Book Review: Eyes on the Prize and a little on The Help

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Note: This is a bit off topic, but I did want to recommend a book from the ETS diversity library as a great bit of historic writing. Hopefully I won't stir up anything too controversial.


A book review that has been pending, but is timely once again is Juan Williams' Eyes on the Prize which recounts the Civil Rights struggle from 1954-1964.

I actually inherited this book when I took over some materials from semi-forgotten a diversity project at ETS and started reading it a few years ago. It's timely now though because both ITS (my mother ship at Penn State) is trying to increase diversity awareness and because the period is on our minds again due to the recent film version of the The Help.

The Beginning

The period of 1954-1964 is critical since it covers Brown vs. the Board of Education through the passing of the Civil Rights Bill which enshrined key civil rights in a political sense. This was really the period when the Civil Rights question really entered into mainstream (i.e. white) consciousness and the mainstream came to understand that the Jim Crow systemized segregation system was wrong in ways which we still cannot fully comprehend unless we experienced its injustice.

Actually though, Williams book begins a few years earlier when the African-American community understood full well that they could not achieve their dreams unless Jim Crow was dismantled. It not only chronicles early legal cases, but some of the everyday injustices including a particularly brutal killing of an African American boy, Emmitt Till, whose only crime was winking inappropriately at a white woman (apparently he was from Chicago and didn't understand his cousins' warning of the Mississippi code of behavior).

It was hard to imagine things were that bad once upon a time...but it was.

The Hope

The joy of this book though is that it focuses on the triumph, not just the tragedy. Williams does not skimp on the struggles, from attacks on children and assassinations to sneaky legal maneuverings, but it makes the victory all the much sweeter.

Williams also shows us the behind-the-scenes discussions in the civil rights movement. There was a lot of ambivalence in who should be involved and what strategies to take. This truly was an effort requiring many generations of leadership and many groups of volunteers before the community as a whole was willing to take the risks to get involved.

The miracle of this book is that for me as a white Anglo it makes me proud to be an American, but it does remind me not to get too comfortable with the benefits of being a member of the politically dominant group. It's interesting to me that while none of my immediate family were Southerners in recent generations, none of us were actively involved with helping Jim Crow end. For too many people, it was just a part of Southern culture that was too much trouble to change (especially if we did not want to offend our white Southern neighbors too much).

For African Americans, it will probably be a different experience. I hope there is also a sense of triumph, but no doubt a sense a work left to be done in terms of social equality and healing from the centuries of injustice (some of which still manifests itself today).

The Help

This leads me to the recent movie The Help also set in the Civil Rights era in Mississippi which focuses on white woman who interviews the domestic help in her neighborhood. One of the controversies of both the book and the movie is that it was the work of a white woman, a well-meaning white woman, but still NOT African American. To give the author credit, she recognizes this to some extent which is why one some of the narrative focuses on the African American ladies being more than a little skeptical that a naïve white journalist isn't going to get them all fired...or worse.

For what it's worth, I do not think it's an attempt to "co-opt" history, but rather an attempt to help grasp the harsh reality that the African-American experience at that time was often so much worse than the white experience. It may also be a bit of a romantic fantasy of how the white community should have have understood more and helped earlier, but didn't.

At the same time, I think it does address the irony that on a personal level, many white people had great respect and affection for individual African Americans. It was all distorted by the Jim Crow system, but decades after the end, the New South is often much more friendly to African Americans than the North...precisely because whites and African Americans can begin to appreciate a joint heritage and understanding.

My recommendation - watch the movie and read the book (and ignore the "dialect") ...but also go beyond that to what some African American reactions to the book. Some of it is darned good reading.

Who Can Help Fix This?

A final criticism of The Help and other movies like Mississippi Burning is that the white person becomes the protagonist of the Civil Rights movement helping "helpless" African Americans. I do have to agree that this is a just comment.

I think a lot of right-thinking whites feel terrible for the injustices our ancestors our ancestors committed (and we ourselves may be committing). It would be nice if whites could fix what we have done to another culture as easily as we destroy it.

I'm finding that although an outside culture can easily break another culture through oppression, the most long-term fix may come from the injured culture itself. A book like Eyes on the Prize is a perfect example of how African American leaders adapted the white educational system and political philosophy for their own ends....but I think only African Americans could have done it. In the same way, liberation in the Arab Spring is much quicker and probably more effective than a well-intentioned regime change from outside.

Maybe part of our "penance" is having to stand aside, take some of the blame for things we didn't personally do, and hope that some the good part of our culture can be used by someone else blended with part of their own culture to solve a problem we created.

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