After a couple weeks avoiding it and another couple of weeks resigned to seeing it because I promised someone I would, I finally got to the movies today to see The Help, the blockbuster film based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Turns out Labor Day was exactly the right day for me to see it, because it helped me to focus on what The Help really was about, that is, work done well.
I avoided the film initially because I am persuaded that these feel-good treatments of black life and racism are actually counterproductive to real discussion of race relations. Sharper minds (and pens) than mine have eloquently articulated exactly what is wrong with the book and the film beginning with its ahistorical assumptions and its light treatment of the civil rights struggle.
For those of you who have been under a rock for the last few months, The Help focuses on a young white woman known as Skeeter (or Miss Skeeter to all the black characters) who after graduating from Ole Miss in the early 1960s is trying to make her living as a writer. Motivated in part by her grief over the unexpected loss of her own nanny, she choses to confront in subversive ways (never overtly) the racism and injustice inherent in the relationship between her junior league friends (perniciously headed by their president Hilly Holbrook) and the women who work in their homes. To prove yet again that the pen is mightier than the sword, and implicitly to suggest that it might even be mightier than the civil rights demonstrations, Skeeter interviews "the help," the community of African American women who make their living taking care of white people like herself. Please note that I said that the book and the movie are about Skeeter, not about the black women. Although Viola Davis renders the most noteworthy (Oscar worthy?) performance as Aibileen, the central black character and one of the narrators in the novel and the movie, this movie is decidedly NOT about black women or their perspective, since everything about her and her life, including the things we hear in her voice, focuses on white people. How we are told she feels about her work, especially about the children for whom she cares, is a obviously a figment of the fantasy life of white people like Stockett who hope that the black people who worked for them loved them.
This brings me to the primary point of this blog posting, that is, the under-appreciated and under-paid but powerful and life-giving professionalism of people who care for other people for a living — a fitting subject for Labor Day. This struck me particularly forcefully at the the end of the film (spoiler alert) when Aibileen loses her job taking care of the Leefolt family. The film focuses on the goodbye between Aibileen and the toddler Mae Mobley with tear-jearking melodrama that implies heartbreak for Aibileen who is losing a(nother) beloved child. What I realized, though, is that however much the child may be heartbroken at having lost the one person in the world who understands that she (and all children) has inherent human worth (too bad her parents didn't figure that out), the caring between Aibileen and the child is born of the WORK of caregiving done so well that it looks and feels like love to the object of the caring, whether it is or not. In another instance, the work of Skeeter's caregiver Constantine looked and felt so much like love that Skeeter actually imagined that her maid Constantine died of heartbreak at having to leave her to live with her own daughter.
That's the beauty of caring work that is done with excellence; it always looks so much like love that it is easy to forget that it's work, sometimes back-breaking, soul-numbing, spirit-exhausting hard work. Ironically, because of this beneficiaries of the labor end up devaluing it. Because it is so well done that it looks easy, they take it for granted and oftentimes resist remunerating it for what it's actually worth or even for what was agreed upon.
The teacher does her/his job with such grace and love that we imagine simply that she/he was born to teach and refuse to acknowledge the painstaking attention and even special study required to deliver lessons that make sense to individual children. The pastor ministers with both fire and gentleness and we acknowledge that the Lord has called and gifted her/him, but we forget that she/he has invested a lifetime of study (with degrees and student loans to prove it), along with hours of prayer and the burden of being on call as well as being called. The list goes on and you can feel free to add to it in the comments section.
By pointing out that work can look like love, I don't mean to suggest that professionalism and genuine human love and affection are necessarily mutually exclusive, only that the latter is nearly totally irrelevant to the point if the working person does her/his job well. I want to know that daycare providers will make a child feel loved whether they like that child or not. I want to know that teachers will teach every student whether their personalities jibe or not. I want to know that hospital and nursing home aides will treat vulnerable patients with kindness and compassion whether or not the patient elicits warm feelings. Finally, I want to insist that those who do this work and all work that makes our lives possible should be treated with dignity and have their professional excellence honored with decent pay and benefits. Happy Labor Day!