Ellen Blue, Ph.D., is the author of St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, a story of white Southern women who worked for racial understanding in the early 20th century. She teaches at Phillips Theological Seminary.
In And the Gates Opened, a film about the first US women rabbis, one commented that women’s presence in the rabbinate has allowed questions to be raised that went unspoken before. One example was how miscarriage should be ritually observed. A colleague told her he had been in the rabbinate for many years, and no one had ever asked him that question. She responded that although she had been a rabbi only a few years, she had already been asked several times. The presence of women makes space for the speaking of certain “unspeakable” things and questioning what God might have to do with them, precisely because it is women to whom such things happen.
Women willing to speak openly in other public forums also matter. When Betty Ford died, many voiced gratitude for her helping to dismantle the cultural norm that “nice” women didn’t talk about breast cancer or addiction. Yet taking the lid off a topic isn’t always seen positively, especially if you seem to lack “standing” to speak. Last weekend, at a conference in New Orleans marking the sixth anniversary of Katrina, the keynoter was David Simon, creator of HBO’s “Tremé.” Angered by a contretemps with Mayor Landrieu, Simon railed against those who complained that he had no “standing” to tell a New Orleans story. Simon claimed that insisting that no one can tell a story without being “from here” – wherever “here” happens to be – and having lived experience to inform what they say amounts to “cultural McCarthyism.” Anyone who starts telling a story around a campfire must be full of “effrontery,” he said, and talking about “standing” is simply “the lamest way to stifle debate.”
I immediately thought of the controversy surrounding The Help, a discussion I had thus far not joined. Though I saw the movie, I haven’t read the book. Further, controversy seemed to center on the claim of black female scholars that a white woman was “trying to tell their story” or “to speak for them,” and I agree that the movie’s hype left the impression that viewers would learn something authentic about being a black maid in Jackson.
To be fair, a young white man seated on my left actually did learn a smidgen about that, since the life knowledge he came in with was zero. But while he left knowing more than he did, he by no means gained a true understanding of life for black women under Jim Crow, working for white women who believed that blacks were less than human.
Like the character Skeeter, I was a young white liberal. I grew up in a small town in central Louisiana, fourteen miles from Jena (as in the Jena Six). In the late 1960s, I was one of exactly two students in my high school willing to speak up once in a while against the prevailing notion that to be for civil rights was to be an unpatriotic, race-betraying, hapless Communist pawn.
My attitude could have resulted from growing up in an open-minded household – except that mine was anything but. Another way to change one’s mind about a group is to get to know people from it, but that’s not how it happened, either. It was quite literally a religious conversion at church camp, when I challenged a boy who’d prayed aloud for “our black brothers and sisters” who weren’t allowed to be there. His response was, “Do you think God loves them less because they’re black?”
I was thunderstruck. His question changed the course of my whole life, turning me into the white girl who occasionally spoke in a high school class in favor of civil rights. Nevertheless, I still knew almost nothing about what it meant to be black, because I knew no one who was.
By the early 1990s, I was the white Democratic Party parish chairperson who appeared on TV news speaking against former KKK leader David Duke when he was in the run-off for a US Senate seat and later for the governor’s chair, and a white scholar who’d recorded oral histories with blacks involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the dangerous territory of north Louisiana. I knew far more than I had as a teen. But enough to try to tell a black woman’s story? Hardly.
I do not agree with David Simon that “standing” – what scholars call “social location” – means nothing. My attempting to convey the experience of black women would be a serious, serious mistake.
But if there are those who object to The Help not because it fails at telling the stories of black women, but rather because it is “just one more story” about white liberals – and at times the conversation seems to verge on that – then with those speakers, I would have to disagree. Stories of white liberals in deeply hostile environments are also worth hearing, and because almost all such stories recorded thus far have been men’s stories, more women need to open up about what that life was like.
I tell students that while most people think the opposite of “integrate” is “segregate,” the opposite of “integrate” is really “disintegrate.” Dis-integrate. Segregation is to be put into self-adhering clumps of sameness. Disintegration is to fall completely to pieces, to be in a state where nothing can be considered whole.
It was poet Muriel Rukeyser who maintained that if just one woman told the truth about her life, the world would explode. As theologians, perhaps we can substitute the symbol of the “chalice” for the “world.” If one woman told the truth, I do believe the chalice – society, religion, you name it – would indeed explode. But when every woman tells the truth, perhaps then the pieces can begin to fall back together, to integrate – not into a product that looks like the original, but into a far stronger, far more textured, far more beautiful vessel, worthy of the wine of all our lives.