic-minded’. One was active in his church, raised money for the March of Dimes and the more progressive Democrats. The other man, also a churchman, worked full-time at a second job: field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His ‘field’ was the whole state of Mississippi, and the initials of that organisation N-double A-C-P-drove the white half of the state wild.
Although they lived only five miles apart, the two men never met. This was because the town they lived in had achieved the most complete form of racial segregation to exist on the American continent in the 20th century. Then, on a warm June evening in 1963, the day after President Kennedy delivered his landmark speech on civil rights, warning the nation that ‘we are facing a moral crisis as a country and a people’, the black man is shot in the back by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The dead man was Medgar Evers and the killer was a former classmate of the white man’s, which might have seemed like a fictional device, but nobody knew that at the time.
I haven’t thought about Mildew on the Magnolias for a long time, but, last year, it all came back to me. My sister sent me a book called The Help, which had been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. The more I read, the more agitated I became. For a start, this was my material and my era. Heck, the author Kathryn Stockett wasn’t even born in the early 1960s when the book is set. But, although some of the events were far-fetched, the book rang true to my southern ear. By focusing on the lives of black maids and the white women they worked for, she was showing a time and a place that can get lost in the epic lives of Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr.
For days after I finished The Help, I stomped around, mad that I lacked the tenacity of Miss Stockett, who’d spent 10 years writing her book and braved 60 rejections. Then, I remembered why I’d quit writing my book. My fictional story got booby-trapped by real life. The white man who tried to get the town’s white clergymen to condemn the Klan bombing and burning black churches ended up becoming their target. That man was my father, and our way out of town was lit by burning crosses. By the time I found my manuscript in an old Samsonite suitcase 10 years later, I’d come to believe that white Southerners didn’t have the right to tell the story of those unequal, soul-shaking times, especially the relationships between black and white southerners.
And yet. In an afterword to her novel, Miss Stockett quotes another Southerner, Howell Raines, who wrote that ‘there is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dis-honesty upon which such a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism’.
I’m glad that Miss Stockett dared to enter that tricky terrain. The Help may not be a true story, but the writer has used fiction to find the truth. I reckon that’s a real writer’s gift. See the movie. Read the book.