Saint Aibileen

Posted on July 15, 2010

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An enduring and apparently endearing character some writers insist on recycling for minorities (not just for African Americans) is the stoic, blindly loyal perfect side kick. This is a character who mixes friendship with love, because somehow in a short span of time or through a series of dramatic events (that affect the minority and the white lead), they bond tight as superglue. Usually the minority character is the one revealing how much the white character means to them, so the relationship seems a bit one-sided. For instance, would the character Tony Curtis played in the film The Defiant Ones have reached back on that moving train for Sidney Poitier? Would Tony’s character, in a last ditch bid for freedom  (they were escaped convicts) have taken a chance on helping a black man?

Instead it was Sidney Poitier reaching back, and in doing so, both men ended up falling from the train.

For many years Poitier had roles portraying this asexual, “can’t we all just get along” character.

But true to his talent, Poitier elevated the roles instead of being dragged down by them. In Edge of the City, he gave his life for John Cassavetes. The message of these films was clear. Racial brotherhood. The good minority had just as much character, or even more when pressed against a rock and a hard place.

 

 

In The Help, that character is Aibileen Clark. She’s kind, middle aged (this character generally is older) mature, wise, a nurturing character who knows when to hold her tongue. She’s all eyes and ears, taking in the world and comforting others with folksie sayings. Aibileen gets the majority of similes, metaphors, analogies (though Minny is a close second) as if writers don’t believe African Americans, especially those who live in the South can just come right out say what they think without being visual. But it’s also uncomfortable, because it reads like Uncle Remus or Kingfish from Amos ‘n Andy.

Note some of the things Aibileen says, or mis-states:

I look out the window at the colored hospital go by, the fruit stand. “I think I heard Miss Hilly say something about that’ bout her mama getting skinny.” I say this careful as I can. “Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” (Pg 14)

My work shoes so thin, look like they starving to death (Pg 16)

Cause that’s the way prayer do. It’s like electricity, it keeps things going. (Pg 23)

And Miss Skeeter asking don’t I wanna change things, like changing Jackson, Mississippi gone be like changing a lightbulb. (Pg 24)

This woman talk like she from so deep in the country she got corn growing in her shoes. (Pg 25)

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

And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen

“Shame ain’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it.” (Pg 151)

This “good minority” is also a character who always believes in their white counterpart, even unto death. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom forgives Simon Legree even after the man orders him put to death. In The Help, though Aibileen is well aware of the danger she faces in helping Skeeter with the book and even says so in the earlier chapters, she still takes up the task (I guess marching for Civil Rights was out of the question, it’s Skeeter’s book that will give her equality). And in the end,  who makes out the best? Well it’s Skeeter, because that’s who usually gets the happy ending in these scenarios.

The dishonesty in a character like Aibileen, especially when written from a white perspective is that the character most often represents absolution.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom’s devout Christianity colors his actions throughout the novel. Equipped with saintliness of biblical proportions, Tom was a Black Jesus, unwavering in his convictions even unto death, and his need to let Simon Legree off.

To be absolved of any guilt seems to be a running theme in many books where race is front and center. Aibileen does this with Skeeter, by admonishing her to follow her dream, regardless of what may befall the maids she leaves behind:

“Are you scared Aibileen? she asks. “Of what might happen?”

I turn so she can’t see my eyes. “I’m alright.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know if this was worth it. If something happens to you…how am I going to live with that, knowing it was because of me?” She presses her hand over her eyes, like she doen’t want to see what’s gone happen.

I go to my bedroom and bring out the package from Reverend Johnson. She take off the paper and stare at the book, all the names signed in it. “I was gone send it to you in New York, but I think you need to have it now.”

“I don’t…understand,” she say. “This is for me?”

“Yes ma’am.” Then I pass on the Reverend’s message, that she is part of our family. “You need to remember, ever one of these signatures means it was worth it.” She read the thank-yous, the little things they wrote, run her fingers over the ink. Tears fill up her eyes.

“I reckon Constantine would a been real proud of you.”

Miss Skeeter smile and I see how young she is. After all we written and the hours we spent tired and worried, I ain’t seen the girl she still is in a long, long time.

“Are you sure it’s alright? If I leave you, with everything so…”

“Go to New York Miss Skeeter. Go find your life.” (Pg 436-437)

 The parts I put in bold are the statements that Skeeter needs to hear, the statements absolving her of any guilt and responsibility for what happens in the future.

Aibileen’s goodness is on full display when dealing with the white characters, like her affectionate bond with Mae Mobley: 

Mae Mobley make an ugly face at me and then she rear back and bowp! She whack me right on the ear…

“You okay Baby Girl?” I whisper.  My ear smarting from her little fist. I’m so glad she hit me instead a her mama cause I don’t known what that woman would do to her. (Pg 19)

Please  take a look at the poster of the classic film Pinky. With all due respect to the late great Ethel Waters, this type of role was all Hollywood would allow a mature, broadway veteran like Waters to have, a role meant to show black females were best when they nurtured and coddled. This is Aibileen, and in some ways also Minny. This is the character Stockett brushed off and set up to grin and comfort others in The Help. But at least with Aibileen’s interactions with Mae Mobley and Skeeter and to some extent Minny’s comic /caring relationship with Celia the reader is allowed to see both Aibileen and Minny’s affectionate side. So why doesn’t it come out when both Aibileen and Minny deal with members of their own community?

 

Note how Stockett has Aibileen interacting with the black characters in the book, because that’s when her judgmental side comes out. She calls Leroy, her best friend’s husband a fool.

So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool. (Pg 26)

She calls her estranged husband Clyde, the father of her son Treelore “Crisco” and even jokes about him to their son.

One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start 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. (Pg 5)

Aibileen eagerly listens in on Minny gossiping and joking about people they know and even their own church members. It’s only when Aibileen recalls her pain at losing Treelore, or Mae Mobley’s alienation of affection from her mother, or helping Skeeter with the maid’s novel that her thoughts truly become coherent.

The way the novel is set up, Aibileen, Minny and the rest of the maids were just going along, not really bothering with the growing Civil Rights movement. And then Skeeter comes up with the idea of the book (after getting Aibileen’s permission to use what was originally her son Treelore’s idea), and it’s as if the black characters now realize they need to do something.

This is where Kathryn Stockett again shows an unequal handling of her characters.

For no matter how much of a shrew Hilly is, the white male is never denigraded. Stockett had no problem when slipping into a “black” character and disparaging most of the African American males in this book . For many readers to blithely dismiss this point in praising the novel makes me wonder how the black male is now seen in our society. It’s disappointing  that readers who profess to love the novel can so easily accept this portrayal.

“We was all surprised Constantine would go and… get herself in a family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” Pg 358

Is there some  problem with being a dark complexioned woman? The topic  “black as me, blacker than me” is repeated by Aibileen, in not just a self effacing way, but almost as if she hates her own color. While whites who believed in segregation made this distinction, for a black character to speak with such low self esteem is not only insensitive dialogue but it’s offensive. Here are more examples from of all people,  Saint Aibileen:

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91) Aibileen

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

Are you kidding me? And people read this and somehow think this character is intelligent? And admirable? This inner dialogue is OFFENSIVE, and there’s  no way to paint it otherwise. This is a case of an author somehow believing because they had a black maid, that its okay to “become” black without research or respect for the culture. Not only did Stockett resurrect a stereotypical character, but she gave her dialogue that is as bad as anything Stephin Fetchit had on film.

Why would an author, who states a character is based on someone close to them, and who also describes the real life inspiration for Aibileen like this:

“She’d (Demetrie) grown up poor and lived with an abusive husband. When a person has that much sadness and kindness wrapped up inside, sometimes it just pours out as gentleness. She was a gentle soul. There haven’t been enough people like her in this world.”

Stockett on CBS. A photo of Demetrie is in the background

So why would this gentle soul deserve a character who compares the color of their skin to a cockroach? One of the filthiest creatures on the planet. And for those familiar with the novel, while Skeeter frets over her looks, she DOES NOT denigrate herself to this extent. It’s as if Stockett believes African Americans would rather be anything but what they are. And sadly, by revealing who the actual person is that inspired this insensitive writing, Stockett has abused the woman all over again with this misguided depiction.

In creating Saint Aibileen, Stockett crafted someone who is also asexual, a woman who appears to live for her white charges. She takes great pride in the seventeen children she’s reared, becoming their surrogate mother.  Aibileen seems not to want any companionship for herself, though she’s not that old (she’s a woman in her early fifties). Stockett tries to explain this by merely having the character state:

Time to time, I think I might find myself another man, one from my church. Problem is, much as I love the Lord, churchgoing man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain’t the kind that stays around when he done spending all you money. I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish Street, one they call Cocoa. I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind of business. (Pg 22)

What utter BS. Just so Aibileen can maintain that asexual, saint quality in the novel, she’s afforded no love interest? And “spending all you money” is not a typo on my part. That’s exactly how it reads in the novel.

Come to think of it, even though Minny is married, she really has no love interest either. No, the ladies whom love are gifted to with a halfway decent male are all the white characters, and they were the ones who practiced segregation!

But, no matter. Readers can live vicariously though the friendships forged, like those between Skeeter and Aibileen, Aibileen and Mae Mobley and Minny and Celia.

Maids and Nannies

It’s interesting to note, that in order for an African American to socialize in many early movies and books, their “talent” had to be on display, or there was no reason for them to be in the picture. Similarly in The Help, Minny’s cooking is her “talent”. For Aibileen, her mothering skills are in a sense, her “talent”. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything the characters could possibly have otherwise in common with their white friends, say, that both love Shakespeare or carpentry, or even art. No, by keeping it limited to a talent, then there’s no need for their association to go any further. In addition, a minority only seemed to have value in older books and films when their maternal side could be shown. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was only appreciated after he was paired with Shirley Temple. He played the kindly old black man who took time to make time for her,  and it was this asexual, non-threatening relationship with Temple that helped propel him to stardom with white audiences. That same type of non-threatening relationship exists between Aibileen and Mae Mobley, and also Minny and Celia.

For Bill Robinson his “talent” or reason for socializing was  his brilliant tap dancing. Unfortunately, that meant he was relegated to playing the same character in every film.  Here are some of his best loved scenes with Shirley, and note his expression.

               

 That perpetual smile was almost a requirement for all blacks to have during segregation, entertainer or not.

Perhaps its easier to deal with this kind of throw back, feel good fiction than the harsh reality of non-fiction. Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi is autobiographical, and its set during the same time period The Help is. But while Anne (birth name Essie Mae Moody) began cleaning houses and helping children with their homework at a young age, she stayed in school, earning her high school diploma and attending Natchez Junior College and then Tougaloo College.

If Tougaloo College sounds familiar, it was used in The Help as the school Yule May wanted to send her twin boys to. Because she didn’t have enough money for both boys to attend, Yule May, described as a hard working, church going woman (both she and her husband) steals a ring from Hilly Holbrook.

It’s not known whether Stockett was aware that Tougaloo is a private college, and that Yule May could possibly have afforded tuition for both, if they’d attended a community college first, like Anne Moody did, and then perhaps a private institution. Moody was awarded a full academic scholarship to Tougaloo after attending community college.

It’s just one more character deviation in the book that seems to have been created to make everything “fit.”

Another thing. Aibileen apparently never had any goals or dreams either, as evident in this passage from the novel:

“Did you know when you were a girl, growing up, that one day you’d be a maid?”

“Yes ma’am. Yes, I did.”

I smile, wait for her to elucidate. There is nothing.

“And you that…because…?”

“My mama was a maid. My granmama was a house slave.”

“A house slave. Uh huh,” I say, but she only nods. Her hands stay folded in her lap.

She’s watchin the words I’m writing on the page.

“Did you… ever have dreams of being something else?”

“No” she says. “No ma’am, I didn’t.” It’s so quiet, I can hear both of us breathing.  Skeeter interviewing Aibileen

And when it’s time for the character to shed tears, they only fall when she thinks of Skeeter:

That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her.  (Pg 437)

From Page 153:

On our fifth session, Aibileen reads to me about the day Treelore died. She reads about how his broken body was thrown on the back of a pickup by the white foreman.

“And then they dropped him off at the colored hospital.   “That’s what the nurse told me, who was standing outside. They rolled him off the truck bed and the white men drove away.” Aibileen doesn’t cry, just lets a parcel of time pass while I stare at the typewriter, she at the worn black tiles.

So while Aibileen can have Mae Mobley reciting affirmations like this one:

“How you like your teacher?” I ask her.

“She’s pretty,” she say.

“Good,” I say, “You pretty too.” (Pg 392)

Unfortunately, there are no scenes where Aibileen either hugs or coddles Kindra, the youngest daughter of Minny. In fact, Aibileen shows her judgmental side when observing Kindra late in the novel, narrating how the girl, a bit older at age seven during the scene “sass” walks her way to the stove with a hand on her hip. It’s such a stereotypical, bratty black kid image that I’m shocked that Stockett didn’t realize she was making a difference in her child characters. The reader is aware of Aibileen’s inner turmoil whenever Mae Mobley is the object of her mom Elizabeth’s kooky rage. Yet that same protective instinct for Mae Mobley is non-existent for her best friend’s children Kindra and Benny.

Aibileen is well aware of the terror all Minny’s children face at home with their father. And yet she  either turns a blind eye or foolishly jokes about it. Note this scene where she again trys to lessen the sting of Elizabeth’s bad parenting:

Miss Leefolt starts screaming for Mae, “Mae Mobley? Mae Mobley Leefolt!”

Elizabeth has just noticed her child has gone missing from the kitchen. “I told you to eat in your high chair, Mae Mobley. How I ended up with you when all my friends have angels I just do not know…”

And at two years of age, Mae wrinkles her brow and tells Aibileen “Mae Mo bad.”

Aibileen thinks, the way she say it, like it’s a fact, make my insides hurt.

“Mae Mobley, I got a notion to try something.” Aibileen tells her.

“You a smart girl?”

Mae just looks at her.

So Aibileen frames it in the form of a statement next. “You a smart girl.”

And Mae repeats “Mae Mo smart.”

Aibileen next says, “You a kind little girl?”

Mae stares at her again.  So Aibileen says “You a kind girl.”

Mae nods and repeats it. Before Aibileen can get Mae Mobley to recite another affirmation, the child runs after a dog hanging out in their yard. Mae tells Aibileen that she loves her, and Aibileen has memories of Treelore.

After while, Mae Mobley come over and press her cheek up to mine and just hold it there, like she know I be hurting. I hold her tight, whisper, “You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley. You hear me?” And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me.

The scenes between Aibileen and Mae Mobley work because they read as honest and heartfelt. Here’s where Stockett’s writing shines. But then she goes and has Aibileen, whose determined to boost Mae Mobley’s confidence, all but ignore the abuse her good friend Minny and her children are experiencing. She doesn’t touch the subject other than to joke:

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

As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Pg 396)

Or this weak exchange, which makes no sense in light of the numerous beatings her good friend has taken:

“So what you gone do about it?” Aibileen asks and I know she means the eye. We don’t talk about me leaving Leroy. Plenty a black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We got the kids to think about. (Pg 311)

And as it continues on:

Aibileen: “Lots a folks think if you talk back to you husband, you crossed the line. And that justifies punishment. You believe that line?”

Minny: I scowl down at the table . “You know I ain’t studying no line like that.”

Aibileen: ‘Cause that line ain’t there. Except in Leroy’s head. Lines between black and white ain’t there neither. Some folks just made those up, long time ago. And that go for white trash and so-ciety ladies too.” PG 312

And this utterly useless and frankly, intelligence insulting dialogue:

Minny: “I want him to see me,” I say, staring down at my empty coffee cup. “See what he done to his wife.”

Aibileen: “Call me on the phone if he get’s rough. You hear me?”

Minny: “I don’t need no phone. You’ll hear him screaming for mercy all the way over here.” Pg 313

Why would a woman who’s willing to risk her life to write a book during the turmoil and horror of segregation act almost nonchalant about the horror her own friend is experiencing?

I need to also re-check the novel, because there’s no exchange between any of Minny’s children and Aibileen, which reads as odd. Because though Leroy rages, Aibileen only offers once to let Minny and the kids stay with her. Why Aibileen wouldn’t want to at least take Minny’s younger children (Kindra or Benny) reads as a double standard. Surely Stockett realizes that by creating Minny with so many children, that these kids are witnesses to Leroy’s abuse. To write the novel as if the children either are used to it, or don’t deserve the same type of comfort that Aibileen shows Mae Mobley, or even that Minny affords Celia, is yet another example of how Stockett treats her characters less than equally.

I cover Minny’s inexplicable transformation from a battered wife to a fearsome protector of Celia here: Minny the Mouse that Roared. I understand that many readers feel it was only natural that Minny try to protect Celia, but after reading the scenes where Minny confronts not only the naked pervert but her own daughter in defense of Celia, in my opinion this too falls under stereotypical behavior and borders on slapstick.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Minny is a battered woman. Although it seems that the stereotype of her being the comedic, bossy maid is winning out. She’s a victim, and there aren’t many battered women who agressively rise up to confront others, not after their self-esteem and willpower have been broken by the abuser. And in The Help, that person is Leroy.

 

A Maid Talks Back 

Thanks to a frequent reader of this blog named Karen for pointing out Aibileen’s defense of Skeeter when one of the maid’s challenged her reason for writing the novel.

About Gretchen Pg 258:

Skeeter notes:

She was trim in her uniform dress. She wore lipstick, the same color pink me and my friends wore. She was young. She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person. I don’t know why, but that made it worse.

“All the colored women you’re interviewed, they’re been real nice, haven’t they?” Gretchen says to Skeeter.

“Yes,” Skeeter answers. “Very nice.”

Gretchen looks Skeeter straight in the eye and tells her. “They hate you. You know that, right? Every little thing about you. But you’re so dumb, you think you’re doing them a favor.”

Then she continues with:

“You know the nicest thing a white woman’s ever done for me? Given me the heel on her bread. The colored women coming in here, they’re just playing a big trick on you. They’ll never tell you the truth, lady.”

“You don’t have any idea what the other women have told me,” Skeeter tells her, surprised by how dense her anger felt, and how easily it sprang up.

“Say it, lady, say the word you think every time one of us comes in the door. Nigger.”

That’s when Aibileen intercedes, telling Gretchen to go home.

Gretchen blasts her with “And you know what, Aibileen? You are just as dumb as she is.”

Aibileen then points to the door and hisses, “You get out a my house.”

Gretchen leaves, but through the screen door, she slaps Skeeter with a look so angry it gives her chills.

Saint Aibileen apologizes on Gretchen’s behalf. And Skeeter thinks I want to ask her how much of what Gretchen said is true. But I can’t. I can’t look Aibileen in the face.

So why can’t Skeeter talk to her new bestest friend Aibileen about what Gretchen just said? See what I mean about the character of Aibileen not given the aibility to speak directly about issues? And in this case, there’s no pithy metaphor coming from her lips. No “people like Gretchen think there’s a line” like Aibileen used on Minny when they avoided once again, talking about Leroy’s abuse.

Here’s added background on Gretchen:

She’s Yule May Crookle’s first cousin. She attended a prayer meeting for Yule May that Aibileen hosted weeks ago and she belongs to a different church (Thank goodness for that. It seems the church Stockett has both Minny and Aibileen attending, even though it’s named for Medgar Evers has none of the fire he possessed in the pursuit for civil rights).

Another thing of note about Gretchen and Yule May. Neither one are described as dark or large in body. And both speak like the white characters of the novel. Aibileen even notes this about Yule May (Pg 208):

Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. I hear she educated, went through most a college. Course we got plenty a smart people in our church with they college degrees. Doctors, lawyers, Mr. Cross who own The Southern Times, the colored newspaper that come out ever week. But Yule May, she probably the most educated maid we got in our parish. Seeing her makes me think again about the wrong I need to right.

The reader never gets to hear from the other members of the church who aren’t domestics. It’s as if they don’t associate even though they attend the same house of worship. And Aibileen’s assessment of Yule May, with her “good hair” is yet another racial observation that could have been edited out, especially since hair straightening had been around for decades in the black community, so “naps” wouldn’t have been readily seen unless by choice. The sixties were a boom time period for wigs and falls (hair pieces that attached to the back of the head via combs).  

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

The Supremes, top female group of the 60s in their show wigs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 And yes, even maids in the south could afford a wig back then.

Aibileen is too much of a doormat for my taste, though many would consider her “sweet”. There’s a difference between being nice and being a pushover. She should have at least requested that her son Treelore get some recognition, or at least a mention in the maid’s novel. Without his idea there wouldn’t have been a book on the maids.

This is similar to Delilah from Imitation of Life, where she gives Bea her family recipe for free, and then refuses to take a percentage of the profits just because she wants to continue to take care of Bea and Jessie FOR NO WAGES.

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay

Though the book states Aibileen and Minny attended a church that had lawyers, doctors and other professions as parishoners, the characters have no interaction and seek no legal advice before or after the book is published. Readers should note that African Americans authors were already being published by this time, from the likes of Ralph Ellison (whose novel Invisible Man was mentioned in the book) Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to name but a few.

Organizations like SNCC, CORE and the NAACP were also in and around Jackson, so for the maids not to seek additional guidance or counsel is but another example of how these characters exist in a bubble outside of their community, based upon the author’s whim.

 

To be continued..

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