I’d been meaning to see “The Help” when it was first released in August. Yet seeing the film Saturday night was made all the more powerful with Rick Perry and “Niggerhead” in the news. The movie is but a peek into the pernicious power and oppression of racism, white supremacy and the N-word. And it is a reminder of why it matters that the Texas governor and his family leased a property for more than 20 years with a widely known racist name.
“The Help,” based on the best-selling book by Kathyrn Stockett is the gripping story of black maids in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, who tell their stories to a budding writer, an inquisitive young white woman who has returned home to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss. Being that the setting is the Jim Crow Deep South, their endeavor was as dangerous as it was courageous.
Hollywood hyperbole isn’t needed to move the story along. The treatment you witness, the stories you hear told don’t need embellishing. You know from history that all these things — and then some — really happened in the Jim Crow South. Back then, African American women were second-class citizens, often tasked with maintaining white households and raising white children. And the ease and regularity with which “nigger” and its more gentle cousin, “niggra,” were used reminded all blacks that the freedom from bondage provided by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only went so far.
That’s why it is beyond troubling that a man who now wants to be president of the United States and his family had no problem leasing a hunting camp that was widely known as “Niggerhead.” And that’s why it is crucial that Perry address the issue forthrightly.
Supporters of Perry back him with the classic “he can’t be racist; he’s appointed blacks” defense. When Donna Brazile asked Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on ABC News’s “This Week” yesterday whether he thought Perry should follow his example and address the race controversy in the context of his campaign, Barbour dodged.
You know, it’s funny, Donna. Rick Perry appointed the first African American chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. I mean, that’s speaks a whole lot louder than making some speech. Rick Perry’s got a great record of appointing Hispanics and African Americans.
Were it not for Perry’s complicated record on race, particularly his embrace of the Confederacy, Barbour’s defense of Perry would be worth considering. But as it stands, Barbour’s line of argument is meaningless. Hiring a black person doesn’t give a complete picture of what’s in your heart. Or of your views on African Americans’ place in American society. Or of your willingness to at least acknowledge the pain of the past and how you see your role in moving all of us forward. As we saw in “The Help,” whites had no problem hiring blacks then either.
As I wrote last week, it might never have crossed Perry’s or his family’s mind that leasing a property forever known as “Niggerhead” would be insensitive at best. And being associated with such a property still might not cause an eye to bat in certain precincts of Texas or among certain Republican primary voters. But because he wants to be president, Perry has a responsibility to come forward with an explanation for “Niggerhead” and a discourse on race and the civil rights era in this country.
After Barbour pooh-poohed the importance of Perry giving such a speech, Brazile followed up with a very important comment. “We often address these issues in the Democratic Party,” she said. “But isn’t it time for Republicans [to] also talk about the civil rights era? This could really help Rick Perry.”
Indeed it could. Perry needs the help. The picture that’s emerging paints him as insensitive and indifferent to the larger concern “Niggerhead” raises. If Perry can’t address this, he really shouldn’t be president.
[Update 4:15 p.m.: In the post above, I wrote, “You know from history that all these things — and then some — really happened in the Jim Crow South.” A New York Times story today gives a view of the rural Texas area in which Rick Perry grew up that only bolsters my argument for why he needs to talk about race from his perspective. Brace yourself, the lede paragraph is jaw-dropping.]