“I don’t see why people are upset that Paula Deen used the “N” word,” Rochelle remarked when she arrived for a recent interview. “Black people use it all the time.” I knew that, but it seemed to me that maybe Rochelle was too young and too uninformed to understand how that word had been used against her race years ago; how it is still used in that way by some. There is a 38 year difference in our ages; we are of different races; we grew up in very different parts of the country in very different circumstances. I was not sure my explanation would succeed in getting Rochelle to understand why some people were turning against Paula Deen. I didn’t think Rochelle watched cooking shows, but she does occasionally watch the news. Her television is always on in the living room, and Paula Deen’s troubles were all over the news programs and talk shows.
The movie The Butler was also all over the talk shows. I asked Rochelle if she had heard about it and suggested we go see it the following week. She would, of course, need to make sure her children were cared for. As a single mother who has child care problems, going to the movies requires some serious planning. She had not been to a movie theater in over 6 years, and it had been about that long for me, as well. It was also not the kind of movie Rochelle usually watches when she rents DVDs. The Butler had received both good and bad reviews, but it does shows race relations in the United States through the somewhat fictionalized story of a Black man who had served as head butler in the White House during six presidential administrations. It ends with Barack Obama being elected President of the United States. Rochelle registered as a voter in 2008, and she has now voted twice for Barack Obama. During both of his elections she was watching the news and asking questions. She hasn’t yet voted for anything except the office of President, but it is a start. Not only might the movie explain something that I was finding difficult to explain, but it would be fun and time away from responsibilities
Scheduling the movie was tricky. It was the beginning of the month, and Rochelle had responsibilities to her grandfather. He has no car and needs to be driven to pay bills and buy groceries. Her mother lives in another town but does come in for medical treatment and sometimes stays with the children after school; permanent after school care had not been settled yet. Rochelle, of course, works at the grocery store. She found a neighbor to care for the children for an hour, and then her mother could take over while we went to the movies one day the next week. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there were about 10 people in the theater. The main female character, the wife of the butler, is played by Oprah Winfrey. Rochelle was quite familiar with her.
I couldn’t tell if Rochelle was enjoying the movie while we watched it, but when the lights came up I noticed she had been crying. I had, too, but was trying to hide it for some reason. “I loved it,” she exclaimed. “I want to buy this movie and not just bootleg it.” Throughout the movie she would lean over and ask me “who’s the president now?” The movie did put a cut-line in every time there was a change in administration, but it was easy to miss. Rochelle’s next question was always “was he a Democrat?”
Rochelle had never heard of the Freedom Riders; she didn’t know white people had also fought for the rights of African Americans; she didn’t know about the sit-ins; she didn’t know about the Black Power movement; and she didn’t know that a President of the United States from her state of Texas had engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I am the age of her grandmother and started college in 1964. Her grandmother and her mother were enmeshed in the continuing cycle of the culture of poverty and were mostly just trying to survive in 1964. They didn’t vote then, and they still don’t today. They lived on the Black side of a segregated town regardless of what city they lived in. They still do. Life probably changed very little for them in 1964. I came to this formerly Confederate state in 1969, and Black customers were still coming in the “colored” door of a BBQ joint I went to while the white customers were using the “white” door. Not much had changed but the law.
“Do you see why the “N” word caused Paula Deen problems?” I asked Rochelle. “Nigger was used by bigoted people. People who were not happy to see integration happen. White people who were not pleased to see Blacks get their rights and their vote. Did you see the hate on the faces of the white people in the movie during the sit-ins?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. I then told her something I had heard Oprah Winfrey say when asked why she didn’t like even Black people using the word among themselves or in rap songs. “It was the last word many African-Americans heard when the rope was being tied around their necks,” Oprah had answered.
We drove back to Rochelle’s apartment. “I’m going to buy it when it comes out,” she said again. “I’m going to show it to my kids.” I suggested they were too young now but might enjoy seeing it when they got a bit older. “Wow, I never knew all that, but now I get it,” she said as she got out of the car. For me, it was not a great movie. Quite confusing at times, with too much history jammed into two hours. Rochelle, however, loved it and now understood a lot more. It was a very enjoyable afternoon for both of us.