Eugenia (Miss Skeeter) Phelan from a rich family in Mississippi is a young white woman who sympathizes with blacks at a time (beginning of the 1960s) when the principle of 'separate but equal' still applied to black-white relations. Skeeter is particularly friendly with Aibileen, a black maid, who works for her family.
When Miss Skeeter is offred a job with a publishing company in New York City, she is asked to write interviews with black maids in the South to show what discrimination really looks like. This turns out to be much more difficult - and even more dangerous - for Skeeter than she had thought. After much persuading Aibileen agrees to having interviews with Skeeter. This, however, must be kept absolutely secret, because Aibileen might not only lose her jobs, but even be harrassed by the KuKluxKlan. Skeeter, who also does research in the local library, finds material on black-white relations there by which she is appalled. Susie, the librarian, addresses Skeeter:
"So, what may I help you find today, ma'am? We have murder mysteries, romance novels, how-to makeup books, how-to hair books," she pauses, jerks out a smile," rose gardening, home decorating—"
"I'm just browsing, thanks." I hurry off I'll fend for myself in the stacks. There is no way I can tell her what I'm looking for. I can already hear her whispering at the League meetings, I knew there was something not right about that Skeeter Phelan, hunting for those Negro materials.. .
I search through card catalogues and scan the shelves, but find nothing about domestic workers. In nonfiction, I spot a single copy of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I grab it, excited to deliver it to Aibileen, but when I open it, I see the middle section has been ripped out. Inside, someone has written NIGGER BOOK in purple crayon. I am not as disturbed by the words as by the fact that the handwriting looks like a third grader's. I glance around, push the book in my satchel. It seems better than putting it back on the shelf.
In the Mississippi History room, I search for anything remotely resembling race relations. I find only Civil War books, maps, and old phone books. I stand on tiptoe to see what's on the high shelf. That's when I spot a booklet, laid sideways across the top of the Mississippi River Valley Flood Index. A regular-sized person would never have seen it. I slide it down to glance at the cover. The booklet is thin, printed on onionskin paper, curling, bound with staples. "Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South," the cover reads. I open the noisy cover page.
The booklet is simply a list of laws stating what colored people can and
cannot do, in an assortment of Southern states. I skim the first page, puzzled why this is here. The laws are neither threatening nor friendly, just citing the facts:
No person shall require any white fimale to nurse in wards or rooms in which negro men are placed.
It shall be unlawful for a white person to marry anyone except a white
person. Any marriage in violation of this section shall be void.
No colored barber shall serve as a barber to white women or girls.
The officer in charge shall not bury any colored persons upon ground
used for the burial of white persons.
Books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored
schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them.
I read through four of the twenty-five pages, mesmerized by how many laws exist to separate us. Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, ballparks, phone booths, circus shows. Negroes cannot use the same pharmacy or buy postage stamps at the same window as me. I think about Constantine, the time my family took her to Memphis with us and the highway had mostly washed out, but we had to drive straight on through because we knew the hotels wouldn't let her in. I think about how no one in the car would come out and say it. We all know about these laws, we live here, but we don't talk about them. This is the first time I've ever seen them written down.
Lunch counters, the state fair, pool tables, hospitals. Number forty-seven I have to read twice, for its irony.
The Board shall maintain a separate building on separate grounds for the instruction of all blind persons of the colored race.
After several minutes, I make myself stop. I start to put the booklet back, telling myself I'm not writing a book about Southern legislation, this is a waste of my time. But then I realize, like a shell cracking open in my head, there's no difference between these government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage*, except ten minutes' worth of signatures in the state capital.
On the last page, I see the pica type that reads Property of Mississippi Law Library. The booklet was returned to the wrong building. I scratch my revelation on a piece of paper and tuck it inside the booklet: Jim Crow or Hilly's bathroom plan — what's the difference? I slip it in my bag. Susie sneezes behind the desk across the room.
I head for the doors. I have a League meeting in thirty minutes. I give Susie an extra friendly smile. She's whispering into the phone. The stolen books in my bag feel like they're pulsing with heat.
"Skeeter," Susie hisses from the desk, eyes wide. "Did I really hear you have been seeing Stuart Whitworth?" She puts a bit too much emphasis on the you for me to keep up my smile. I act like I don't hear her and walk out into the bright sunshine. I've never stolen a thing in my life before today. I'm a little satisfied it was on Susie's watch.
840 words (without the introduction)
From: 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett, Penguin Books 2009, pp. 172-174
* a bathroom in the garage - the black maid was given a bathroom of her own, as whites were afraid of being infected by 'black' diseases
1. Describe the differences between the librarian's and Skeeter's attitude towards reading preferences.
2. Although having lived in the South all her life, Miss Skeeter is shocked at a book she finds on the so-called Jim Crow laws. What does she read?
3. After Miss Skeeter has read above book, she is confirmed that these laws are the essence of black and white relations in the South. Which incident makes her being aware of this situation?
4. By the end of the 1960s blacks had been granted equal rights. By which measures did the federal government enforce these civil rights? Think of 'affirmative action' and 'busing' or any other measures.