Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Real HELP: Facing History's Lessons on the Civil Rights Movement

I just finished The Help and loved it. It brought me back to my childhood and made me think about Nina. Although we lived in the north, we were a white family with a black maid. I understood how Skeeter felt about Constantine. Nina was warm, kind, had a great sense of humor and since she lived with us until I was 11, was a major part of my upbringing.

And by saying I "loved" the book, I mean that it resonated with me and made me think. It also made me want to wake up Nina because I have my own questions. Did she have a family? Children? Sisters? Brothers? Did she ever feel disrespected by us? (I know she must have felt exhausted because I'm one of eight kids.) It made me want to go back in time and although I was young, it made me want to make everything alright for Nina. It made me want to be an upstander.

This summer I was privileged to be invited to sit in on a workshop hosted by Facing History and Ourselves. It was a training session for teachers who are interested in teaching their middle and high school students about the Civil Rights Movement. Facing History creates curriculum that goes well beyond dates, places and names. It skillfully analyzes why, how, and could this happen again?

As a young child, I didn't truly understand that racism was a such a deeply ingrained system of bullying. Why not teach how deep it ran, how helpless it seemed, how hard it was to start somewhere and fight the tide of oppression? Facing History's lessons about that era untangles the collective problem and makes it personal. That's skill. Through news clips and newspaper articles, letters and a host of other sources, you felt the pain, the sting of being black in a generally mean white society.

You also felt the triumph and the bravery of the original leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Charles Hamilton Houston.

If you want to know more about his intellect, leadership qualities and heroism, do a little research. That's what sitting in on this class did for me...and what it probably does for middle and high school kids who need to take history personally so we never forget, not just as citizens but as humans who have choices every day on how to treat others.

Once again, Facing History you hit it out of the park. Both The Help and Facing History made me reflect on all that Nina had done for my family. Although she felt like family, I had a shocking thought sitting in the middle of that workshop. I didn't know Nina's last name.


  1. I too grew up with a black housekeeper who I loved as much as my own mother. She came up to Indiana to help out when I was born, and ended up staying with our family for over 50 years. She lived with us during the week and had a small rented house in a black neighborhood near her church where she lived on Thursdays and the weekends. The reality of her difficult past did not dawn on me until I was an older child. I had noticed that she always drank water from a glass jar filled with ice, and I remember the very moment when it hit me that she must have grown up drinking from jars, because black servants were not allowed to use white people's glasses. It filled me with awful guilt. My mother would never have asked her to use a jar, but that was simply what she was accustomed to and comfortable with from her own childhood. I was with her when she died, and still miss her every single day. I felt that both the book "The Help" and the movie only touched the surface of the terrible realities and complexities of white/black relationships, and could have been so much better. However, maybe the book's great success has been in its wide appeal to both white and black audiences and the awareness and discussions that it has awakened, and undoubtedly will for years to come.

  2. What a beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Your comments brought back the same memory for me -- drinking out of jars. I had forgotten. I agree that the book, but especially the movie, didn't go as deep as it should but the story certainly made me stop and reflect.

    I got so much from your comment and can't thank you enough for spending the time to write about this great woman in your life...and your love and loyalty to her.