Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Public speaking is not my forte, however, I agreed to speak at my daughter’s high school for the sophomore class’s Career Symposium.  I figured it would be a way to introduce HIAS and what we do for refugees.

Man, did I fret about it beforehand!  I tested a draft presentation to my family for their feedback and my husband demonstrated his own extemporaneous technique.  I found myself wishing he would take my place instead.

The day finally came and I was not so bad after all.  Without 30 other presenters, I was grateful students chose me, the mis-labelled “Social Worker.”

In my presentation, I identified a refugee according to the State Department definition* and in an interactive exercise, I asked them to imagine themselves leaving their home, taking only what they can carry in their hands.  I told them where the refugees come from (top countries being Myanmar, Somalia, and Iran) and that Pennsylvania is hospitable, being 10th amongst the states that re-settle refugees.

I then told them about HIAS’s history, what we do for the refugees, and who are the people who work for HIAS.  My formal presentation took all of about five minutes.  How do I fill in the rest of the time (three sessions total)?  Well, I do have plenty of anecdotes, so I invited the students to ask me questions.

These teenagers of the Main Line have no clue what it is like to be poor, disenfranchised and stateless.  They also don’t know what is social work (“and where do they work, other than HIAS?”).  I invited them to spend some time in our office to get some exposure.  I think the teachers in the room may have gotten more appreciation for our work than did some of the students and one teacher asked “how do I let go?”  Well, I did not choose my children, so I also do not choose the refugee families I work with.  And, yes, it is hard to let go, because once you become acquainted with them, you acquire their concerns, and you want the best for them.  Right now, I’m worried about finding suitable summer programs for the children.

*According to the State Department, a refugee is a person who has been forced from his or her home and crossed an international border for safety. He or she must have a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her native country, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.