The Help surprised some people that Southern whites could treat their servants with so much inhumanity in the 1960's. I was shocked by a few specific incidents, but not surprised. I saw it close up as a child. Not in Jackson, Miss., where the story is set, but in my hometown of Beverly Hills where the help was almost exclusively 'negro,' before the Black Power Movement and the influx of Hispanic housekeepers and nannies in the late 70's and early 80's.
My overly emotional reaction to the film puzzled me. Good story, great performances, but floods of tears? On the drive home, memory hit and re-opened an old wound that I had hidden away. Of course... ESMUS HEMPHILL, our black maid in the 50's & 60's who was let go when I left for college and who I never thanked enough for all she did or properly protected her against my mother's unconscious cruelty towards her.
My mother, born into working class Memphis in 1925, became politically liberal, but personally she still carried a few racist seeds in her DNA. She would sit at the head of our dining table in Beverly Hills and ring a sterling silver bell to signal to Esmus that it was time to serve.
We were well off, but not wealthy, and the whole performance felt ridiculous and pitiless. I was old enough in 1962 to cringe with embarrassment and fully capable of bringing in the bacon-laced meatloaf that Esmus had cooked and would soon clean up, after three 'ungrateful brats' under the age of twelve had picked at it..
"Sit down," my mother would shout loudly if I even tried to help the help, "That's her job! ESMUS!!!!! Get in here. Hurry up!"
Esmus was in her late sixties and diabetic at that point, and many days the workload of looking after four family members as well as catering to egotistical Hollywood guests on the weekend was just too much..
But she was proud and pretty in her grey and white uniform, and watching the great Cecily Tyson in The Help reminded me of her so much. Small and frail, but dignified. She knew who she was and prayed and sang to a loving God on her one day off in downtown Los Angeles at the First Baptist Church off Wilshire Blvd.
She was kind, funny, let us watch television in her room while she sat on the bed to eat leftovers, and would stitch up my favorite dress in the five minutes before the school bus arrived. And she drove us to the Beverly Hills Hotel to buy candy in her broken-down 1940 Pontiac, but made us hide it from my parents. Our secret.
After another incident when my mother screamed at Esmus to, "Stop playing with the kids at the pool and pick up the pace, or you'll be out on the street looking for new work in your own part of town!", I screamed back, "Don't talk to her like that again or you'll be looking for new kids in this part of town!"
For all her faults, mom was generous with the Christmas bonuses and gifts, but Esmus knew that we kids knew the truth. She once told me, "You keep your own heart, Miss Holly, you know what's right, now let's both stay out of trouble."
My mother went on to train volunteers on Eugene McCarthy's campaign and teach young black women at UCLA Hospital how to conduct themselves like ladies, now that they could aim higher than just being the help, but it was Esmus who taught me that your dignity is something no one can take away from you, unless you let them.
"And don't you ever let 'em!" she said. I won't, Esmus. Thank you SO much for all your help.