This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother. Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike. Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household. Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul. But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.
This is the third book and second fictional work for The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy, and it totally blew me away. A reading experience like this is what makes reading projects/challenges such a pleasure to participate in. I never would have picked up this book off the shelf by myself, but having it on the list for the project had me seek it out and determined to read it within a set length of time. Reading the blurb, there’s no way I would imagine identifying with the protagonist so strongly, but I did, and that’s what made for such a powerful experience for me. The more I read literature set in a variety of times and places, the more I see what we as people have in common, instead of our differences.
There is so much subtle commentary within this book to ponder that I’m finding it difficult to unpack and lay out for you all. Part of me wants to just say, “Go read this book. Just trust me on this one,” but then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a book blogger, would I?
Depicted much more clearly here than in any of our reads so far is how detrimental a society based upon racism is for all involved. There is not a single happy story contained here. Everyone’s lives are ruined from the master all the way down to the smallest slave girl. It is a circle of misery begetting misery begetting misery.
Homer was the mistress’ personal slave and many of the evil things that happen to her was because the mistress was so miserable that she make it her mission to make everybody round her miserable as well. (page 415)
Nobody is happy. Everyone lives in misery and fear. The whites are afraid of a black revolt. The blacks are afraid of being whipped or hung. Everyone is afraid of Obeah (an evil witchcraft similar to voodoo). People start to lash out at each other in an attempt to better themselves. For instance, the Johnny-jumpers are male slaves who are pseudo-overseers given power over the other slaves to beat them. It is simply a system exploiting everyone and for what? From the book it appears to be to maintain Britain’s position of power in the world. The system is evil, and it does not simply beget misery, but despair as well. It brings out the worst in everyone.
A strong theme in this book is that of race being a construct rather than an innate true difference in people. Since Lilith is bi-racial, she has trouble simply aligning herself with one side or the other. Although at first she hates white people, she comes to deeply care for a white man. She comes to see people as individuals and not their race, but alas that thought process is far too advanced for the time she is living in, and she senses this.
She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be? (page 277-8)
It’s impossible not to have your heart break for Lilith, a woman whose whole life revolves around race when all she ever wants is to feel happy and safe, an impossible dream represented for her by a picture from a child’s book that her foster slave father let her take from him. The picture is of a sleeping princess with a prince near her, and Lilith’s obsession with this image follows her throughout her life, until she finally tells herself:
She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her. (page 335)
I found myself wishing I could scoop Lilith and Robert up and place them on an island where they could just be together and raise their mixed race babies and just be happy, but that’s not what happened then, and that’s the dream we must keep fighting for, isn’t it? A world where people can just love each other and be happy and not be forced into misery for economic gain of a person or a business or a nation.
I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but that’s really what I got out of this book. If we don’t want to live in a world that dark, we must embrace love in all its forms. Love begets love, but hate begets hate. Don’t like corporate greed or nationalism overtake your capacity to see the humanity in everyone–the capability for powerful good or powerful evil present in us all. Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for The Real Help Reading Project, but that is the old passion from a youthful me in undergraduate classes that this book reignited, and that is what makes me want everyone to read it.
Source: Public Library
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black. Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location. She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.
This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post). I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving. It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places. Anyway. On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.
The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her. Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her. This is what I want to discuss first.
There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black. She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved. For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people. Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.
He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal. He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard. He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock. (page 5)
Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact. Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal. She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish. Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem? We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object. It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.” It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.
Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love. Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son. She did not even want her son. This is understandable given that he was the result of rape. Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him. She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone. It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21. Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice. Moinette knows the danger of loving someone. She quite simply states:
I knew my heart was only meat for another animal. (page 107)
Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved. She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom. Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met. Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self. Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.
Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help. Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women. She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them. Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women. The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young. After she dies, Moinette says:
I missed her voice. Her words like embroidery in the air. She didn’t love me. But I had heard her voice all my life. (page 98)
How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie. Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves. Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina. Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.
The Men hunted money and sex. The women were hunted and captured, even the white women. (page 230)
Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free. Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair. What chance is there for women of any color in this society?
Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is. Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually. Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.
Sophia said, “Safer in the cane. Do your work, nobody look. Dangerous in the house.” (page 235)
In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play. Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.
Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female. Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path. Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed. This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook. Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist. Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.
- Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie. What were the similarities and differences?
- How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie? Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
- Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
- How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
- Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
- Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
- Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
- How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
- What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?