The Wrong Author for the Right Story

Posted on June 22, 2010

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Stories, both fiction and non-fiction of the countless men and women (and even children) who labored in southern homes as domestics need to be told. Unfortunately, while her intentions were good, Kathryn Stockett was the wrong author to tell their tale, even though The Help is fiction based on fact.

Here’s the line that would best sum up my thoughts after reading the novel.

“I’m not a black person but believe I can play one.”

If only everything in life were that simple.

Stockett is a talented, capable writer. But in crafting the African American characters for this novel she  simply failed to do her homework. And it results in two lead characters who, though the names are different, fall back on familiar but tired depictions of African Americans. The issue isn’t whether a white author can create a compelling character of African American heritage. It’s whether that author will realize the pitfalls they face in attempting to do so (like noting the stereotypes of blacks to steadfastly avoid), and add needed research to what they believe they know about the black culture. In my opinion Stockett did not.

In coming to this conclusion, I used the book as a reference (studying how the author described the appearance, mannerisms and vernacular of her black characters, and how crucial  they were to advancing the plot),  but I also compiled a list of interviews the author has done. There is a marked difference in her responses from the book’s release in early 2009, until later that year in December of 2009. While I plan on listing all the interviews I’ve found on a separate page, I have included excerpts from many of those articles  in creating this site.

The actress Octavia Spencer is a friend of the author. Ms. Spencer has also won the role of Minny in the movie version of the novel, and was quoted by the California Literary Review Site as saying Stockett “has crafted complex, strong, moral, loyal and need I say it, intelligent women, in Minny and Aibileen.”

As her post goes on, she states: “Usually in literature, black women are relegated to being one dimensional, stereotypical characters: all nurturing, asexual, or completely invisible servants. So, I applaud her for at least giving these women emotional depth”

And finally: “I can state emphatically that Minny was my mother. She was an opinionated, strong, hardworking, sassy, progressive, MAID”

Ms. Spencer also commends Stockett for her “courage” to tell the stories.

http://calitreview.com/2526

In order to offer a counter opinion, let’s take a look at the two characters she references.

First, let’s take a look at Minny Jackson.

When the character is introduced in chapter two, here’s how she’s described by Aibileen on the bus they share going to their respective jobs:

“Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend.”

The picture I get of Minny from the excerpt above, is of a short, large woman with her legs wide open on a public bus.

While traveling on the bus Minny holds court, cracking jokes about her employer, Miss Walters. Aibileen confirms Minny’s popularity by remarking “Everybody like to listen to Minny.”

The conversation on the bus doesn’t turn into any subject matter such as the growing Civil Rights movement, or even remarks regarding other current events of the time. So whatever deep thoughts Minny might have are masked by her one liners and gripes over her employer.

Silence in the Back of the Bus

 

I also question just how Minny’s bus scene could become as rowdy as Stockett presents it, because the bus driver during that time would have been white, and even the passengers in front would have been white (yes, even though blacks didn’t have to sit in the back, it was still a wise thing to do so).

As the scene progresses, Minny shows a bit more of her bossy personality by proclaiming that  Hilly Holbrook, the main villain in the novel “ought to be extra careful around me.” Her tirade continues, as she advises “She ever say that to me, she gone get a piece of Minny for lunch.”

As it turns out, her statement is eerily prophetic (and extremely gross) later on in the novel.

Shortly after that conversation, Minny loses her job, and the reader finds out this isn’t the first job Minny has lost because of her “sassiness.” Minny can’t seem to keep a job because her sharp tongue gets her into trouble. And so,  a woman with five kids and a sixth on the way is now unemployed.

Minny is a character whose  purpose is twofold. She provides comic relief, and must provide information for Skeeter’s soon to be manuscript on how the black domestics really feel about their employers and their jobs.

The Queen of Sass, Mammy from Gone with the Wind

As I stated earlier in this post, the characters of Minny and Aibileen, though the names are different, are familiar ones. Because Minny, in providing the “comedy” joins a long list of black performers inserted into movies, whether a drama or comedy, to provide laughs, and usually, at their own expense.

Actor Stephin’ Fetchit was a popular black comedian in many a film during the 30s and 40s. Like Minny in The Help, his job was to complain (not too loudly though) and grumble about white folks and what they were asking him to do. In the classic film Gone With The Wind, both Mammy and Prissy expressed their displeasure and observations, which the audience found humorous. When Mammy chastises Scarlet for running after Ashley Wilkes, she hits her with this zinger “He ain’t asked to marry you.”

And  who can ever forget Prissy’s immortal line “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”

In The Help, Minny’s comedic retorts  include: “The white lady sticks her hand out to me and I study her. She might be built like Marilyn, but she ain’t ready for no screen test.”

So cue the laugh track, because Minny’s observations about the whites and the blacks she associates with are what many readers find humorous in the book.  When interviewed for the blog Boof’s Bookshelf, Kathryn Stockett was asked about Minny’s humor, to which she replied:

“Oh gosh, I’m not funny at all. I don’t like writing too much trauma. I want to be entertained myself as well as the readers; I can’t stand too much trauma. I think the book needed some humour.”

http://boofsbookshelf.com/2010/06/11/interview-kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help/

I can’t remember the last humorous book published on The Holocaust, 9/11, Apartheid or even on slavery (it may have been the parody “Wind Done Gone” which mocked Gone With The Wind from the slaves viewpoint)

Since Stockett admits she’s not funny, I had to wonder why she chose to turn Minny into a very bad comedian. And I also wondered if she even realized she’d resurrected another stereotypical character that plagues African Americans, whether in film, television or print. The character cursed with the smile that will not fade.

Aunt Jemima will forever smile

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have it. That eternal grin, a symbol of how blacks were required to behave throughout slavery and segregation. Stockett has created a character who appears to the reader, as a woman who’s chosen to voice her opinions with no filter on her mouth.

There have been various incarnations of this same character in other sit-coms like  The Danny Thomas Show aka Make Room for Daddy (the “sassy” maid Louise, played by Louise Beavers), Gimme a Break!  (Broadway tour de force Nell Carter’s character of Nellie Ruth) The Jefferson’s (actress Marla Gibbs’ character of Florence), to name but a few.  One of the foremost experts on the history of blacks in film and television is author Donald Bogle, a film historian and professor.  His books Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Superstars and Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, are crucial to anyone wishing to understand the impact these roles had and continue to have on the American culture. The role of the laughingly grumpy but loyal domestic  was first seen on early television by the show Beulah played by both Hattie McDaniel and later on by Louise Beavers.

Stockett even manages to include Minny’s children in tragic comedy of her life. Kindra, the five year old who gets to have dialogue, complains and pouts, acts bratty while Minny remarks “Kindra’s just like me.”

As the novel progresses, Minny, in an attempt at crass humor, tells how the woman who ran off with Aibileen’s husband Clyde woke up to find her “cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster.”

Aibileen is incredulous at this, and asks, “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

To which Minny  replies “I knew it make you worry if I told you. They just think you got a better connection (to god) than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.”

Any attempt to portray Minny (or Aibileen for that matter)  as “complex, strong, moral, loyal and intelligent women” as Octavia Spencer stated  seems to be slow in  coming. So far the first few chapters of the Help have revealed little to cement her argument. Not only that, but these two women whom the book portrays as christians, fall further into bad parody. The “black magic” reference and Aibileen’s questioning that people may think she practices it, mixes religion with supersition. This is another stereotype of African Americans, that while we may profess to be Christians, we’re really not. It’s also another moment where the reader can chuckle at how backwards Minny and Aibileen appear to be in their understanding of God and the bible.

 

Other stereotypes that conveniently appear in The Help:

While Minny secures new employment with Celia Foote (whom she describes as white-trash) their bond is complete when Minny takes a knife and confronts a naked pervert outside of Miss Celia’s residence.

And with this scene, Stockett has managed to include another negative trait affixed to African Americans, that there is a propensity towards violence within the culture. Minny convinces herself that she has to be the first to attack, even though both she and Miss Celia are in the house. In Minny’s frightened state (remember though, this is bossy, big enough to pick up a bus Minny) she fails to note that even if a naked man were to break the floor to the ceiling window, he’d still have to climb through. I would think being naked might pose a bit of a problem. And since Minny’s such a good cook, some boiling water thrown on the guy’s family jewels may have been enough.

Big and Bossy

Unfortunately, the scene further disintegrates into absurd buffoonery

Minny goes outside carrying Mr. Johnny’s hunting knife and a broom. And she advises Celia to lock the door behind her. This, imho is not an intelligent decision. The same woman who takes abuse from her husband would readily confront a pervert, to protect who?

Celia? ah yes…Miss Celia must be protected at all counts. Because Minny certainly wasn’t thinking about her own safety. I can’t figure out if this scene was supposed to be funny or dramatic, and it will be interesting to see how the movie handles it. As far as I’m concerned, if Celia and Minny were supposed to further bond over beating up a crazed pervert, I believe there could have been a better way to handle it. As it is, the scene turns even more unfunny, with Minny losing both her breath and the knife, while the pervert knocks her upside the head.

As Minny totters, just cringing, closing her eyes with a dread knowing  at what comes next, she thinks I’ve got to move away but I can’t. Where is the knife? Does he have the knife?

What Stockett does is forget what era she’s placed her characters in. Minny was in no position to attack someone white during segregation. By virtue of the pervert’s skin color , and especially since they were in the south, any criminal charges would have been pressed against her, not him. This may be another attempt by the author to inject more modern behaviors  into her characters(though having Minny be the first to attack is rare even by modern standards. Most women, no matter what color are usually on defense, not offense)

Thankfully, Celia comes to her rescue (Pg 308).

Going back to Octavia Spencer’s passionate defense of Minny, she mentions the character isn’t “asexual.”

That’s true. Minny isn’t asexual. She actually has five children and a sixth on the way. This brings up another stereotype about the black culture, which is the irresponsibility of having a large number of children and being unable to care for them.

And Stockett also saddles Minny with a husband named Leroy, who the book describes as a drunkard and abusive. Yet Minny, who cannot hold her tongue, rarely complains about the one person she should be complaining about. Her husband and how he treats her. No, Minny’s sarcastic humor is reserved most often for her employers and what they ask her to do.

When I first picked up the novel, I’d believed I would be reading about the African American  domestics who toiled under the oppressive system known as segregation. And it wasn’t until I’d finished the book and discussed its merits on several websites that I realized I clearly had the wrong impression. The Help isn’t about the maids. It doesn’t delve into their hopes, aspirations or give them a journey where they become changed or realize a change in the process. These are domestics who have little to say about the ever growing Civil Rights Movement around them, but much to say to Skeeter.

Maids and Nannies

It should have been about the maids, but somehow along the way that theme was changed. Kathryn Stockett was the wrong author for the right story. While I commend her for attempting it, even she admits in an interview with NPR that “I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie…I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815

A closer look at Aibileen Clark

The novel does start out with Aibileen, one of the central characters who at first appears to be a pious maid. And Aibileen does give a brief glimpse into her life. Her only son has been dead two years, and her husband had left them both long ago. Now Aibileen wakes each morning only to go to work and to take care of the children in the Leefolt household. Aibileen has a long list of children she’s taken care of (seventeen in fact). She takes pride in this accomplishment. But until she’s working with Skeeter on the novel, it seems there was little else in her life to be proud of.

Though she does grieve over her son, it’s not elaborated in the novel. Treelore, Aibileen’s son is mentioned fondly, but never really discussed in depth, unlike Skeeter’s haunted memories of her former maid. Skeeter reminisces moreso over the missing domestic Constantine than Aibileen apparently does over her only son.

Aibileen goes to church, and while Minnie is a friend, Aibileen has no push you to live your dreams or we both can do better than how we’re living best friend (that is, until Skeeter enters her life). Minny is a bit too much like one of her charges. Aibileen plays the mother role, admonishing Minny about her too quick tongue, which is the source of all Minny’s problems.

 While Aibileen takes almost exaggerated motherly pride in Mae Mobley’s potty training,  the stunted grieving period over her only son is reminiscent of Aunt Chloe’s antics, the Mammy character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

After learning a bit about Minny’s early life, I’d hoped to learn about how Aibileen became a maid. Was it really her chosen profession? Where was the rest of her family and why weren’t they in her life? Was her mother still alive? And, even after her husband had long abandoned her, like most women, didn’t she somehow still want companionship, contrary to the short paragraph that used her religious convictions as an excuse.

None of these questions were truly answered, as the book quickly veered into Skeeter’s story, and what ailed Skeeter.

And what bothers Skeeter is the mystery behind her childhood maid’s removal from duty. Skeeter and Constantine were close, and that bond is recalled through a detailed flashback. Constantine reveals her father was white and her mother was black. Though the character is bi-racial note how the author describes it in the next section.

While Skeeter is one of the very few good guys in the novel, the author  has her making the type of observations about Constantine’s skin color (Constantine and Aibileen knew each other, and Constantine was also Skeeter’s childhood maid) that borders on too much information.

As Skeeter recalls “What you noticed first about Constantine, besides her tallness were her eyes. They were light brown, strikingly honey-colored against her dark skin. I’ve never seen light eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin on her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony. The palms of her hands were orange-tan and that made me wonder if the soles of her feet were too, but I never saw her barefooted.”

I’m not certain how many bi-racial individuals of color the author has been around, but her description makes it appear that her contact has been limited. In addtion, bi-racial Constantine and her dark skinned lover have a near white child named Lulabelle who’s able to pass for white.  Here are a few African American actors (one white parent, one black) who were and are able to pass for white to give you an idea of Stockett’s error:

Actor Vin Diesel

 

black actress Fredi Washington

 

Jessica Szohr of Gossip Girl

 

Wentworth Miller from Resident Evil: Afterlife

 

The author doesn’t reveal whether Lulabelle’s father is also bi-racial. But the odds of Constantine having a child white enough to pass are slim. More research could have avoided this error.

Stockett focuses on overwhelming the reader with descriptions of color  regarding her black characters entirely too much. Yet the white characters skin color are limited to “She had olive skin” (Hilly) or “fair but creamy” (Skeeter).

Some readers have given Stockett a glowing pass on the black characters, even claiming that the author’s depiction is authentic and the vernacular pitch perfect. I disagree.

When the white characters are described, the emphasis is on their hair, their clothing, never their skin. The black characters are an “other” as in an almost deliberate  notice how different they are, not only in speech, but in looks and behavior. If this book was meant to be a homage to Demetrie, as I read it I don’t find much admiration or affection. Oh, Aibileen and Minny do form bonds with several characters. Minny with Miss Celia, the outcast she calls “white trash.” And Aibileen practically raises Mae Mobley from infancy. There’s also Skeeter’s fond memories of Constantine.

The whys of it are never explored. The reader is just told. We know Hilly and Elizabeth and even Skeeter are operating under the strict rules of segregation.

But what motivates Aibileen and Minny to behave the way they do?

It’s an outsider’s view of a culture, cherry picking snipets of life that will fit the novel, and in many cases, the behaviors that are stereotypical.

I was hard pressed to find examples of positive attributes for the black characters. In truth, I found more negative than positive, though many readers state that the African American characters are the most intelligent and admirable in the book.

And I counter, how so?

There was one character named Yule May Crookle, who was mentioned having attended college though she didn’t graduate. But both she and her husband raised twin sons that they’d hoped to send to college.

Yet this character winds up in jail, convicted of stealing. And her last name is “Crookle”

Leroy, Minny’s husband is often times described as drunk. He’s non-supportive, and is abusive both physically and verbally.

And while Minny is described as unable to retain a job because of her mouth, she does appear to be extremely loyal if she becomes your friend.

Constantine, the childhood maid of Skeeter is ostrasized after having a child out of wedlock, a child who could pass for white named Lulabelle. And Lulabelle ironically grows up to be surly enough to cause Constantine to lose her job.

Too many of the black characters sound, act and even physically resemble each other.

Most are described a large or big women, whether in height or weight. Only the horribly named Pascagoula escapes this type casting. The author tries to cover this by having the black help explain that employers only want dark complexioned maids.

While an employer would be cautious about having a maid who could pass for white, because African Americans come in so many varieties of brown, what’s “dark” to some whites may be “light” to a black person. So this is an area the author again stumbles over. Having the maids explain it in one sentence just isn’t enough to justify why Stockett created characters who sound and resemble each other, as if they’re clones.

And let’s be clear. Though the word “black”  is sometimes switched for “African American” no black person is ever truly the color black. Just like no white person is really white, as in “she was as white as a blank piece of paper.  But in this novel, African American skin color is referenced as “black as asphalt” or  “black as night”.  In The Help, no one’s skin color (of the African Americans) is ever richly brown, or described in a way that would make the reader think the skin color is attractive. Come to think of it, the way the African American characters are portrayed in the book, not a one is good looking.

See the figurine for an example of “black as night”

Figurines, like black lawn jockies and hefty maids were popular accessories during segregation

However, there are a few whites who are labeled “pretty” such as Skeeter’s mom and Hilly’s child. Even gawky Skeeter, for all her self criticism is called “pretty” by Stuart.

So why do I believe Stockett was not the author to write about the Help?

Because the African Americans in this book, much like the black culture are still a mystery to her. She finds no beauty in the culture, and wrote it that way.

But it didn’t have to be.

When asked in early 2009  interviews if she’d spoken to any African Americans (in short, done any research on the black community she writes about) Kathryn Stockett mentions interviewing an elderly employer and her maid.

Interview with Clair Suddath of TIME magazine

Did you talk to any African-American women who lived through that time period?

“I did get to interview a white woman and her maid who were together in the 1960s. It was so interesting to compare their perspectives. The white woman’s strongest memory of her maid was of the delicious pralines she made. When I went to speak to the maid, she [remembered] working for this woman when [civil rights activist] Medgar Evers had just been assassinated. Her children were walking down the street in a protest and she was so afraid her employer would turn on the TV and see them and then she would lose her job.” 

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html

In the same interview Stockett mentions writing in the voice of her grandparent’s maid, Demetrie, who partially influenced her to write the book and her misgivings.

Did you worry about the implications of being a young, white author writing in the thick dialect of African Americans?

“I’m still worried about that. On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.”

In yet another interview, the subject of research comes up again. Note what she doesn’t say, which is what African American authors, professors or whether Demetrie’s still living relatives  are consulted.

Interview with Sarah Prior of the UK site BookRabbit

What kind of research did you have to do?

It was predominantly based on memories and life experiences, and I spoke to as many people as I could about their thoughts and feelings, the book is definitely fiction though, I didn’t use anybody’s specific story. Politically, I had to do a lot of research on the Jim Crow laws. I mean it was on the law books what blacks and whites could do together, or not do together rather, and I had to really go back and do a lot of research on that, but it wasn’t really a long time ago which is what is so shocking. I knew about the more nuanced divisions between blacks and whites but I just could not believe that it was written in the law that blacks and whites couldn’t swim in the same swimming pool, or play pool together or use the same water fountain, just crazy.

  http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

Segregation included specially reserved days for blacks only. Photo by Ernest C. Withers

And finally, she writes the cadence and vernacular of the black help based upon memory:

 Interview with Jane Kleine of the Post and Courier

“The voices of Aibileen and Minny came to me fairly easily once I got going,” she says. “I’d listened to the cadences and dialect of black Southerners most of my life, and I just played them back in my head.”

http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/22/voices_past_remembered_new_book83144/

I’ve got a post on this site asking Does Familiarity Breed Contempt? in the post, I’m attempting to explore why many authors believe that taking on the persona, or the “voice” of an African American is somehow simpler than many other cultures. So much simpler, that in many cases, there’s little or no research.

Perhaps the theory is we are a known entity, with no hidden characteristics, or vocabulary that cannot be deciphered, no truly deep thoughts or emotions, no variation in individual traits that would require additional investigation to properly portray the black culture. It was done previously with hilarious results. Two white writers devised the characters known as Amos ‘n Andy, first for radio and then for television.

White actors portraying Amos and Andy

 The show, using black actors was on the air as late as 1965. It wasn’t taken off the air for low ratings. It was removed due to protests from the NAACP.

And while silky voiced crooner Nat King Cole had problems finding a sponsor for his progessive music variety show in 1959, and even Sammy Davis Jr. had a short lived talk/music show, Amos ‘n Andy thrived.

It seems, taking on what’s perceived as a “Black” dialect and voice, is simply a matter of a deep southern accent, mispronounced words and a whole lot of cackling laughter.

So, how similar is  “humor” The Help to the jokes from Amos ‘n Andy?

Note this line from the show:

Thank you, brothers; and, in the words of that great American poet Ralph Walnut Emerson, you all has my infernal gratitude. – spoken by George “Kingfish” Stevens

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043175/quotes

Now notice what the author has Aibileen say:

“Just pour some pneumonia in that garbage”…I jot it down, amending it to Ammonia (Pg 84) – Skeeter correcting what Aibileen has told her

George “King ” Stevens “You see, Andy; the first thing you need to fly is excellent eyesight. Now, how much is 10 plus 10?
George writes the math problem on the board
Andrew Hogg Brown “20″.
George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens “Ok; now, what is ten times 2?”
Andrew Hogg Brown “20″.
George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens “Oh, you see Andy; you has twenty-twenty vision.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043175/quotes

Compare that a nonsensical conversation between Skeeter and Constantine:

“I was in attic, looking down at the farm,” I tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.”

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) – Constantine’s reply to Skeeter

These are aren’t the only attempts at “humor” in the novel, showing just how funny the African Americans are, so comedic in using the wrong words or the meaning of simple phrases are incorrect.  The characters saddled most often with trying to make the reader laugh are the black characters, even though they’re the ones feeling the brunt of segregation’s blows.

The African American depiction in the help is akin to writing a book on the Japanese culture, and creating inscrutable Japanese characters, pliable, silent Geisha’s and school kids who turn into ninjas at the drop of a hat.

The Book Club Stamp of Approval

The novel is a hit with many book clubs, especially those overwhelmingly white. The novel has reminded them of their very own help and many have fond memories, that much is clear. But as the book club members speak of their domestics, and in some cases speak for them, there is one thing many do not want to dwell on.

That the affection believed shared with their black help may not have been mutual.

To be continued…

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