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Devastation through Segregation
Did you know that the state of Mississippi did not officially abolish slavery until February 7th, 2013? Although slaves have not worked the fields of Mississippi since the Civil War ended, evidence of racial prejudice has far from disappeared. On a recent trip to Greenwood, Mississippi, Nikole Hannah-Jones witnesses this ongoing prejudice and writes: “the Delta can be devastating.” This devastation is addressed by two novels: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, The Help, is about the life of African-American maids working for white families. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man tells the story of a half-black man who is torn between fitting into white society and showing pride in his African heritage. In each novel, the authors prove to the reader that “the Delta can be devastating” through the tales of their minor characters.
First and foremost, the Delta is devastating for Yule May, a black maid working for Hilly Holbrook. Yule May is just seventy-five dollars short of sending both of her sons to college, but Hilly refuses to lend her the money. She is stuck because as a mother, she loves both of her sons equally and needs to provide the same opportunities for the both of them. In a letter to Skeeter, she writes, “For ten years, my husband and I have saved our money to send them to Tougaloo College, but as hard as we worked, we still didn’t have enough for both” (Stockett 293). Out of desperation, she resorts to stealing and pawns one of Hilly’s old rings. When Hilly realizes this, Yule May is immediately sent to jail and most of her savings are lost to the court fine. Thus, Yule May is condemned by the Delta due to the lack of opportunities for people of her race.
Furthermore, Mae Mobley is ultimately a victim of her mother, Elizabeth Leefolt’s ignorance and neglect. Elizabeth is repulsed by Mae Mobley’s lack of aesthetics, so she rarely plays with or cleans up after her. From an early age, Mae Mobley is raised by her black maid, Aibileen, and witnesses the discrimination towards her (such as when Miss Leefolt decides to build her a separate bathroom). In spite of this, Aibileen teaches Mae Mobley to have morals and self-worth, as shown through the motto “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” (Stockett 521). Therefore, firing Aibileen becomes the most destructive decision Elizabeth has made for her daughter. As Aibileen is leaving, Mae Mobley wonders, “Why? Why don’t you want to see me anymore? Are you going to take care of another little girl?” (Stockett 520). Mae Mobley feels the devastation of a loved one leaving her, but she will not see the true devastation– the loss of a role model– until much later. Therefore, the Delta devastates Mae Mobley by depriving her of Aibileen.
Last but not least, James Weldon Johnson’s devastation is brought upon him by his supposed benefactor, a Pullman car porter. Whilst getting ready to attend the University of Atlanta, his school money and tie are stolen. As he can no longer afford to attend school, the porter kindly loans him money and suggests that he move to Jacksonville to find work. Later, Johnson recognizes the porter wearing his stolen tie. When Johnson realizes that his “friend” was the one who steals all of his money, he says “My astonishment and the ironical humor of the situation drove everything else out of my mind” (Johnson 39). It is also ironic that the porter steals from a member of his own race. In this instance, it is devastating that the man who helps Johnson up at his lowest point is also the one who put him there. Therefore, the Delta is devastating for Johnson because his “friend” takes advantage of him.
Overall, the tragic fates that the minor characters represent in these two novels prove that “the Delta is Devastating.” Ironically, devastation is not only caused by the racial barrier, but also members of ones’ own race. Yule May is punished for being different due to the oppression of her race. Mae Mobley is punished because of her own mother’s ignorance. Johnson is a victim of his black “friend” because the porter looks down upon his own race. Even today, humans are punished for being different, and for being the same.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Berkley Books, 2009.
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