How Far We Have Come and How Far We Have Yet to Go

We stayed home for Labor Day this year, and I managed to watch two movies I’ve been wanting to see. One was WAY past due, and the other is in the theaters now: “The Help” and “The Butler.”

Of course, the two offer similar themes and lessons. While both movies are flawed, they still deserve our attention as important reminders of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. I was uncomfortable at first that both movies portray African-Americans in stereotypical ways as domestic help for white people. Still, I had to confess that was almost the only role in which I encountered African-American adults when I was a kid.

After watching “The Help,” Bill and I talked about how that probably seemed like ancient history to our daughters, but that our lives are not far removed from that reality. Although we were lower-middle class when I was very young, I remember my mother taking our ironing to an African-American woman. She lived in a very poor section of town and in a very poor house.

The only black face that I ever saw at First Methodist Church when I was growing up was Earnest, the custodian. Even the white kids called him by his first name and felt empowered to tell him what to do, though he was older than my grandparents.

When I was 16 I worked for the local Piggly Wiggly. There, for the first time, I worked with African-American adults. I’ve tried all day to remember their names, but I failed. It was a husband and wife that worked long hours and then went to work at other jobs because they had to work five jobs between them to earn enough money to rear their children who they hoped to send to college.

I tell these stories only in the hope of stirring your memories and to do a bit of what these two movies did for me this weekend. I walked out of “The Butler” determined not to let the clock be rolled back, but to continue the fight. It is the only hope I have for saving my white, Southern soul. What are you going to do to save yours?

By Michael Piazza
Co-Executive Director
The Center for Progressive Renewal

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