Hard Call & Wise Responses

Historian – and longtime First contributor – Wesley Hogan was sparked by The Help’s spin on the Southern turn toward freedom in the 60s. Her piece on the book and movie starts our mini-roundtable on this cultural phenomenon. Hogan’s Call generated a response from a reading group of retired black women who had their own opinions about The Help. Ancella Bickley recorded their views for First and her summary follows Hogan’s piece. After that, Hogan returns with a quick review of recent historical writing related to the subject of black domestics.

Blindsided by The Help [1]

“When there is something that captures a particular voice or a particular time period where African-Americans are subservient,” said Faith Childs, an African-American literary agent, “it finds a large and willing audience — and one wonders why.”

Kathryn Stockett’s character Charlotte Phelan in The Help (2009): “They say it’s like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.”[2]

A book, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, in which black women play a central role – even a positive role. And millions of women read it and like it. What is there not to celebrate? It is a disingenuous story. Indeed, it is a deeply flawed story, one that sidesteps all the difficult questions. To be sure, it makes a lot of people (mostly white) feel good. But at a great expense. Reflection of history is sacrificed on the altar of feel-good entertainment. And post-Jim Crow generations suffer the consequences.

According to the author, the book has its origin in a sense of homesickness: Stockett lived in New York during the attacks of 9/11. Experiencing this unspeakable horror, she began to miss her “family and friends from Mississippi,” and especially the voice of Demetrie McLorn, a black domestic who had raised Stockett, and had “worked for our family, gosh, for fifty years. She started working for my great great great Aunt Carrie as a second cook. It was just such an incredible relationship. She went from Aunt Carrie, then to my grandmother, consequently raising my father, my uncle, and all the grandkids.” Despite the vinegary way Stockett talks about McLorn moving like an heirloom through several generations of her family, the book pivots on the author’s noteworthy outrage that black domestics were required to use separate bathroom facilities even as they managed the most intimate aspects of white employers’ lives. “Proper households had separate facilities,” Stockett recently told Katie Couric. (Couric aptly pointed out this is still true on Park Avenue).

As a young woman, Stockett saw herself as an archetypical ugly duckling. It was Demetrie McLorn who first told this small, abandoned white child that she was beautiful. McLorn who held her close when Stockett’s mother left at age six. McLorn who told Stockett she was OK, again and again through the rocky days of adolescence. The book, in part, is an attempt on Stockett’s part to process a late realization that a domestic like McLorn had feelings and thoughts of her own[3]: “We were a proprietary white family who felt like she was lucky to have us. When the truth is, we were so lucky to have her.”[4] So far, so good.

The deeper one delves into the book, however, the worse it gets. A few examples.

Men. Black men in Stockett’s book range from lazy to abusive to, simply enough, dead. White men, on the other hand, run the gamut from saints to clueless to slightly abusive –to white women. It’s her book, she can do what she wants with it. But why has it become a bestseller? While it’s a novel and she doesn’t have to be “true to history,” why are people drawn to a story that contains a glaring absence of stand-up Mississippi black men like Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Sam Block, and T.R.M. Howard? These are the men who stood up to face white violence dished out not just by Klansmen, but by judges, sheriffs, pastors, and school superintendents. They are among the true American heroes of the 1960s, and the lives of all of us would be enhanced by knowing about them. The Help is a book that’s labeled “historical fiction” in libraries all over America? Aren’t all Americans poisoned and betrayed by its portrayal of black and white men in Jackson in the 1960s? The Help’s upside-down version of history from the bottom up would be ironic, were it not such a tragic inversion of historical reality. And were it not feeding into the worst cultural stereotypes. Would I want my black male students to read a book that perpetuates just about every repellent prejudice about black men out there? No. Can we really celebrate a book that pretends to look “behind the veil” of black “help” without once addressing a central reality of the lives of black domestics, namely the fact that white men were a constant threat? In the South of the 1950s and 60s, they had real power, and could get away with just about anything. And did. It was common enough for white men to harass, beat, coerce, and on all too many occasions rape black domestics. But one will look in vain to find reference to this reality in Stockett’s book.

Of course one could argue the book is not about accurately portraying history, and it’s not about men. What then about the main protagonists, black women performing domestic labor for white people?

Stockett’s love for McLorn seems genuine. But it does not appear to translate into any kind of deeper appreciation, or broader understanding. See what she does with language.

After a decade working in New York’s publishing industry, Stockett is savvy enough to recognize some risk in a white southern woman writing black characters in what she remembered as black dialect. As she recalls, southern whites spoke “beautiful, proper English.” But, she continues, “I have to say, I think the African-American language is lovely as well.” Well then.

Leaving aside both the cultural narrowness and condescension revealed by such remarks, Stockett, while she may find black English “lovely,” never develops any feel for the creative expressiveness, style, or playful wit of black Southern vernacular. Whenever a black person speaks in The Help, it feels canned; someone trying to remember what an uneducated black person from Mississippi should sound like. As one critic parodied Stockett’s ear for black Mississippians: “You is kind, you is smart, you is some of the worst dialogue ever.” Examples abound. Lots of blacks and whites in the South use the contraction “I’ma” for “I am going to.” But in Stockett’s ear, this becomes Aibileen saying “I know what happen between Constantine and Miss Skeeter’s mama and aint no way I’m on tell her that story.” Or later, “Law have mercy. I reckon I’m on do it.” Real people, of course, don’t talk that way, and one is left to wonder why Stockett’s characters do. Aibileen: “I put down the bucket a Sunshine cleaner them ladies is always smiling about on the tee-vee. I got to set down. Mae Mobley come up holding her tummy, say, ‘Make it not hurt.’” Why is Stockett spelling it “set down” when everybody in Mississippi, black and white, makes his or her short “i” flat? Why is “TV” spelled out “tee-vee” when all of us, throughout the nation, say “TV” the same way? Perhaps Stockett’s black dialogue is more based on Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind – a smart woman portraying someone docile, warm, safe.

But language merely hides a much bigger reality. Stockett, perpetuating mainstream portrayals of American racial history, fails to look beyond the façade of black lives white people got to see. It’s as if Aibileen’s life is defined by her position as domestic laborer. A counter-narrative, this one told by a black woman, may illustrate the point best.

Charity Harris is an elegant retired professional. She just turned seventy. I meet with her for coffee. Her wide-set sparkling eyes, brown complexion, and high cheekbones draw the glances of other coffee-drinkers in the way timeless beauty always does. We sit and talk, as we have for some ten years by now. She asks why I look discomfited. I tell her I’m writing a piece on The Help, and it’s driving me crazy. She takes a long pause. Then she tells me.

“I was a child of a black domestic, people white women called ‘the help,’ and all my mother’s friends were domestics in white homes,” she begins. “I went to school and worked so hard so I would never have to be that way,” she continued. “You weren’t given the respect to come through the front door. No one cared about you staying to serve the meal while your children fended for themselves at home.” Looking down, she pauses, tears welling. “At night. In the early morning while I got ready for school. On Christmas and Easter. Mother was at their house, not able to be with us. During the summer holidays. It was a system of having to be invisible. It’s hard to fathom all these people, Mother and her friends: that is the way they had to live all the time around white people. Most of the hours of their day. When you were needed, they rang a bell, you were ‘there.’ Any other way, you were not ‘there.’ Then they’d talk about you as if you didn’t exist.”

To be fair, a primary focus of Stockett’s book is black domestics. There is something to be said for making tens of thousands of women, like Charity Harris’ mother, finally visible in mainstream culture. For more than eight generations, a lot of Americans who’ve “made it” have simply not thought about the people who wash their clothes, cook their food, clean their homes or watch their kids. The Help asks them to. It purports to look behind the veil dividing the races, to hear what people were really saying in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Black and white women. As such, one presumes it also seeks a common humanity.

But does it? It turns out Stockett merely repeats an old and stale tale, told ad nauseum, about white people saving the day. The narrative is upheld in movies like Mississippi Burning and Freedom Writers and in books like Five Smooth Stones. What all have in common is that they turn historical reality upside down. Former civil rights activist Julian Bond best satirized popular misconceptions when he quipped about mainstream versions of the civil rights era: “Rosa [Parks] sat down, Martin [Luther King] stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day.” There is a stark reason why this storyline isn’t very moving: it is not supported by the facts. Moreover, it spreads a kind of sanctified mist over an ugly, and ongoing, reality.

Charity Harris again: “I didn’t want to read another lie about some white women who tried to make it better. Because that’s not how I remember it.” Fact is, “You weren’t supposed to do well.” Forty years later, she saw a subtle echo of this in the way her white colleagues at a large multinational interacted with her: she was never invited on boat trips, to christenings or weddings, she never played cards with anyone at their home after work. Simply enough, whites seemed more comfortable socializing among their own. People walked by her glass-enclosed office and did not wave. They’d ask her white assistant for help, and the clerk, lacking expertise, would inevitably send people to her. When it came time for peer-reviewed promotion, she was not recommended. People did not know her outside of the job. At work they treated her like she’d seen employers treat her mother in Texas – like hired “help,” despite her advanced degrees. It was rarely out in the open, just an unstated rule that defined who belonged and who wasn’t welcome. It certainly had dramatic economic consequences. Charity worked hard at school, was successful, obtained degrees, all to avoid having to become a domestic. But it did not prevent her from experiencing invisibility. And missed opportunities.

As in all whitewashed portrayals of race in America, so in The Help. The full range of what constitutes the lives of black women is missing. The few notes taken from their reality amount to mere background music in a fully orchestrated symphony featuring white women.

Which brings us to the national love-affair with The Help. To begin with, it is only fair to note that everyone swims in treacherous waters when they write about race in the US. Non-white writers are pulled down in a continuous rip current, dismissed as “too angry” or “playing the race card.” Non-black writers crash on hazardous rocks for commodifying and distorting black voices. Non-Asians get pulled into an undertow for using a simple black-white frame. And so on. All of us at some point say “I don’t want to hear about this anymore.” Some gripe: “Why can’t we move on?” or “I’m tired of fixing others’ ignorance.” Some choose periods of not engaging those of a different race on such topics. Too tiring, too controversial. What, in the end, is the point. There’s the pronoun problem: who is “we,” who is “us,” and who is “our.” Some choose to remain blind. But we all follow habitual patterns of anger, avoidance, pain. We suspect anyone’s motivations.

It’s almost impossible “to write about race in America without bombast, outrage or satire,” Clyde Edgerton recently reflected. “How else to confront a system of structural inequality that has savagely circumscribed lives for generations?” Owning my experience as a forty-year-old white woman reading and writing on race, I’ve noticed how peaceful oceans suddenly turn into raging seas, slamming folks on to hard shores. Readers and writers on race matters oftentimes just fade out. They stop reading. They stop writing. There is rarely a calm swim. The big shark I’m trying to evade here is the smug sophisticate. So full disclosure: it’s a work in progress.

Still, the question needs to be asked: what does it say about US culture that we still embrace distorted portrayals of black people, caricatured as little more than a limited and servile people? As Alice Walker’s mother pointed out decades ago, no one book can tell the whole story.[5] Ever. And so while I have issues with Stockett’s book, this isn’t a complaint about how The Help leaves out women like Charity Harris. Stockett can’t tell the whole story of black domestics and their employers and explicitly says she isn’t trying to. This was her first novel, and it was rejected by forty-plus publishers before it found a home. She had no reason to expect it would capture the public’s imagination and go to Hollywood. But why did two million people buy the book, and millions of others read it through their local library? Why did Stockett start writing from the point of view of two black domestics before she realized she had to add a white character in order to get an acceptably large audience for her book — Otherwise it would be too black to draw whites? Publisher Amy Einhorn says, “It’s really hit a nerve. People are passionate about this book.” CBS anchor Katie Couric noted: “I’m so into [this book] it’s ridiculous….Our whole office has read this book, and we’re really into this.” Couric liked the characters so much, “I cried because the book was over.” The New York Times’ sophisticated critic Janet Maslin and Sybil Steinberg of the Washington Post praised it. Some prominent African Americans decried its portrayal, others have been notably silent, and still others supportive. And it’s important to note that several white women spoke out against the framing of black-white relations in the book. Still, The Help has been atop the New York Times bestseller list for over 80 weeks. “A friend of mine recently went on vacation,” Katie Couric told Stockett in their interview. “Everyone she saw was reading The Help on the beach.” So when will millions more go to the movie, what will they take home?

For one, the way the story frames black women. Their emotional lives are background music, whereas the emotional lives of the white girls and women they nurture are the book’s central focus. This danger Toni Morrison warned Americans to watch out for in her Nobel talk twenty years ago. As Charlotte Phelan tells her daughter Skeeter, white women frame this as a central relationship in their lives: “they say good help is like true love.” She does not question, much less reject, this framing: indeed she has Skeeter wish she could have added her mother’s comment to the other ‘truths’ in her tell-all book. This is not the framing the vast majority of black domestics most likely used to understand their own lives. As a child, young Skeeter tells Constantine that a boy told her she was ugly. Then Constantine, the black domestic who works in Skeeter’s home, says: “‘Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.’ Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums. ‘You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?’” On the one hand, Stockett presents this as the first time Skeeter’s been treated as a full adult, given a choice. But Stockett notes the “blackness” of Constantine’s gums. Why? Any number of ways she could have been presented. Why “black gums” instead of an “ebony” or “black velvet” mouth? Why do I feel she can’t help making Constantine ugly at the same time as saintly? The main black character, Aibileen, at the end of the book reflects in the aftermath of her church’s celebration of the book’s publication: “I cry and cry right there in front a everybody,” at church. “I look over at Minny, and she laughing. Funny how peoples show they feelings in different ways. I wonder what Miss Skeeter would do if she was here and it kind a makes me sad. I know ain’t nobody in town gone sign a book for her and tell her she brave. Aint nobody gone tell her they look after her.”

What? the book’s emotional arc climaxes not with Aibileen and Minny coming to full voice with the book’s publication, but on Aibileen feeling sorry for Skeeter?

That is fantasy, and a particular kind of white fantasy at that.

Gretchen, another domestic, is the sole character who gives voice to black sadness and rage over the sheer unfairness and agony of black women not being able to take care of their own children while raising white children in order to put food on the table. She has exactly one page of dialogue. That’s it. If only a book could lure people in so effectively as The Help and then sneak down a path of a perspective that’s not familiar. What is really going on in Aibleen’s life, mind, and heart? Can non-blacks stretch enough to identify and understand her on her own terms instead of through Skeeter’s eyes? Although Stockett writes in the voices of all three characters, the perspective remains Skeeter’s throughout. Skeeter’s character is much more developed, layered and personalized than the characters of Aibileen and Minny.[6] If The Help centered on the emotional lives of black as well as white women, one would learn much more about the black women’s families and friends than about their relationships to their employers and employers’ families. So while trying to pull the reader to focus on the women who are “the help,” Stockett does so in a way that obscures their inner lives and experiences.[7]

The Help is one of those numberless stories of race in America that assume white readers/viewers need a character who proves it’s possible to be a “good white.” We’re willing to circle around white racism and condemn it, but we don’t want to identify with it. Of course, this may be progress. As a friend noted, “It’s a step forward historically to yearn to be like the character we perceive as less racist, or not racist.” Americans, after all, are a movie-going public whose first box-office hit glorified the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation. White-person-saves-the-day isn’t a bad story – it’s just the only one Hollywood has about race in America. To borrow Chimamanda Adichie’s fine phrase, Stockett’s tale is just a single manifestation of the “dangerous single story” we’ve seen in one Hollywood film after another, The negative side of this white-person-saves-the-day trope is that white viewers learn to see racism as an alien phenomenon – a strange (or peculiarly Southern) thing. Not American as Apple pie. It is not until we see dimensions of ourselves in racist characters that we can, individually and collectively, begin to grapple with past and ongoing racism. Of course the same is true with the many undeserved advantages that are part of white privilege, or the staggering reality of poverty amidst unprecedented wealth. It is hard not to see this white-savior trope as evidence that still, in 2011, white skin allows historical amnesia and black or brown skin prohibits it.

Despite its good intentions, The Help serves as a mechanism for denial of an uneasy reality: the underbelly of “proper” middle to upper-class white homes. The book provides an avenue for its audience to sympathize with black victims without exploring the readers’ own responsibility to history. Or to today. Do such readers volunteer in the public schools of the grandchildren of the women portrayed in The Help, or are they more sympathetic to the current trend of returning to largely segregated “neighborhood” schools? Do The Help’s readers see today’s predominantly black areas as part of “our” neighborhood, worthy of a fight for playgrounds and lights, or do they avoid it and lock their cars if they drive near? Does The Help help its readership lobby for summer programs for descendants of black domestics of the 1960s living in Jackson or other cities today? In homes of readers who love The Help, who cleans house, washes the clothes, tends the landscaping, cooks the food or, most crucially, takes care of the children?

Most of the women today who do the laundry, make the food, watch the children and clean the house are women of color, while “professional” women (of all races) go to “work” as doctors, lawyers, and mortgage traders. Whereas there is hardly a woman of color in any profession who doesn’t have a great-grandmother or grandmother who was a domestic, white professional women have far fewer familial ties to domestics.

Sympathy for black domestics doesn’t get to the heart of privilege (whether class, race, or both) in America. One is left to hope readers will learn to ask more and better questions about the formerly “invisible” than those posed in The Help. And perhaps even venture to read one of many excellent accounts written by black women themselves.^

Cultural Fallout

I teach and interact with students from all backgrounds. Many identify as “mixed” when someone asks their race. I have four teenage children. And I feel defeated when I imagine all of these young people seeing the images of black “maids” and white “ladies” on The Help billboards plastered from LA to Miami, Boston to St. Louis. Or springing to life in their internet browsers’ ad sections. At the very least, let’s see billboards advertising the life stories of other 1960s women whose lives are dramatic Hollywood material, like Delores Huerta, Nina Simone or Shirley Chisholm. Ruby Doris Smith (Google her!). Then we could all go the movies and expand our horizons while being entertained.

We historians have to take some flak for this cultural failure too. “If we can’t give them real history of black self-defense and civil rights, people will accept the caricature,” a historian friend of mine remarks. Thus people only know cartoons of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If we accept Stockett’s story as “historical fiction,” as a culture we are far off the mark to think her portrayals are honest. The dominant reality for black domestics was gross exploitation resulting in latch-key children, the economic abuse and physical assault of black women by white men, and yes, some black domestics raising white children in loving ways. As I saw the publicity for The Help build this summer, the reality of being a historian merged with my personal and ideological convictions: what do I want to see at the movies – and take my children or my students to see? We historians have failed to capture the imagination of Spielberg, George Lucas, the Weinsteins, or Steven Soderbergh. And so we’re left with the remarkable craft and narrow frame provided by the well-meaning likes of Kathryn Stockett.

So I fault myself. But I’m calling you out, too, Mr. Spielberg. Giving a huge swath of airtime to these archaic, neo-slave representations keeps our society ignorant and divided. As one friend concluded: “I’m not interested in another bullsh*t story about black sufferers and their white heroes. It’s old, played out, and insulting. As a 31-year-old black woman, I simply can’t identify with these characters. Furthermore, I don’t think this imagery helps us as a society move to a place of equality.” I’ll end with some unsolicited advice, and a question. Clear The Help from your brain: Go watch Freedom Song. See the 1960s from the ground-up, not the plantation porch swing. Then ask yourself: what imagery and storylines do you want to see – and have young people see – in books and movies in the coming decade?

Addendum

What I wrote above, I believe. It’s been my experience. But a loving elder from the civil rights movement took me to task: “It’s counterproductive all the way around to hit on Stockett for not being sensitive enough. Whites stay as far away from blacks and the American racial conversation as possible because they get hit on for pretty much anything they do upon entering the racial conversation. To critique a person for writing from their own experience is one sure way to help that continue as a cultural pattern.” She is, of course, right in this. Plus, she continued, “if Stockett’s sparked some hope in many hearts for how it could possibly be between blacks and whites, given whites a vision of possibility, that’s a good thing. Blacks don’t much share that vision. That’s a problem for you. If you speak up for hope, and they are just pissed off, you come off white. Tough choice for you. Try to remember though, that blacks did live in hope, for awhile. Some did, at least. I knew them.” She sees my response as evidence that I “don’t see this hope as beautiful, as worth supporting” and it saddens her. Americans “suffer from it still, with folks taking pot shots at each other and no core conversation of reality in the middle.” For there is no longer a middle. “The real middle we had there for awhile [in the early 1960s] wasn’t into taking pot shots, but into forming a core of understanding and love which hoped to draw all sides inward into its self, a new self we shared, of forgiveness and reconciliation.” She experienced a community building on the basis of “racial healing that could lead the whole country forward.” Though she sees it as “unfashionable now,” she still treasures “what I saw of that, and I know the hope when I see it. Old school I guess.” More likely, two millennia ahead of herself. I think we need to get there, but unlike this civil rights veteran, few of us have experienced the reconciled community. First, we’ve got to have a diversity of images on screen and in our imaginations.

The black women in this story were treated badly, and “yet they chose to walk in love and forgiveness.” And they were not afraid to tell their story. I see your reasons for loving this movie, Mary J. Blige (http://www.metacafe.com/watch/mv-VBMG/featurette_mary_j_bliges_the_living_proof/). Plus, in the context of the culture’s starvation for affirming images of black women, black movie-goers will sometimes swallow a certain amount of BS with a smile, especially if it masquerades as positivity. But are we really OK with this one-way-to-portray-black-women-positively-in-the-media, still? They have to be docile, warm, safe? In 2011? Must we stay on the theme of reassurance—we are reassured that there is forgiveness and love for the Skeeters, with whom “we” (the majority of white women in the movie-going public) identify?

Is that why The Help “hit a nerve?” I’ll allow I am deeply disturbed by the book’s popularity with white women I love and respect. It surely hit a nerve for Charity Harris: she didn’t want to see lies championed as “uncovered truth.” But why did it hit a nerve for its fervent readership? I wish readers would email me and tell me why they think people love the book: whogan@vsu.edu.

Notes

1 Without the help of my mother Merritt Andruss, and Charity Harris, Dirk Philipsen, Sara Leland, Benj DeMott, Elizabeth Warshawsky Ricanati, Briana Boyer, Renée Afanana Hill, Elizabeth Kieff, and the incomparable Ys Women (Nishani Frazier, Emilye Crosby and Robyn Spencer), I would not have had the presence of mind to write this piece. They enriched it enormously, though we sometimes had strong disagreements and I did not take all suggestions. Gaps of empathy or perspective, and of course factual errors, are mine alone.

2 p.372 in the hardcover edition.

3 This is like the Alice Walker observation about Judy Chicago’s feminist art instillation, “The Dinner Party:” “All the other plates are creatively imagined vaginas,” recalled Walker. “The Sojourner Truth plate is the only one in the collection that shows – instead of a vagina – a face. It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine black women have vaginas. Or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go. … Perhaps it is the black woman’s children, whom the white woman resents. For they must always make her feel guilty. She fears knowing that black women want the best for their children just as she does. But she also knows black children are to have less in this world so that her children, white children, will have more (in some countries, all).” In Search of Our Mothers Gardens.

4 The “Acknowledgements” section at the end of The Help reveals the events that generated the book and illuminates a priori assumptions that informed its composition.

5 Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens: “Everything around me is split up, deliberately split up. History split up, literature split up, and people are split up too. It makes people do ignorant things. For example, one day I was invited to speak at a gathering of Mississippi librarians and before I could get started, one of the authorities on Mississippi history and literature got up and said she really did think Southerners wrote so well because ‘we’ lost the war. She was white, of course, but half the librarians in the room were black.” “I bet she was real old,” says my mother. “They’re the only ones still worrying over that war.” “So I got up and said no, ‘we’ didn’t lose the war. ‘You all’ lost the war. And you all’s loss was our gain.” “Those old ones will just have to die out,” says my mother. “Well,” I say, “I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after.” “Well, I doubt if you can ever get the true missing parts of anything away from the white folks,” my mother says softly, so as not to offend the waitress who is mopping up a nearby table; “they’ve sat on the truth so long by now they’ve mashed the life out of it.”

6 I’m not positive, but I can’t find last names for Aibileen or Minny in the book. Whereas Skeeter is “Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan.” For thousands of African Americans who gave their children the first name “Mister” or “King” or “Queen” to combat whites’ refusal to use honorifics before black names, such an oversight on Stockett’s part surely will be seen as more than coincidence.

7 This paragraph is all Sara Leland. Without her insights here, I simply could not pull the threads together.

Thinking Through The Help

By Ancella Bickley

Five black women living in a Florida retirement community gathered to discuss Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and the paper, “Blindsided By The Help.” The women who gathered are not native Floridians, are variously educated and during their working careers made major advances to positions with management responsibilities. All had read The Help and the essay, “Blindsided.” Four had seen the film of The Help.

The group began by acknowledging the book, The Help, is fiction and is therefore not required to reflect reality exactly. Yet they also considered whether or not there are moral requirements of an author of narratives set in an historical period, e.g.: A. Is there a responsibility to present historical circumstances as they actually were? B. Could an author exercise creative license and bend or ignore facts in order to write as he or she likes?

What emerged from this colloquy was a sense that novelists writing “historical fiction” (outside the special genre of “alternate history”) should not traduce actual events in the past. Yet they must be free to shape their stories as they see fit. The author is, after all, writing fiction, which may be based upon history but ultimately comes out of his/her own creative consciousness. In writing The Help, Kathryn Stockett was free to exercise her creative options. Like other writers of fiction she had the right to be selective – to decide which ideas, background, characters, or incidents she would use in her book; to choose whether or not she wished to assume an ideological stance or any sort of political position regarding the burden of Southern history. Books which have done just that remain significant cultural artifacts with heavy historical implications, e.g., The Clansman (which D.W. Griffith made into Birth of a Nation); Gone with the Wind.

The group wondered if The Help will end up having any serious historical resonance. At the very least, though, by focusing on a group of black women in an occupation that’s often been disrespected and disdained, The Help may prompt a long overdue dialogue. On this score, the group acknowledged the relative freshness of the book’s material, since it presents characters from a neglected sector of black working women. But they agreed it falls short of what it might have been. The author could have entered more fully into the imaginations of her black woman characters and explored their consciousness, rendering movements of mind beyond their work lives. But she doesn’t tend to go there. Does her feel good book give contemporary white people a pass by relieving their guilt feelings? Does its personalizing approach to racial disparities deflect attention from ongoing structural, historical realities that can only be addressed through the mobilization of national political will? Perhaps.

The group is well aware there’s been a massive reader/audience response to The Help. They understand the book is less than daring when it comes to challenging the dominant culture’s narratives. Still, if the book doesn’t exactly speak truth to power, it does speak to white people’s genuine innocence regarding black life and facts of feeling. When the white heroine Skeeter visits Aibileen in her home and sees her out of uniform for the first time. Surprise! Maids have another, out-of-uniform, less-than-subservient life.

While the group conceded Skeeter’s experience of surprise may have struck home with white readers/audiences, the essay “Blindsided by The Help‘s” invocation of a retired black professional woman whose mother was a domestic, offered an experience of confirmation to discussants. The story of how that woman’s family was forced to hide their air conditioner from their mother’s employer resonated with some members of the group. In their working lives, they too had to be careful about provoking white jealousy and subsequent repercussions. Some recounted how they masked their talents, dressed carefully, and were wary about letting co-workers see their homes. The group had no doubt black women still have to be careful to avoid sparking jealousy on the job. The group identified with the commentary in “Blindsided” by the dignified African American woman who holds forth on the experience of black professionals who must straddle worlds as they pursue upward mobility.

The group noted stories told by black domestics in The Help are pretty familiar and its range of characters doesn’t deviate much from already established types in black-white, maid, lady/child of the house portrayals in Southern Family Romances, e.g., Mammy who is obedient (but nurtures resentments); loved white baby; violent/alcoholic black male husband; tragic mulatto (See Imitation of Life) distant and controlling white patriarchs and a white female paragon.

Discussants noted the book’s heroine, Skeeter, rides off into the sunset, but may have endangered the maids who enabled her success. Group members wondered at the plausibility of Skeeter’s role as the transcriber of the maids’ tales. They doubted any black domestic dependent on white people would be trusting enough to reveal personal reactions about their employers to any white person, no matter how benevolent she seemed. Skeeter’s leaving her subjects behind to face what she’d wrought underscores the irreal quality of The Help.

The limits of Skeeter’s moral imagination cannot be denied. “Blindsided’s” discussion of Skeeter’s line on the “blackness” of Constantine’s gums suggests the term “blackness” has no positive valence for Skeeter who seems clueless about her own acceptance of white beauty standards. Instead the term’s use in this context moves the reader backwards toward pre-Civil Rights Era equations of blackness with ugliness. The group agreed Stockett’s language seemed graceless and that The Help proves there’s still a culture-wide need to affirm black is beautiful.

And that brings us to the book’s often lame representation of Black Vernacular English. The group noted this is a vital, generative American speech pattern, not simply a linguistic measure of mis-education. The mis-representations of Black Vernacular are ultimately a sign of the author’s distance from the very people she wants you to believe she’s engaging.

The members of the Florida group who saw the film of The Help remarked that the theaters were crowded – attendees were largely female and white with only one or two black people present at the showings (though this may be a feature of the theaters’ location in a retirement community). Most felt the film was superior to the book; it was tighter, the pacing was better and the acting was excellent, especially by the women who played the parts of the black maids. For these black actresses, the book’s problematic presentation of Black Vernacular was moot. They knew how to talk the talk.

The group’s movie-goers reported audiences had clapped when the film ended; and, sometimes, white individuals wanted to talk, often effusively, with any black person near them as they exited the theater. If the film sparked such expressions of approbation, maybe that was enough. Further, though the film is clearly not a cultural game-changer, it seems to be a money-maker. It this age of rage at Obama and racial fear-mongering, perhaps it’s better than nothing when “hopeful” spectacles of integration – however superficial – achieve popularity.

End Note

By Wesley Hogan

If readers take the path Stockett did not travel, and find out about black domestics’ experiences and cultures, the historical record is fairly rich. The black women interviewed for the WPA project who worked as southern domestics are online(http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html). Also useful are Judith Rollins, Between Domestics and their Employers (1987), Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women (1988), Stephanie Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and Do: Black Professional Women Workers in the Jim Crow Era (1996), Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington DC 1910-1940 (1996), Pierette Hondagnue-Sotelo, Doméstica (2001). For two important histories that came out after The Help, see Anne Valk and Leslie Brown, Living with Jim Crow (2010) and Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens (2010).

From September, 2011

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