Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” was the featured film on a recent family movie night.
The main character, Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), is the son of a sharecropper in the 1920s.
Although technically “free,” the film depicts the tenuous situation Black people found themselves in – extremely difficult work, extremely low wages and no protections against unspeakable crimes.
Cecil and his father watch helplessly as his mother is pulled from the cotton fields and raped in a barn by the white field owner’s son. Hearing the pain-filled screams of his mother, he innocently asks his father what he is going to do.
As the white man comes back through the field, Cecil’s father looks at him and begins to say something. Before he can get a sentence out, the man shoots him in the head.
The white man’s mother (owner of the property) comes out to the field, tells the other sharecroppers to dig a grave and bury Cecil’s father. She tells Cecil to stop crying and come with her.
She does him the “kindness” of telling him that she is going to teach him how to be a “house ‘n***ger’.” This begins the long and storied life of a man who was made to navigate the complex treacheries of micro and macro racism.
Although a fictious story, “The Butler” offers a realistic picture of life for Black people after slavery.
Cecil ultimately used the skills he gained working in the “big house” to become a premier butler, first serving in smaller establishments, followed by distinguished hotels and ultimately the White House. His service included working for six presidents, during several wars and through the civil rights movement.
Relative to the many faces of racism, one scene in the movie showed a middle-aged Cecil going to the house manager to request equal pay and the opportunity for advancement for the Black staff.
He was told that he was “well liked,” but that if he was dissatisfied with his pay, then he should look elsewhere for work.
After several scenes, the movie advances to 20 years later with an older, more emboldened Cecil going back to the house manager with the same request – only this time, unbeknownst to the house manager, he had the support of the president.
Because of the president’s support, Cecil successfully obtained equal pay and the opportunity for advancement for himself and the rest of the Black staff.
He is honored by an invitation from the First Lady to the state dinner for he and his wife, Gloria. As he experienced being served for the first time by his fellow butlers, he struggles with seeing his friends “wearing the mask” – serving and smiling as their very presence is unnoticed.
Later, the same president that supported his raise and the raises of the staff promised to veto legislation that would place sanctions against South Africa for its inhumane treatment of Black South Africans and the wrongful imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.
He watched as that same president advocated for, and signed into law, policies that gutted civil rights policies and programs that devastated the progress of Black people and other minorities.
On the micro level, the Black butlers received a raise. On the macro level, their children would be stripped of opportunities to work on a level playing field across many sectors for many generations – education, economics, career paths, housing, medical care.
On the micro level, many serving in domestic services at such a prestigious institution as the White House “lived well”; they were able to purchase nice homes, drive nice cars and send their children to college. On the macro level, those same children would enter a society that kept ceilings and barriers in place to undermine their hard-earned success.
Over 50 years ago, when my own father graduated from college, having earned a Bachelor of Science degree, he was hired as a chemist by one of the “Big Four” rubber companies (Goodyear, Goodrich, General Tire and Firestone).
This job afforded my father the opportunity to purchase a home in a middle-class neighborhood where other Black professionals lived.
On our street, we had a dentist, a teacher, a business owner and housewives. We also had a factory worker and a trash collector. All homes were beautiful, with well-manicured lawns and gardens.
Yet, it was brought to my father’s attention that he was being paid thousands of dollars less than his co-workers – some with less education and experience.
Ultimately, my father received equal pay. That, however, did not happen without controversy.
Fast-forward to the other day when I received a message from a friend whose husband is a physician. He, like my father, is a Black man who is well-educated and experienced.
Yet, it was brought to his attention that, over the last 15 or so years, he too was being paid significantly less than his white co-workers. He is now entering that same battle that my father faced 50 years ago to get equal pay for equal work.
Like the character Cecil, my father and my friend’s husband were placed in the uncomfortable position of learning that they were being paid significantly less than their white counterparts, all because of the color of their skin.
They were faced with the real potential of unemployment and being “black-balled” for speaking up to get equal pay for equal work. They endured the stress of knowing that their brilliant minds were being taken for granted and undervalued.
They faced the double-edged sword of smiling faces and “trinkets” like invitations to dinner and Christmas gifts for their family, while experiencing the undermining of their family’s ability to secure generational wealth because of significantly lower pay.
This is the painful, tortured dance that the oppressed must navigate – receiving some form of delectable in one hand, and hemlock in the other.
People of color frequently must balance appreciation for acts of kindness while peering down the proverbial hallway of unchecked inequality and injustice.
We must frequently question how best to respond when, on the micro level, someone or some system has treated us kindly, but, on the macro level, that kindness is limited to a very small circle.
On the micro level, we might be able to live in a decent neighborhood, send our kids to a good school and save some money for retirement. But on the macro level, the people or entities that are being “kind” to us are promoting systems that keep minorities down and out.
We cannot dismantle these systems on our own. Those who stand for justice and equality verbally must also do so with deeds – with their voices and their vote, with their faith and their feet, with their expressions of love and their bold actions to stand against oppressive systems.
Those in positions of power must address all forms of inequality and injustice.
Why in 2021 are we still having this same conversation? It is because “favors” for a few cannot erase or replace justice for all.
Racism must be addressed on both the micro and macro levels. That is the only way forward.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21). The previous articles in the series are:
What a Day It Would Be If We Did It | Starlette Thomas
Beyond Symbolic Posturing about Eliminating Racial Discrimination | Wendell Griffen
Senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.