Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE HELP: a novel written by Kathryn Stockett

Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen's Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild--either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.

Description of African Americans in Margaret Mitchell’s popular 1936 published novel Gone With the Wind

In 1936 Margaret Mitchell published Gone With the Wind a white fantasy of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era complete with white supremacist portrayal of enslaved Africans and her vision of who they were after emancipation. These fantasy “darkies” had no lives, dreams or aspirations outside of serving their enslavers. Her view of slavery portrayed the enslaved Africans as being content, happy childlike creatures who were devastated when the South lost the war and wanted to remain living with their “owners” in slave like condition. The “bad negroes” were the ones who could not wait to leave the plantations, who took off to fight for their freedom, who tried to become politically engaged during Reconstruction. In Gone With the Wind the Ku Klux Klan are the “good guys” the saviours of the day, putting the “uppity negroes” in their place with dreadfully violent acts. The contempt and disdain in which she held African Americans comes through loud and strong when she wrote about the Africans who had recently been freed from slavery: They were, as a class, childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders. The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom.

In spite of the white supremacist language of the book peopled with one dimensional stereotypical portrayal of African Americans it is considered the most beloved Civil War novel. Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for Gone With the Wind. By the time the story was made into an equally popular movie released in 1939, more than 1.5 million copies had been sold. In spite of their popularity with white Americans the book and movie caused some distress in the African American community. Letters of protest were written by African American individuals and organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. The demands and suggestions of African Americans were largely ignored by Hollywood and the rest is history.

Fast forward to the 21st century, more than 60 years after the release of Gone With the Wind and another wildly popular book written by a white woman (Kathryn Stockett) and made into a movie is causing anxious moments and dissatisfaction in the African American community. The book The Help published in 2009 (the movie released in 2011) tells the story of a group of white women and the African American women who work in their homes. According to Stockett her reason for writing the book is in memoriam of the African American woman who was her “family maid.” In the 1 ½ pages where Stockett reminisces about the woman who cooked, cleaned and raised two generations of her family she writes “Our family maid, Demetrie, used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don't count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. I'm pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn't something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I'd been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I've spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.”

Stockett would have been shocked out of her complacency by the answer Demetrie would have given her because it is obvious from the stereotypical characters of African American “maids” that people The Help that the author is clueless. The African American “maid” characters are contrived and caricatured especially their speech where the author struggles with the African American Vernacular (Ebonics.) If Stockett really wanted to write authentically about the lived reality of African American women working in the homes of white families during the 1960s then she would have read some books written by African American women telling their stories. Books including This Little Light of Mine, Memoirs of a freedom fighter, Coming of Age in Mississippi and From the Mississippi Delta are the stories of African American women who lived what Stockett has tried to write about.

African American women do not need their history rewritten to glorify white women with a fictitious young white writer charging in on her white steed to rescue a few hapless "maids" who idolise and rear the children of their “white families” as they silently suffer the abuse dished out from a handful of "bad egg" type employers. It borders on delusional for Stockett to retell the story with the mythical mammy peeping out from every corner of the book. Mammy came out of the imagination of white southerners determined to convince themselves that the enslaved African woman enjoyed her enslaved condition and loved her white tormentors and their children more than she loved herself. The mammy myth of the jolly, obese dark skin asexual woman was in contrast to the jezebel myth of the temptress enslaved African woman which was used to justify the rape of even enslaved female children. Stockett’s mammies are no threat to the white families who overwork and mistreat them until the young university educated white woman descends to the rescue. This in the 1960s when African Americans throughout the USA were sitting in, standing up and protesting. (Recommended reading From the Mississippi Delta by Ida Mae Holland published 1997)

The history of that period is well documented with African American sheroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Ida Mae Holland, Winson Hudson, Daisy Bates and countless others who suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse, emotional trauma and spirit injury but continued to fight the good fight. When those women and young girls were brutalized and traumatised by their employers (male and female) support came from their community, not from white women. The images that tell the stories of the role that white women played during that time including their resistance to 6 year old Ruby Bridges’ integration of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana and 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford’s integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as a member of the Little Rock Nine are available in books and on the Internet including: (, and

Of course if Stockett had followed the example of some white women who have taken the time to research and write books like Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi (by Grace Halsell published 1969) and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (by Danielle L. McGuire published 2010) her book would not have been as wildly popular as it is (279 copies at the Toronto Public Library and a “hold” list of 1,693) and most likely would not have been made into a movie.

In the book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power some of the stories unknown outside of the African American community have been included. The author scoured the archives of African American newspapers, old court records and she also interviewed some of the African Americans who lived through the trauma, horror and terrorism visited upon them by white Americans. The book is not for the faint of heart. In the book The Help the author writes about one of the “maids” giving away her girl child because the child looked white. It would be hilarious if it was not so sad that this white woman does not realise that African American women and their communities did not abandon their children because they looked white (many of them the result of rape by white men.) To add insult to injury the author writes that this white looking child who returned to cause her mother much distress and her eventual demise was the biological child of the African American woman and her African American husband. If the author was going for authenticity that child would most likely have been sired by the white husband, father, uncle, grandfather, son or cousin of the African American woman’s employer. This reality is well documented. When white skin children were part of African American communities it was because there was a white man somewhere in the gene pool. It reminded me of the story of the white women during slavery who tried to convince themselves and everyone within hearing that the light skin children of the enslaved women on their plantations obtained their skin colour because they lived so closely with the plantation’s whites. Of course they knew very well what their male relatives were up to but “there are none so blind as those who will not see.”

The African American community has suffered this kind of indignity for generations where white people have told their stories whether it was dressing up and performing in blackface, making movies like Pinky and Imitation of Life or writing books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Wind Done Gone written by Alice Randall published in April 2002 was an attempt to tell the story of the African Americans who were caricatured in Gone With the Wind. Hopefully it will not take 66 years for someone to tell the stories of the African American women in The Help.

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