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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Help: A Review

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Kathryn Stockett's novel 'The Help,' examines the lives of three women (two black maids, and a white ally) that write a book exposing true stories of life for black maids in in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. I confess, I approached the book with a bias of suspicion. A white author trying to portray the lives of fictional black folk is dangerous ground. And the fact that a maid working for Stockett's family is suing over the book, is not a good sign.

The scapegoating of the evil-racist Hilly Holbrook is of most concern to me because it is such a dangerous, yet common, practice in white racial literature. Hilly is portrayed in an extremely unsympathetic light, and we are allowed to distance ourselves from her clearly-inappropriate 'racist' views. Thus, we are free to identify with the white-savior heroine (see post: White Savior Complex), congratulating ourselves that we would never be so obviously racist.

These sentiments play into white folks' tendencies to associate the word 'racist' with people that blatantly espouse hatred, rather than examine the nuances of systemic racial advantage and subconscious bias. Similarly, setting the book in the 1960's, invites a congratulatory look on how far we have come, rather than examining the modern consequences of that era. As long as we're not that bad, we must be alright. Macon D of 'Stuff White People Do' notes: "While The Help is about people who risk their lives to challenge the status quo of their day, the book itself does very little to challenge the status quo of its own day." The fact is, the attitudes articulated in the book are still alive and well today, if more hushed.

The obvious (and most oft cited) critique of The Help is Stockett's use of dialect, which is awkwardly exaggerated in her black characters, but nonexistent in her white voices, despite the narrative's taking place in Mississippi. 'Stuff White People Do' calls Stockett's voicing "literary blackface." You can by the movie's trailer that the white characters have a southern draw, so where is it in the text? Its absence is another example of the normalization of white and the otherization of all else.

The trailer also illustrates who this story is about, and to whom it is being marketed. We see seven white faces before any of the main black characters appear, 30 seconds into to clip. The ad has a few short moments of dialogue for the black characters, surrounded by a dominating white narrative. Maybe the movie is more even-handed in its perspective, but the producers make clear their priorities for who gets to tell this story, before we have even entered the theater.

*spoiler alert*
Many have characterized The Help as having a happy ending. But for whom? Yes, the book gets published, but at what price, and who pays it? The success of the book propels Skeeter's career and she leaves Jackson to pursue writing at a new job in NYC. She expresses guilt over leaving Aibileen and Minny to deal with the fallout, but ultimately this is her choice.

Although Skeeter's social life is destroyed, the potential consequences were never as great for her as for the maids that told their stories. It is an adventure for her, a moment of belated teenage rebellion, while she trifles with the lives of those she professes to help. She is young and unencumbered, with the resources to leave town and start over. This is a girl of aspiration that seizes on her opportunity, not a brave self-sacrificing heroine. She barely even earns 'white savior' status.

The book ends with Aibileen looking towards her future with great hope and she contemplates a fresh start. Never mind that she is beyond middle-aged, has just been fired from her job, she has no family, no savings, and no prospects.

Likewise Minny is also portrayed with hope, as she has just detangled herself from an abusive relationship. But again, she has nowhere to live, no father for her children, and a former employer out for vengeance. As we reach the end of the book we hear about the increasing victories of desegregation, but anticipate very little of the trials that the next 50 years, and indeed present day, will hold. Yes, the book ends happily, but it feels disingenuous and short-sighted.

Despite these short comings, I did look forward to my evenings reading The Help. The narrative is compelling, and the story-telling is creative. If it were one of many race-related books on the best-seller list, I may not have been so critical. But the truth is, this is probably one of the few books of racial content that a lot of white folk will read this year, or ever in their adult lives, which means the pressure is on to do the topic justice. And justice is lacking.

Stockett wrote in what she supposed were the words of black women, but if one really wants to hear a black voice, empower a black voice to be heard. Support black artists that create wonderful works that will express exactly what the world is like for each individual, rather than trying to voyeuristically peer into what your imagination supposes it may be for a group.

The Help has rocked the charts, and yet there have been plenty of opportunities to read fiction and non-fiction on similar topics. Check out Octavia Butler or Maya Angelou, for starters. Then go to 'White Readers Meet Black Authors' and immerse yourself in the rich options before you. Once you have read several of those, re-read The Help and decide whether it is still as 'revolutionary' as you once thought.

At the very least, it would have been nice to see some more challenging discussion questions in the back of the book. Perhaps something to spur discussion about modern manifestations of racism or the cultural legacy that we inherit from the era portrayed.    

I hope the book can be a conversation starter, at the very least. I hope that folks won't simply finish it, leaving with a satisfied feeling that they have fulfilled their 'race quota' in their summer reading list. I hope that both the book and the movie can be vehicles to help to break the 'white silence' on race, particularly when it comes to this especially euphemized aspect of 1960's life.

Certainly, there are also issues of class prejudice here that persist today. How do we treat 'the help' today? How do we still maintain these arms-length class distinctions, even if by different modern rhetoric? When is the last time you had a conversation with the people that clean your work place? Do you even know their names? Do you avoid eye contact and awkwardly avoid crossing paths? If these folks are a different race than you are, how does that play into your interactions? Far be it from us to superciliously critique Hilly until we have examined the classist and/or racist plank in our own eye.

At the end of the day, with soaring sales and an upcoming movie, Stockett is profiting very well from The Help. Gee..thank goodness for all those Mississippi maids that made the story possible. I wonder where they are now.

Read the book? Seen the movie? What are your thoughts?

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  1. Of note, Stockett makes clears her aspirations: to
    be the next 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' (you know, since there hasn't
    been any other books about race since then). TKAM is
    mentioned by name at least 5 or 6 times thougought her narrative, and
    included among her accolades (from NPR and others), declaring her goal
    accomplished, whether or not it is a standard to which she should aspire.

  2. Well, since To Kill a Mockingbird is also rather simplistic in it's depictions of racism and it's empowered, overly perfect, white hero—perhaps she has achieved her goal.

  3. Some thoughts from What Tami Said:

  4. While I haven't read the book, I did see the movie, and felt all of what you wrote and more. It totally centers the white voices, and gives us much more depth about their lives, and while we are supposed to have empathy for the black characters we barely know them at all. But people will definitely check it off their list, like The Blind Side last year, and feel like they have done their  'race work' for the year. So sad.

  5. Thanks for your comments! Good ones, indeed. 


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