Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Be Rude to The Help

(A twist on More Words Wednesday, today’s post provides more light on the controversial book/film The Help.) 
When I first saw previews for The Help, I assumed this would be yet another movie where Hollywood took a marginalized group and capitalized on their pain. I pushed it to the back of my mind and carried on with life. Then, at the family reunion two weekends ago, my mother handed me the book. I figured, why not give it a whirl.

It. Was. Amazing.

The story was breathtaking, the characters were three dimensional and it was quite an inspirational piece of historical fiction. The authenticity of the story was enough to make you ball your fist in anger, laugh aloud, talk back to the characters (Magic Johnson Theater style), and stay up half the night until you finished the next chapter. Millions of readers and scores of book clubs agree with me. Meanwhile, several folks, including the Black Womens Historians, have hurled many serious allegations against the work. I can’t vouch for the movie since I haven’t seen it yet. However, I can address some of the criticisms lobbed against the novel. Below are a few, followed by my counterclaim:

1. Who is this white woman writing a book about black maids? Why can’t we tell our OWN stories? A few weeks ago, acclaimed Black author Terry McMillan tweeted, “When black authors write about black people, white folks don’t read them. When they write about us: bestsellers.” And with a few notable exceptions -her books being some of them- she’s right. Nevertheless, when Kathryn Stockett penned The Help it didn’t muzzle the voices of countless black authors, artists, storytellers, teachers, historians, etc. If anything, Stockett’s overwhelming success sparked an interest in domestic workers and race relations in a broader audience that may inspire them to read more from other authors on the topic, who are likely to be Black. Furthermore, the story had 3 narrators. Two of them were Black maids and one was a young White woman. Unless the book had been co-written by a Black and White person, someone was going to have write across race lines.  

2. This story has the oh-so-tired theme of White people coming to save Black people. I’m sick of it! This criticism has to come from someone who didn’t read the book. In the novel, black women and white women worked together to write a book about the domestic workers’ experience. In fact, one of the maids did a good chunk of the writing herself. Repeatedly, the novel references Black maids doing the bulk of the work, taking on the bulk of the risk, coming up with innovative ideas, and saving the day even after working in white people’s homes all day. There was no White savior in this story; the novel speaks of a true collaborative effort. 

3. The book left out major historical events and didn’t discuss the civil rights movement in enough detail. The Help is a work of fiction. It is a novel. It is not a textbook. It did not attempt to take on the task of detailing the civil rights movement or anything else. It did however discuss Medgar Evers and his assassination, the desegregation of Ole Miss, Jim Crow laws, the March on Washington, and the conflict in Vietnam. All in a book that wasn’t necessarily designed to educate.

4. One of the major issues that Black domestic workers faced in the 60’s was sexual harassment. The Help didn’t even touch that! The Help touched on many themes including race relations, friendship, societal pressures for women, and finding love. Stockett could have sneaked in a scene about one of the employers abusing his maid, but she didn’t. I’ll be honest, I kept waiting for it to appear, so I was a little relieved when it didn’t happen. Those women had enough issues going on without it. Furthermore, while over 15 maids are referenced in the book, only 2 maids’ lives were followed closely. Is it really fair to assume that at least 1 in every 2 maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s was sexually harassed? I don’t think so.

5. The Black dialect she wrote the maids’ perspective in was offensive. This criticism usually comes from college educated people who recoil at the fact that there was a time when Black women (our great aunts and grandmothers) said “Lawd”, “chile” and didn’t always make their subject and verb agree. I don’t particularly care to be reminded that women my grandmother’s age were uneducated and spoke like it; but it’s accurate. That’s really how they talked. I could often hear my grandmother’s voice coming off the page when I read Abileen’s perspective. The novel doesn’t make Blacks look dumb or like buffoons; if anything, it paints Whites as generally cruel and prejudiced. Black women who were around in the 1960’s, particularly domestic workers, would probably be amused or maybe even angered to know that we are ashamed of how they spoke. And I hate to admit it, but I’ve heard much worse grammar in parts of NE DC than I read in The Help.

6. There weren’t any positive Black men in The Help. Not true. Reverend Johnson, Abileen’s son Treelore, the man who offered to walk Abileen home, and a few others were all positive Black men in the story. It looks like this novel has charted more positive Black men than a Tyler Perry movie. *rimshot* Also, this book was primarily about women’s’ relations. People fail to realize that domestic workers worked at the home with the wives; they spent little time with the husbands whose socks they darned. There was more than enough material in discussing the complicated relationship between homemaker and maid.

7. Isn’t her family’s maid suing her for stealing the story? It is true. There was a woman whose name is similar to Abileen’s who use to work for the Stockett family. She was a maid who similarly to her almost namesake’s story, lost her son (although she lost her son to cancer, the fictional Abileen lost her son to a workplace accident). This is where the similarities stop. Ablene Cooper, who was attempting to sue Stockett, was about 10 years old when the fictional story took place, so she couldn’t have possibly been the inspiration for the story. In an interview, Katherine stated that in the 70’s, she grew up with a maid and that she included many of these experiences in the novel. This woman’s name was Demetrie, however she has passed away.  I can’t say with 100% certainty that Ms. Cooper’s lawsuit isn’t valid, but it certainly seems flimsy. Interestingly enough, the book was released in 2009, and the film was released this year. The lawsuit didn’t arrive until after the book became a national bestseller. Something to ponder. Update: The lawsuit has been thrown out because of the statute of limitations.

The short version: People expected The Help to do a lot more than it set out to do. People’s complaints surrounding The Help are based in what they think the author should have talked about, how they think she should have shared the story and on who they think is allowed to talk about race relations. When in reality, that’s utter nonsense. If you would prefer to read a story about black women by black women, there are countless options available to you. Buy them. But shunning and criticizing The Help isn’t going to help those Black authors sell any faster, so what’s your purpose?

Either allow yourself to be entertained by The Help. Or don’t. But don’t create a scandal, controversy, or problem out of thin air. You’re only helping her sell books with every angry blog post you write. Meanwhile, we’ve got actual problems to handle; like tax breaks for billionaires that are so ridiculously unfair even Warren Buffet had to speak out against it.  

    Have you read The Help? Have you seen The Help? Are you a fan, a critic or a little of both? Please share!