The Help–If You Haven’t Read This Book, You Should.

A few months back, while digging in the ground for yet another new Franklin developement, workers unearthed some old bones. Activity ceased and experts were called in who determined that the bones belonged to a soldier who died during the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. They couldn’t tell which side he fought on–Confederate or Union–and there was no clue about his identity. Close to 2,000 soldiers were killed on that day, and many more times that were wounded. It was one of the bloodiest days in American history, and, when you think about it, it’s not surprising that this body was found.

Yesterday there was a big ceremony in town. There was a funeral for the soldier at one of the old churches that was built long before the battle. It was packed with re-enactors and others dressed in period costume. There there was a procession to a cemetery, with a horse-drawn caisson bearing the hand-built casket. Thousands watched–they came here from 4 countries and 29 states.

I had told someone the day before that I didn’t think it would be a very big deal. Man, was I ever wrong. NBC News was even there taping the event to show during tonight’s (Oct. 11) Titans/Colts football game.

All this is to say that sometimes I wonder if it’s easier to be from Idaho or Nebraska or anywhere else  other than a once-small Southern town whose history is forever entwined with violence and slavery? Our beautiful dry stack stone fences are known as slave walls. Our beautiful old homes were built with slave labor. The native African-Americans are descendants of slaves, including some that were owned by my family.

I’m not here to apologise for what happened 200 years ago. I have to worry about how I treat people today.

Hmmmm…wasn’t this post supposed to be about a book?

 the help

The Help is set in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s and it is about the relationships between black maids and the white women who employee them. There are three main characters (two older maids and a young, white Junior Leaguer). The girl is a budding author and wants to write about the lives of the maids. She has a hard time convincing them to participate–they are understandably afraid for their jobs. But when the young girl’s best friend launches a campaign aimed to put a “colored only” bathroom in every home that employs a maid, the women decide to talk.

I’ve done a poor job of describing this wonderful book. But what comes through loud and clear is the fear and sense of defeat that these women bear. They live in complete segregation–they can’t even shop in certain grocery stores unless they’re wearing their maid’s uniforms–a sign that they’re there on white business. Even though the book is set a century after slavery is outlawed, you wonder just how much has changed.

Which brings me back to Franklin.

I’m all about tradition and I’m glad that I’m able to live in this place that’s nurtured my family’s roots for generations. I just wish we didn’t rush celebrate a day when thousands died and thousands more were wounded and maimed–all in an effort to enslave our fellow humans.

Today tourists come here to see where the battle was fought and to tour the homes that have been turned into museums. The money they leave has filled our coffers nicely.

So it’s complicated. We celebrate the Confederate soldiers who fought and died here. But we conveniently forget what they were fighting for.


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16 responses to “The Help–If You Haven’t Read This Book, You Should.

  1. Disparate thoughts – I don’t seem to be able to work them all into a coherent sentence:

    There are those who say that most of the West’s prosperity was built of the backs of slaves or virtual slaves. In Franklin, it just sounds like it’s more directly visible and attributable.

    And history gets sanitized – more and more, I hear that the US civil war was about independence rather than slavery.

    I can’t imagine a similar ceremony being held now for the body of an SS soldier, but who knows in 250 years time? People fought and died for the beliefs which surrounded them in their time. What will ours look like in 250 years’ time?

    Thanks for the recommendation – always glad to hear of a new book worth reading.

  2. Julie Fisher

    Yes, if only we can come away from all this reenactor stuff and battlefield stuff with the appreciation that the south fought to keep something horrible alive (and then I think they kept on fighting because they simply couldn’t see giving up and giving in). Well, isn’t it great that we lost!
    Another thought of my own about the burial yesterday (couldn’t BELIEVE the crowd going past our house!)–I’m all for letting the Civil War have a rest. Maybe Americans have just not had enough battles on our own turf, so we have to keep kicking at this one. And I do understand that we have to remember bad stuff so we won’t go doing it all over again in the future. But a lot of us out there, it seems to me, are obsessing dangerously and sometimes obsurdly over an event that needs some true and honest perspective.

  3. Denise–I had been wanting to write about the book for a while, and the recent events just gave me a perfect framework. You’re right, independence, or, as you’ll hear around here–states rights–is a reason commonly given for the war. Of course, the soldier may have been from Union army, although given the uneven number of casualties, that’s unlikely. As always, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

    Julie–You see much more of this, living downtown. Dressing up in wool uniforms in August and drinking coffee boiled over a campfire is my idea of a really awful vacation. Why you want to reenact an event where so many people died is beyond me.

  4. I respectfully disagree. I don’t think people forget why these battles were fought at all. In fact, it can be argued that rehashing these events over and over can actually prevent similar episodes from occurring again. Is that too Pollyannaish? .

  5. That book has been on my list for a while now. I’ll have to make a point to get to it.

  6. If I’m not mistaken, the Civil War began because slaveholders who obtained land in the western territories weren’t allowed to have slaves out there, and they all started fixin’ their own regional governments how they saw fit, and then started seceding left and goddamn right. And Lincoln had no intention of freeing the slaves, just stopping the spread of slavery and hoping that it would just kill itself. He only freed them so they would fight for the North.

    I think the “fight for independence” thing is just something fabricated by those states to cover their guilt, since yeah, they wanted to be independent so they could boss around black people.

  7. So, secession was caused by slavery, but the war was started because Lincoln wanted to hold the country together.

  8. Besides, Indiana was in the union and that’s one of the most racist places in the country.

    It’s scary there.

  9. Niece Lash

    Well written auntie. I have just recently come across this book and have heard wonderful reviews all around. Will be reading it soon.

  10. UB–Like I said, it’s complicated, and you may very well be right.
    Gypsy–It’s the best book I’ve read in a coon’s age. I’m sure you’ll like it too.
    Rass–Shamefully, I don’t know enough of the history to debate these points. But I’m glad I got you thinking. As for Indiana, I’ll take your word for it and avoid it from now on.
    Lash–I just loaned my copy of it today, or I would’ve brought it to you Saturday.

  11. Another book! *Rubs hands together with glee*

    Zora Heale Hurston, one of my favourite writers in the world … poetry in prose … ended her life as a servant waiting on a wealthy white lady.

    Part of me wonders if it matters that she ended her life waiting on a white lady …. or if I should just focus on the fact that she was serving rather than writing. Somehow not looking at the races involved makes the story lose some of its poignancy; but I think it will be nice when we don’t automatically put the adjectives ‘white’ or ‘black’ in front of nouns in order to give a broader meaning.

    I’m wandering.

  12. Ellie–Wandering is encourage in Franklin. I need to add Hurston to my reading list. Did you see Mad Men yet?

  13. mongoliangirl

    I cannot remember the details…
    But there was a controversial statue that was (still is?) in New Orleans that included a plaque explaining that it represented a band of men who used to ride on horseback throughout the city and kill blacks who were out too late at night. Some thought the statue should come down. Some thought it should stay. My take? Let it stay. It’s honest and real.
    Great to be commenting on you, sistah!

  14. Arnold

    I just read this book in a whirlwind trip that entailed a five hour plane ride and subsequent early hour read in order to finish it. Very impactful. Hard to imagine it was just not that long ago–Wonderfuly written and exhumed courage, insight and should make all of us reflect on how we are raising our kids and working with staff and colleagues of any level–a really great story and one you can’t put down.

  15. Pingback: Hollywood and the South: Not Exactly a Love Story | Here In Franklin

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