Denial

Posted on July 28, 2010

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A powerful thing, denial. It can make some believe events never happened, or even refuse to acknowledge documented history on an occurrence that did. And, according to the definition of the word, it’s also a defense mechanism that denies painful thoughts.

Official definitions of the word:

  • the act of refusing to comply (as with a request); “it resulted in a complete denial of his privileges”
  • the act of asserting that something alleged is not true
  • (psychiatry) a defense mechanism that denies painful thoughts

wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

I’ve been thinking about what a reader of this blog said. Kew, if you’re still following, I think what you stated about your former book club identifying with Skeeter, so much so that they lived vicariously through her when reading this novel truly helps to explain part of its success.

I also think America is in denial about segregation (which occurred not only in the South, but all over the US) and the importance of the civil rights movement.

Children are part of the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963. They're arrested, and have a record to this day.

And so Skeeter’s fictional bit of anonymous “heroism” seems something less threatening than say, marching and publicly showing support. I’d wondered why Skeeter didn’t take it a step further, like joining CORE or the NAACP or even donating funds to these organizations. I don’t know if the author even thought to go that far. To read the true story of how children marched in Birmingham and were arrested, see this article from NPR on the pardon they were offered: Birmingham Mayor Pardons Civil Rights Protesters http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111814904

What Skeeter and the maids do in the novel are separate, and in a sense, segregated from what the rest of the city and the south really experienced during the early 1960s. Which made me wonder, why did Stockett choose to write it that way? Why was the civil rights movement relegated to the side lines, while a book, which all parties involved admitted, (Skeeter, Minny and Aibileen agreed) was not being created to change anything, given priority?

At least that’s what I get from these scenes:

About a year after Treelore died, I started going to the Community Concerns Meeting at my church. I reckon I started doing it to fill time. Keep the evenings from getting so lonely.

Even though Shirley Boon, with her big know it all smile kinda irritate me. Minny don’t like Shirley  neither, but she usually come anyway to get out the house.

Lately, the meetings is more about civil rights than keeping the streets clean and who gone work at the clothing exchange. It ain’t aggressive, mostly people just talking things out, praying about it. But after Mr. Evers got shot a week ago, lot a colored folks is frustrated in this town. Especially the younger ones, who ain’t built up a callus to it yet, They done had meetings all week over the killing. I hear folks was angry, yelling, crying. This is the first one I come to since the shooting.

I look around to see who’s here, reckoning I better ask some more maids to help us, now that it look like we squeaked by Miss Hilly…Thirty five maids done said no and I feel like I’m selling something nobody want to buy. Something big and stinky, like Kiki Brown and her lemon smell-good polish. But what really make me and Kiki the same is, I’m proud of what I’m selling. I can’t help it. We telling stories that need to be told. - Aibileen (Pg 207)  The beginning of Chapter 16

The inner dialogue in bold is my doing.  Aibileen, like Minny is detached, or possibly just disinterested in doing the REAL right thing. And for the character of Aibileen (who’s supposed to be a devout christian by the way, so devout she’s now celebate, in part due to her strong beliefs. Yet in that passage she comes across as smug).  

Now here’s Minny’s reasoning:

At Sunday church service, Shirley Boon gets up in front of the congregation. With her lips flapping like a flag, she reminds us that the “Community Concerns” meeting is Wednesday night, to discuss a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Amite Street. Big nosy Shirley points her finger at us and says, “The meeting is at seven so be on time. No excuses!” She reminds me of a big, white, ugly schoolteacher. The kind that nobody ever wants to marry. (Pg 216)

When Aibileen asks Minny if she’s going to the meeting, this is how Minny answers: “I ain’t got time.”

“You gone make me go by myself again? Come on, I’m on bring some gingerbread and some-” Aibileen says.

“I just…I want things to be better for the kids,” I say. “But it’s a sorry fact that it’s a white woman doing this.” Minny (Page 217)

Then Minny continues with an inner dialogue: …I don’t want anyone to know how much I need those Skeeter stories. Now that I can’t come to Shirley Boone’s meetings anymore, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. And I am not saying the Miss Skeeter meetings are fun…but here’s the thing: I like telling my stories. It feels like I’m doing something about it. (Pg 218)

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)

The problem here, is that Stockett attempts to rationalize something from a white person’s perspective that a black person would think. But Stockett, having been born in 1969 and not doing enough research on the very community she writes about, wrongly assumes that the “Aibileen’s” and “Minny’s” in Jackson would risk their lives, not for civil rights, but for a project meant solely for personal pride.

Skeeter admits they weren’t out for lasting change here:

“Now hold on,” I say, “I’m not trying to change any laws here. I’m just talking about attitudes and-” Skeeter, explaining to Minny why she’s writing a book on the maid’s stories. (pg 164)

Why the author chose to soften the growing turmoil that history shows was occuring in Jackson during the time period the book is set, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it would have caused her to have to explore what her own family was doing during segregation.

But in keeping with the title of this post, I’d like to explore denial, especially as it applies those who fought for civil rights. You see, and because of them my life is all the better for it. I was able to attend the college of my choice, and so did my daughter. Any roadblocks toward my education and employment were already shattered because of those who came before me, even by the women who formed N.O. W.

As a female, I’m both employed and empowered.

But in fictional world of The Help,  though Aibileen and Minny are employed they’re never empowered.

Perhaps hanging around Shirley Boon in order to find out what she knew that they didn’t would have helped. Instead, the author has Minny and Aibileen clueless about the importance of civil rights.

Perhaps the author didn’t realize the importance of the very time period she has her characters set in. Like her characters, Stockett tip toes about the era with a certain detachment, as if getting too involved would cause her to question her own family history.

If that’s the case, it would be hard not to understand why. Because  in the real world, I’ve yet to see the men, women and children (both white and black) who stood up bravely against local governments, heckling counter protesters, biting police dogs, torrents of water strong enough to knock them off their feet, as well as those jailed and beaten and murdered recognized nationally as HEROES.

What I have seen and do have, at least one review where Kathryn Stockett is called a “hero” simply for writing this story. I’m sure Kathryn Stockett is lovely woman. But imho while I commend her success, I wouldn’t call her a hero like this reviewer did:

WOW: Well, you are such a hero. Almost everyone I know has read your book already it seems. You know, it’s one of those publishing phenomena that sells and sells and sells, just by word of mouth. I guess it was published just over a year ago. Is that correct?

KATHRYN: It came out February of last year and it didn’t set the town on fire when it came out.

And also this:

WOW: Oh, how interesting. How bold of you to write in the voice of a black woman.

KATHRYN: Oh, it’s not that bold if you think no one’s going to read it.

WOW: OK, so you’re writing this privately; you’re feeling this – your story – is only for yourself?

KATHRYN: Oh, yes.

 http://www.wowowow.com/culture/help-author-kathryn-stockett-interview-talks-joni-evans-461686?page=0%2C0

 

 

Sorry, but I don’t feel Stockett did anything “bold” or “heroic” especially when individuals who risked their lives during segregation still aren’t afforded that label. And so, here’s my small thank you and links to a few articles that acknowledge those who played a part in the civil rights movement.

Professor Helen Jean O’Neal-McCray at nineteen

 Just days before the nation’s most historic election came to a close; Prof. Hellen Jean O’Neal-McCray reveled in thoughts of “the most exciting days of my life.” That’s when the 19-year-old college sophomore turned civil rights activist and Freedom Rider knew that she had to crisscross her native Mississippi, possibly risk her life, walk picket lines, and be jailed to ensure that Blacks had the right to vote.

Today the 65-year old Wilberforce English and literature professor says that those lean, angry, and sometimes frightening years were worth the struggle.

Please read the rest of this inspiring story here: http://www.wilberforce.edu/news/faculty_79.html

 

Photographer Charles Moore

Photojournalist Charles Moore. He chronicled the civil rights movement with startling images that brought the horrors of racism and segregation to a wide public. Many of these images were first published in Life and are credited with advancing the civil rights cause. Abbreviated description was compiled from this site –  http://fansinaflashbulb.wordpress.com/tag/civil-rights/) More photos can be found there.

Photo shot by Charles Moore

 See more of the iconic photos of Charles Moore here:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/03/21/weekinreview/20100321-CHARLESMOORE-SS_index.html

Photo by Charles Moore. As one man takes a practice swing with a billy club in Oxford, Miss., policemen gather in 1962 in a show of support for Lt. Governor Paul Johnson to keep James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi.

 

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer's famous slogan "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired" was her rallying cry. Fanny was a lioness for Civil Rights.

A documentary on Fannie Lou Hamer vs. Senator James O. Eastland

The Official description of the book:

 The Senator and the Sharecropper is the story of two larger-than life personalities from one humble corner of the Mississippi Delta: the Senator, James O. Eastland, a fabulously wealthy cotton planter and one of the most powerful figures in the U.S. Senate, and the sharecropper, Fannie Lou Hamer, who grew up desperately poor a few miles from Eastland’s plantation. During Eastland’s long tenure as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he ruthlessly and effectively bottled up civil rights legistration on Capitol hill. From Hamer’s lowly origins, she emerged as a spiritual leader of the Civil Rights Movement that eventually toppled Eastland-a woman who “shook the foundations of the nation,” in the words of Andrew Young.

Chris Myers Asch wrote  The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer. Myers  is now the co-founder of the U.S. Public Service Academy. He holds a PhD in American history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

See, here’s the problem with Stockett’s version of Jackson , Mississippi during the early 1960s.

The place was erupting in violence, from the riots at Ole Miss to the assaults on the Freedom Riders, and even the destruction of their buses.

 

Freedom on Fire

Before Medgar Evers death, he was mobilizing residents and even children in the fight for freedom. And since Hilly and crew are the “socialites” of the city, it’s not possible that they wouldn’t have been affected in some way or another. It’s unlikely that white males like William Holbrook (especially since he was running for Senator Stoolie Whitworth’s seat) Johnny Foote (who owned a real estate agency in town),  both Phelan males, Carlton Senior because his cotton plantation employed a number of black workers, many of whom would have been involved in the fight for civil rights, to Carlton Jr.,  since he was studying law, surely he’d be interested in what the local and federal governments were doing. Even Raleigh Leefolt, because he’d be part of the local powermongers highly aware of the hotbed of activity in his own city. And yet the author would have readers believe (at least readers who know the history of civil rights) that the only thing pressing occuring in Jackson was Skeeter’s book and Hilly’s Sanitation Initiative?

You know, fooling readers is one thing (those too young to know about segregation and perhaps weren’t taught about the history in school). It’s another thing to have history co-opped and twisted for a book and now a movie.

It’ll be interesting to see how this works out in film. If too much is changed from the novel, the readers enamored with the book will be disappointed. If corrections aren’t made for the screen, and a far wider viewership notes the same discrepancies that many like myself have, then the source material is suspect, which is the book.

To be continued…

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