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You Will Never Be A Fireman

Posted by Francie Latour  February 28, 2012 10:21 PM

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I absolutely, positively swear this is the last time I write in any significant way about the blockbuster movie-slash-race relations Rorschach test "The Help." It has been both pilloried and praised to death. "The Help" must be exhausted, so to speak.

But it's the last day of February, which means it's the last day of Black History Month. And since the Oscars, I've been thinking about an interview that a friend pointed me to about the black children who were cast for this movie. In that interview for EW.com, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who played outspoken maid Minnie Jackson, talked about preparing the young actors who played her kids for a brutal scene that was eventually cut from the film (but does appear as an alternate ending in the DVD).

None of the kids had ever acted professionally, which left Spencer with a dilemma: Without scarring them, she had to get them to imagine being a black boy or girl growing up in 1960s Mississippi. In other words, she needed them to be gripped by fear and to know in their bones that they could not dream about the future. Because the future in no way belonged to them.

"One little boy, the youngest one, I said, 'Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?' and he said 'I want to be a fireman!' Spencer explained. "I said, 'Well you can’t be a fireman. The only thing you can do is mow lawns.' He said, 'Why?' and I said, 'Because that’s the way it is. That’s all you’re going to be.' " His lip quivering, the boy started to resist. Spencer put him in his place again. "He said, 'But I want to be a fireman.' I’m like, 'You don’t understand. You will never be a fireman.' He was just heartbroken."

It is heartbreaking, far beyond what Spencer described. What's so striking about that behind-the-scenes moment -- especially after a month of celebrating all the progress and contributions and achievement  -- is how similar it sounds to stories of children of color who are being told the exact same thing today, in stump speeches by presidential candidates and in schools all across the country.

If only there had been a director to scream "Cut!" last month when Tim Olsted, a sixth-grade teacher in St. Paul, Minn., reportedly told one of his black students she would end up on a street corner begging for money. For months, black students there said, Olsted made them sit in the back of the room, called them fat and stupid and told them, in a 1960s-Deep-South-meets-21st-century-America kind of way, "You will never amount to anything."

There was no one to magically appear with cake and ice cream, as Spencer did on set, after  first-grade teacher Jennifer O'Brien of Paterson, NJ, rendered judgment on her mostly black and Latino 7 year olds in a Facebook post. "I'm not a teacher -- I'm a warden for future criminals," she wrote last fall. In middle-class suburban Ohio, a teacher designates a 10-year-old black boy as a slave in a mock slave auction. In middle-class suburban Georgia, a third-grade teacher decides to teach arithmetic by asking students to add, subtract, divide and multiply the number of beatings or the amount of cotton picked by slaves.

And then there are the Republican former lawmakers who would be president, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. One suggests that poor kids of color be recruited as janitors, the other suggests that the college degree (and MBA, and law degree) he himself received is really a bunch of high and mighty nonsense. Those universities are just indoctrination mills, designed to make you think, talk and act like a lawyer so you can wind up becoming a senator and possibly president. (A recent study found that only four percent of college students are black males. If only the doors to these snob mills would swing open.)

Gingrich and Santorum aren't advocating for a return to Jim Crow. But they are advocating for a return to the diminished opportunities, expectations and vastly diminished sense of self that resulted from Jim Crow. And in their language they stoke racial hatreds grounded in the belief that to be black or brown is to be less-than.

I never saw "The Help," in part because I couldn't bare to watch an entire era of black history have its heroes replaced by a red-head with a notebook named Skeeter. But as the posters of MLK and Rosa Parks come down, the future of black history continues to be written. It's a history of African-American achievement, promise and participation in every realm of society. We have a black president and apparently, we have a black female extreme adventurer set to run a marathon in Antarctica.

But there are also way, way too many futures being blunted and too many dreamers being told it is pointless to dream. Spencer summed up the consequences of this. "It was horrible," she said, watching herself do what she was doing. "I remember at one point different ones of them crying out. I’m like, “Okay, [the preparation’s] working.”
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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