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Thursday, December 18, 2014

When Help Is a Four-letter Word

What does the latest iteration of Michelle Obama's "Me! In Target!" story have to do with the producers of the film The Butler? Both show complete disdain for the idea of service, apparently rooted in snobbery and self-importance. 
In case you missed it, Mrs. Obama actually went into a Target store back in 2011. She has talked about it before. Imagine this being such an unusual event that you're asked about it on talk shows. You'd think she'd spent a month in a coal mine. Oh, wait. They're all closed, aren't they? Anyway, while she had reported the adventure before with some element of humor, the terrible trauma emerged in People magazine: 
"Even as the first lady," she told the magazine, "during the wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf." She said the incidents are "the regular course of life" for African-Americans and a "challenge" for the country to overcome. Yahoo story
There's an element of "Don't you know who I am?" in the story, the suggestion that someone of her quality should never be asked to pull a bottle of detergent off a shelf, but the notion that this was some sort of racial insult is the recently-injected and truly bizarre bit. It takes a heap of prickly sensitivity to find a request for help demeaning. She has taken the sort of interaction that most people think nothing of and turned it into a burden. Here's a clue, Michelle, and all other race maniacs out there: perfectly normal, kindhearted people ask others for help every day. And perfectly normal, kindhearted people are happy to give that help. It's a good thing. It's the way human beings ought to live. It makes the world a more pleasant place for all. Complaining that someone took you for a perfectly normal, kindhearted person makes you look like, well, something else. 
Speaking of racial bogeys injected into race-irrelevant stories, we turn to The Butler, based on the life of Eugene Allen, called Cecil Gaines in the film. Allen served for decades as a butler in the White House. He was valued, even loved, by the people he served. But to some, "served" is a dirty word. I think the filmmakers had to find a way to deal with their horror of service. "How could a black man possibly be willing to carry trays to white people as a career?!?" Apparently, the only way they could justify it was by inventing a dehumanizing trauma for young Cecil. 
In the film, he and his parents are scarcely more than slaves on a Georgia farm in the 1920s. A skanky overseer drags Cecil's mother out of the fields and into a shed for a little miscegenation. While she cries and screams, Cecil watches his father, powerless, emasculated, do nothing about it. Afterward, he does show anger, and the overseer shoots him on the spot. And, so, Cecil becomes a pet of the lady of the house in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, thus beginning a life of-- shudder-- service. 
Only no such thing happened. He didn't even live in Georgia; it was Virginia. I guess Georgia sounds meaner. But in an interview with The Telegraph, Allen reports that his childhood was happy. He just didn't want to live on a farm, so he went looking for another kind of work, something salaried. The Telegraph interviewer asked about racial tensions in Allen's boyhood environs. "I tell you I didn't know anything about all of this," says Allen. "The people who lived nearby were nice people. There weren't a lot of people who tried to take advantage of us."
What, then, could possibly have allowed him to serve others with skill and grace all his life? And, for that matter, kept him from breaking any bakery windows and kept his wife from cheating on him? (Both were in the movie. Neither happened in real life.) I think I know. They were Christians. A biography on a Scottsville Museum website (Allen's real life) tells us that he joined Greater First Baptist Church in Washington, DC, in 1949 and remained an active member all his life. More serving: he was on their usher board and board of trustees and in something called the July Birthday Guild. 
I'm guessing that instead of Jeremiah Wright's "Amerikkka stinks so hate Whitey" brand of preaching, the butler was hearing something like this: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them... Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." Jesus said that. (Matthew 20: 25-28) In Matthew 25, we read that any good deed, such as feeding, clothing, offering hospitality to ordinary people is the same as offering it to Jesus. Those who can't be bothered "will go away to eternal punishment." 
Hmm. I think I'll go make tea. Want some? I'll bring you a cup.