Well, it's finally here, a day that will live in infamy, the day that the motion picture adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's insufferable novel, "The Help", is released. As you might have guessed from this first sentence, as well as from the title of today's blog, I am not a fan of "The Help." I hate it and my hatred of it began on the Merritt Parkway, somewhere around Trumbull, Connecticut. My husband and I were on our way to visit family, and the local NPR station was airing an interview with one Kathryn Stockett, author a brand new novel that was causing a stir. The NYC-based Stockett had loosely based this period piece on the black maids who had worked for her Mississippi family and her family's friends. The NPR reporter went to great lengths describing the blond and beautiful Stockett, and, within the first 5 seconds of hearing Stockett herself, I gleaned that she shared this opinion.
The story of "The Help" is a memory tale, told from the perspective of the character, Skeeter, a young, white southern girl at a crossroads in her life - follow the traditional path of other southern white women towards marriage and family or embark on a new path as a writer. Helping Skeeter along the way is her black maid, Aibileen, who shows Skeeter the painful world of black domestic workers in the Jim Crow south. The novel's subject matter isn't all that earth-shattering as other, less commercially successful works of fiction and nonfiction have described the exploitation of blacks employed as domestic servants. But, Stockett's little ole book was making waves, mostly due to the author's decision to employ vernacular for the black characters. Stockett admitted that this particular choice had generated a great deal of consternation among publishers as she shopped the book around, but she defended her use of it as an authentic characterization, and then, it happened - she began to read passages from her book, complete with the "you is" and the "yes'ums." Are you kidding me??!! It was like audible black face! Stockett's little Minstrel show went on for what seemed forever and by its conclusion I was in full stew and had resolved to never read that book.
Until last summer, when I was asked to take part in a discussion of the book. My grandmother had worked as a maid for a white family and when I was in college, a black woman named Mrs. Proctor, cleaned our Honors' Program dormitory. Add to that that the fact that I'm a black woman and you've hit the trifecta! I read the book in one day, forcing it down in big gulps, meeting Skeeter and Hilly and Minny and Celia and, of course, the Magical Negro of Aibileen. Those first blossoms of hatred that bloomed on the Merritt had now become a bumper crop! My anger wasn't just because of Stockett's use of vernacular, or because this white woman was attempting to describe the interior lives of these black women, or because all of the novel's characters - black and white - were so one-dimensional. No, my anger was why this tale, so lacking in profundity, was garnering so much attention and racing off of bookstore shelves. Why the hell were so many people reading this hot mess of a book??
I got some answers at the book discussion, which was attended by sixty or so black and white people from multiple generations and regions of the U.S. There were some people who, like Stockett, grew up in the south with beloved black servants. For them, "The Help" conjured up rich memories of happy times with people whom they considered members of their family. But, there were also black and white discussion group members for whom the system of black servitude was foreign. For this group, Stockett's heroic tome of friendship across the great race divide was inspiring. I came away from the event irritated, as I seemed to be the only person whose anger was directed towards the author and her shallow, self-congratulatory attempt to talk about racism. Here we are, a country with a President who is black and white, but yet the only way we can discuss race relations is to flee back to the ample bosom of the black mammy!!??
Right now, London is on fire with the worst race riots its seen in decades, and on the eve of the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s monument on the National Mall, the racist chatter against the President is at an all time high. Now is not the time to smugly slap ourselves on the back and say that we have overcome prejudice, if anything, it's time to go deeper. I'm just saying.