It was kind of funny. While the overflow crowd of 450 or so ate in the dining room of Queens University of Charlotte, staffers took their lunch in the kitchen before Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, spoke.
No, it had nothing to do with race or class. (And no one had to use separate dishes or bathrooms.) It's just that so many people really wanted to hear the woman who hit the New York Times best-seller jackpot with her first novel—optioned for the movies, she told us, by none other than Steven Spielberg.
Turned out the women who packed the room also wanted to share their stories.
Stockett—who grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Atlanta—didn't disappoint fans of her tale of the relationships between white women and their domestic help in the 1960s South. Though Stockett came of age long after that time, her fiction is informed, she recounted in the book and in her talk, by her own relationship with the family's maid and her confidante, Demetrie, "passed on to" her family by a relative, "which was the tradition of the time," she said.
The majority of the women at the luncheon, many with impeccably styled white hair and tales of their own, could relate. During the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked: "Have you read this book? Tell me, is it true?" Another, also a Mississippi native, said that after reading the book, she thought, "I never treated my help like that," before realizing she had never wondered how her help looked at her.
Others called The Help the "best book I ever read," and said Stockett was "one of the great writers from Mississippi." When asked why so many good writers come out of that state, she got a laugh with her answer: "There's nothing else to do."
She was asked why only her black characters speak in dialect. "I wrote it like I remembered hearing it," she said, though she added that you tend to think that everybody who lives somewhere else "talks different." While she existed in proximity to the help, they definitely inhabited "somewhere else."
Stockett left for New York when she was in her 20s and discovered how unusual her upbringing was. "I didn't know how to do laundry," she said. She felt pride and shame, "mainly pride," being a writer from a state with as much baggage as Mississippi. She had time "to think about what a profound effect Demetrie had on [her] life."
Some of the lessons she has discovered as she's written the book and traveled to talk about it? "We are all just people," she said. "We all pretty much operate the same."
Understanding between races would improve if we "take color out of the picture."
As I looked around the room, with women of color not even matching the number of fingers on one hand unless you counted "the help," I also asked how honest that conversation—across race, class or region—could be even now. Is there still a divide? How can it be closed? From the murmurs that greeted my politely asked question, the prospect of a frank exchange of opinions looked none too good.
Stockett said another black woman once told her that Demetrie didn't really love her (not sure why she brought that up or why someone who wants to take color out of the picture had to identify a past critic by race). Stockett said she told her she believed Demetrie did love her, "because she said she did."
To my question, she replied, isn't it our job as writers to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's shoes? True.
I wondered about a different book. What if Demetrie wrote her version of The Help? If it had been written by Demetrie, with her vision, in her voice (and with all the white characters speaking in a dialect), would her message of life in black and white been as warmly received by all the ladies in the room?
After Stockett's talk, I spent time with a lovely luncheon guest who wanted to share her story. Sidney Lancaster grew up in the low country of South Carolina. The 75-year-old said she remembers seeing black children walking the long distance to school in the cold, fine rain, and thinking, "Why don't they have a bus?"
When Lancaster read The Help, she said to herself, "I was never like those women." Then she remembered a promise to her maid of many years who retired with diabetes. Lancaster told her she would visit, but—in eight years—she never did. Prompted by that memory, she made the trip. Lancaster said she started to cry as she said: "Eunice, I could not have made it without you."
Lancaster took a shot at answering my question. Her solution: "Don't see color; see another person." Isn't it possible to see—and respect—both?
Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning Charlotte-based journalist, a contributor to PoliticsDaily.com and NPR. Her "Keeping It Positive" television commentary airs weekly on Fox News Rising Charlotte.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.