Is The Help literary “Blackface?”

Posted on July 12, 2010

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Al Jolson in blackface makeup. In his time, Jolson was also known as The World’s Greatest Entertainer.

In an interview with artscriticalatl.com’s Paul Kapur Hinzen, the author of The Help was asked her views on Atlanta, Georgia society today.  

PKH: And what about in terms of race? Do you feel there is a lot of racial mixing here?

Kathryn Stockett: I’m not a sociologist and I’m not an anthropologist. We’re just an old liberal family. We don’t give it much thought. We just live our lives. And I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that question.

http://www.artscriticatl.com/2010/05/author-appearance-kathryn-stockett

Yet in The Help, Stockett slips into the black characters easily, even making sociological statements like this: Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think aboutMinny Jackson (Pg 311)

Was Stockett speaking vicariously through her black characters? And was she making judgments on present day life concerning African American families when the tale is supposed to be grounded in the 1960s?

In addition, is there a  white character making comparable assumptions about their males?

I’m leaving this question open ended, because as of yet, I haven’t found a generalization about the white males in The Help that is along the same train of thought as Minny’s.

Both Minny and Aibileen have some highly negative things to say about their mates. Add in the secondary domestic character Constantine, and that’s yet another female character with a less than desireable male.

The white characters, save for Skeeter don’t seem to have this problem. Shrew though she is, Hilly somehow lands a decent husband. So does Elizabeth Leefolt, and even Skeeter’s father comes across well. Johnny Foote, Celia’s husband lovingly tolerates her drinking and tight clothes. And yet it’s the black males in The Help, specifically Leroy, Minny’s husband and Aibileen’s estranged ex Clyde, who Stockett uses to paint a number of black men during segregation as “no-account.” 

Here are a few of the things Minny and Aibileen had to say about the “no account”  males in their lives: 

He’s no fool. He knows if I’m dead, that paycheck won’t be showing up on its own. Minny, talking about her husband Leroy (Pg 130)

“Leroy” Aibileen shakes her head. “Tell him I said he better behave. Or I put him on my prayer list.” Aibileen talking to Minny about Leroy (PG 127)

But with my sister’s heart problems and my no-good drunk daddy, it was up to me and Mama. Minny recalling her youth (Pg 38)

So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool. Aibileen’s opinion of Minny’s husband (Pg 26)

We started calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever know. Aibileen talking to her son about his father (Pg 5)

It’s clear that the character of Minny was a favorite for Stockett. Note what she tells interviewer Sarah Prior of Bookrabbit:

“Aibleen and Minny I had a ball with, Minny was pretty fun because you can let it all out, she’ll say anything or do anything. Aibleen was a little bit more difficult than Minny because she was more careful.”

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

I put what Stockett said about Minny in bold, because it struck me as more than just an author speaking of a character. It’s as if the author were living through Minny, perhaps doing literary blackface with a character she believed was funny. But in doing that, did Stockett give her character too much modern leeway? Was she true to the time period Minny inhabited, but most important, was Stockett giving segregation the gravity it needed?

Here are a few other examples of what Stockett has Minny saying:

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” Minny speaking of a person holding a community meeting concerning the Woolworth sit-ins (Pg 217)

“And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver.” Minny (Pg 218)

Once again, the items in bold are what struck me as odd coming from a black character being penned by a white writer. In her glee to inhabit Minny, I wondered, did Stockett possibly go too far?

The author may have realized this early on, as voiced in this interview with Clair Suddath  of Time magazine:

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

Stockett: 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.

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

Part of the problem with the black characters isn’t just how they speak, but what they say. It’s as if Stockett, in an attempt to mimic the black culture is trying to do a stand up comedy routine. Much of what Minny and Aibileen discuss has to do with badmouthing the people they associate with, mean-spirited gossiping that lacks substance in light of the times and also what both are going through in their lives.

And what was not lost on me is how the interviewer framed the question to Stockett,  the generalization “writing in the thick dialect of African Americans.”

And also calling the forty year old Stockett a “young” white author :)

There’s nothing wrong with having a character with some edge to them. But Minny comes across as not only loose tongued, but unlikeable in many instances regarding her own culture. Actually, Stockett has both Aibileen and Minny saying things that border on them being women uncomfortable with the skin they’re in.

Tate Forrest, one a my used –to be-babies long time ago, stop me on the way to the Jitney last week, give me a big hug, so happy to see me…how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say she still ain’t drunk a cup a coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine. Aibileen (Pg 91)

So how is it that reviewers and even readers who enjoyed the novel could dismiss these distorted characterizations? Perhaps for some, the novel simply validates what they previously believed or thought they already knew about African Americans.

In reading many of the accolades given the novel by commentors on Amazon.com, an overwhelming number voice the opinion that the African American characters are portrayed as credible. Yet just as many readers honestly admit they know nothing of segregation, and don’t “know” any African Americans. One reader even tried to refute a reviewer who’d given the book one star by insisting she’d overheard a group of African Americans talk, and that’s “how they speak.”

This belief that overhearing a racial group speak is how they all must speak is nothing new. A beloved classic, Walt Disney’s Dumbo contains a scene with a flock of crows. They even speak in the stunted vernacular Stockett used for The Help. The crows have a singing number titled “I’d be done see’n about everything/when I see an elephant fly!”

For any readers who just don’t see what’s wrong, note the “Southern” dialect in bold.

I seen a clothes horse, he r’ar up and buck
And they tell me that a man made a vegetable truck
I didn’t see that, I only heard
But just to be sociable I’ll take your word

I heard a fireside chat, I saw a baseball bat
And I just laughed till I thought I’d die
But I’d be done see’n about everything
when I see an elephant fly

http://www.lyricsbox.com/disney-lyrics-when-i-see-an-elephant-fly-t1ghx69.html

There’s also the nameless. faceless (yes, they really don’t have faces) obviously black workers who set up the circus before the acts got there.

 Here’s an excerpt of what they sing: “We work all day, we work all night. We never learned to read or write. We’re happy-hearted roustabouts. When other folks have gone to bed, we slave until we’re almost dead”

Here are the lyrics to the 1941 Disney The Song  of the Rostabouts (note again, the “southern dialect, but also the offensive statements made in the lyrics that I have made bold for those who still don’t get it)

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we’re almost dead
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We don’t know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away

(When we get our pay, we throw our money all away)
We get our pay when children say
With happy hearts, “It’s circus day today”
(Then we get our pay, just watching kids on circus day)

Muscles achin’
Back near breaking
Eggs and bacon what we need (Yes, sir!)
Boss man houndin’

Keep on poundin’
For your bed and feed
There ain’t no let up
Must get set up
Pull that canvas! Drive that stake!
Want to doze off
Get them clothes off

But must keep awake
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Hep! Heave! Hep!

Swing that sledge! Sing that song!
Work and laugh the whole night long
You happy-hearted roustabouts!
Pullin’, poundin’, tryin’, groundin’
Big top roundin’ into shape
Keep on working!
Stop that shirking!
Grab that rope, you hairy ape!
Poundin’! poundin’! poundin’! poundin’!
Oh…

http://www.lyricsbox.com/disney-lyrics-song-of-the-roustabouts-h91lxjq.html

An excellent article with an embedded youtube video by writer Ben Joseph of Cracked is available for viewing.  Check out his 2007 article titled: 

The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters

http://www.cracked.com/article_15677_9-most-racist-disney-characters.html

Some of the comments remind me of the many posters who defend The Help with similar reasons. ” The crows are the most intelligent and admirable creatures in Dumbo! They actually helped him learn how to fly!”  

Now when I say defend, I mean the posters who believe that by bringing up the issues in the book, somehow that person is just trying to cause problems. Ironically, when whites and blacks from the north came down south to try to help African Americans win their voting rights during the 1960s(see Freedom Riders) many southerners said something similar. That these people were trying to cause trouble, inciting their “good” blacks, who were content with things just as they were.  

I did find an instance in the book where Minny refers to a character as “white-trash.” That character is Celia Foote. When Aibileen first speaks to Celia on the phone she can tell from her voice:

This woman talk like she from so deep in the country she got corn growing in her shoes. Her voice is sweet though, high-pitch. Still, she don’t sound like the ladies round here do.

The one who sounds like they’re “so deep in the country she got corn growing in her shoes” is Aibileen. And it’s hard to tell why Celia comes across this way, since Celia’s dialogue fails to convey her country-ness to the reader.

Here’s an example from page 24: “Um, hi. This is…hello, may I…may I please speak to Elizabeth Leefolt?”

And

“This is Celia Foote.My husband gave me this number here and I don’t know Elizabeth, but…well, he said she knows all about the Children’s Benefit and the Ladies League.”

Maybe if the above dialogue went like this: “Lookee here gal , this here’s Celia Foote. My husband gave me this here number ya see, and hell, I don’t rightly know Elizabeth, but he say she know all about the Chillun’s Benefit and the Ladies League.”

But of course, having a white characer speak in the regional dialect she/he resides in just cannot be. No, if anyone’s going to sound “southern” its got to be the African American’s in The Help. It’s probably no co-incidence then, that one of the requirements of “blackface” and black minstrel shows was the  broad “southern” dialect?

Two more examples of Celia’s “white-trash” dialect:

“I’m in a stitch trying to find somebody to come all the way out to Madison County.” (Pg 25)

“Oh well…I’d still like to talk to Elizabeth about it. Did I already tell you my number?”

Sadly, after reading the dialogue of the one character who should sound like Minny and Aibileen, who really doesn’t, the explanation Kathryn Stockett gave Katie Couric (on why the white characters of the novel have no southern accent) rings false. Here’s a link to the interview with excerpts:

 

Stockett on CBS. Her grandparents maid Demetrie's photo is in the background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When asked about the lack of a southern accent for the white characters in The Help,  the author reveals:

“My grandmother spoke so properly, my stepmother speaks so properly, almost all of my friend’s parents spoke this beautiful,  just southern eloquence, and I…honestly, I just wrote it like I remembered it.”

“…but I have to say I think the African American language is lovely as well.”

“Really I was living in New York writing, channeling the voices of my childhood, of Demetrie and the black women that I had known. It felt pretty natural to me. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I didn’t get it all right.  I just played it back like a tape recorder. And it felt right.”

On the suggestion that she was  elevating the white characters in a way that wasn’t done to the African American characters in the book:

“It doesn’t hurt. It puzzles me because in Jackson, Mississippi…we viewed ourselves as sort of this elite community of educated, rather sophisticated southerners and unless you lived in that bubble, yeah I can see why you would question it.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjIowZrH4iM

 

I’ve stated previously that if Couric had Sarah Palin sitting in the interview chair and she’d said  what Stockett did:

“My grandmother spoke so properly, my stepmother speaks so properly, almost all of my friend’s parents spoke this beautiful,  just southern eloquence, and I…honestly, I just wrote it like I remembered it.”

Couric and CBS would have never let her leave the studio without a further explanation. Couric would have asked her how many books she’d read by black authors, etc. And to name them. Well, at least one of them.

to be continued….

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