Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"The Help": Educational and Interesting


Recently, I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett reluctantly, worried it might not be sympathetic to African Americans. Turns out, I could not have been more mistaken. I enjoyed the book immensely, for its entertainment and pedagogical value. It's an important book and should have been easily published.

I have to say, the book made me feel and think about southern civil rights in ways that were new. The author's goal was to entertain, not to create any perception of a well-rounded agenda of further action that needs to be delivered to ignorant masses of white Americans. The author's audience is much larger, and more elusive, and points politely at  important issues, at least those of the time.

The author's major contribution is to voice the sentiments of  southerners in a way that is entertaining enough to be digested by mass populations not knowledgeable on the subject. I believe another book of the same caliber of entertainment on the subject has not been written since the original story of Gone with the Wind first published in 1936. It was an immense epic that idolized the old south and rich white people, and starred African-Americans only in secondary roles, with the exception of Scarlett O'Hara's Overseer.

The author claims much of it is fiction, despite the fact that a maid of the author's brother is suing her for using her in a story, which is rather a remarkable outcome, I would guess. Even if part of it is fiction, she must have gotten the material from somewhere, although I am not saying for a second the author lifted material from an actual person. I wouldn't know that. Maybe that's the trouble, I am confused about what's fact in the book, and what's fiction.

While I can in no way portray myself as an expert on the civil rights or factual content in The Help, anyone I have talked to about the book has taken away different historical references to chew on.

In an entertaining memoir I have just read, The Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, references to a few injustices in the deep south were explained in a matter-of-fact way, and broadened my understanding of social injustices - one of my favorite topics on this blog, by the way. When I was about thirteen, I read Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" as I drove with my parents to a wedding on a three-day trip through northern Ontario, and the heat of that book warmed me for weeks, if not months.

I can't resist my opportunity to be supportive of an author against the unkind, hate-filled words of an opposing organization. I read a review of "The Help by Rebecca Wanzo in the Huffington Post which mentioned an organization with which I am unfamiliar, the Association of Black Historians. This Association has written an angry notice on its website directed to fans of The Help and in doing so, is amplifying racial overtones. Here are my reactions to their accusations, although I am only one person, and they are an entire organization.

The website notice by the Association is guilty of slews of oxymorons combining contradictory terms. It surprises me they should backlash against someone who has portrayed an era with sympathy for the workers, as Gone with the Wind did not, at least not as much. I just can't understand the unkindness of all those group members. Kathryn Stockett has depicted inequalities in ways they have not, at least as an organization, and it comes off as a rant of jealousy, bitterness, and is inaccurate, at best. It is a fiendishly topic to make interesting, isn't it?

Any foreigner in search of reliable information about the deep south wants to find it doled out in a palatable, entertaining way. I think the writers of that vituperative manifesto on the website have made several errors, which are rather obvious.
The stereotypical aspects of the novel elude me because I do not know any persons like the characters in the book. They may provide stereotypes to persons familiar with the content. I am just saying these roles are an introduction of fictional characters in a novel, no more, and no less. Certainly, they are not stereotypes to me.

The website, to make its point, states that The Help has sold "over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office." Numerous  books and movies have been flops despite huge budgets on top of "heavy promotion" so that's a clear oxymoron.

To say Kathryn Stockett's portrayal of representatives of "90 percent of working black women in the south" in the 1960s (a shockingly high number to me), is just a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy" is another oxymoron. I have not ever read such a well-rounded, sympathetically detailed description of the everyday life of  1960s African-American female (90% of them, after all, which is a point the author is making, too) in Mississippi. Not ever. That's a large number of the population with which many of us in the world, and even within the United States, are unfamiliar. 

I don't believe there is a lot of nostalgia for the 1960s in Mississippi in the book. Certainly, the book highlights the wrongs with that way of life, surely, when "a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it." Excuse me, but weren't female bathrooms installed for Senators only recently? We're all in this together, we women. The Vatican in Rome, Italy, had the longest line to women's (not to the men's) bathrooms I have ever seen in all my days!

The note says the black maids in the book are portrayed as "asexual" (without giving examples, but I do not agree).  Aren't  most maids in the novel married? Also, "loyal"? I think Minny was one of the most independent and disloyal of all maids I have ever read about..

Also, the letter of the historians misspells "smart" to "smat" and complains about spelling "Lord" -- "Law" although the entire linguistic attention showed a reader the dialect of southern speech in highlights as other classic southern stories have, so that the sounds of the voices could not be ignored.

The letter also complains about the sexual harassment and abuse of all kinds in the homes of white employers. Considering I thought that had gone out of style with the Civil War, the sheer volume of abuse detailed in the book was news to me. I think the author did an excellent job, even if the detailed abuses were not as deep as these Black Historians would have liked. This is a fictional novel; it is not the work of a historian. The author can say what she likes. After all, isn't she taking the blame by being sued, and for bearing the generational brunt of black female historians like these women?

White supremacist organizations like the White Citizens Council, I had never heard of in my life.  Perhaps the author wrote what she knew about, firsthand, which wasn't the Ku Klux Klan. (These are groups that believe they are "protecting" those of European origin and are anti-immigration). That is the right of the fiction novelist....One of her themes had to do with the unsaid rules of society. Far from "stripping" black women's lives of historical accuracy "for the sake of entertainment" I think the novel reveals valuable new ways of looking at old problems. It shines a new light on the topic of deep south society in the early '60s, the mistakes and the changes that needed to happen to correct them, rather than stripping it of importance. I don't know of anyone who thinks those days were better than  today. One of the goals of the novel, I think, is to highlight the racism of genteel white society in the bad old days of the early 1960s.

If the movie makes light of real fears and turns them into moments of comic relief, then that is truly a travesty, I agree. If so, I sympathize. I am surprised about the choice of actresses in the movie. I would have cast roles differently after reading the book, specifically Hilly.

I would have preferred to see certain disturbing scenes of the book  edited out -  specifically, about the intruder (which was edited out of the movie), and even the cake, the point of which, as "insurance" Hilly would not go after the maids is questionable to me - and I think it would have made as strong an impact. As well as being entertaining, this novel and movie, triumph because of the importance of the topic.

 The Help doesn't promise anywhere within the text to be a well-rounded historically accurate depiction of the sociological implications of the 1960s in Mississippi. The amazing contribution is that it's better entertainment than many alternatives out there, in a socially sensitive area where few others have succeeded, and been as educational. The Association has suggested further books to read on it's website. I hope they are interesting, and I will write reviews if they are.



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