How the novel recycles the “Affection” myth

Posted on October 21, 2010

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In the early 1920s, the United Daughters of the Southern Confederacy lobbied congress to pass a bill for the construction of a National Mammy Monument. Having pushed for and been successful in constructing several such memorials throughout the south, the UDSC wanted ground broken in Washington, DC in order to pay tribute to the loyal female domestics of the South.

UDC emblem, a cotton bowl superimposed on a five point star

 
According to the book Hope & Glory: essays on the legacy of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment edited by Martin Henry Blatt, Thomas J. Brown, Donald Yacovone, the appropriation for the monument was passed in 1923 by the Senate, but stalled in the House of Representatives. The artist commissioned for the memorial was George Julian Zolany, and the finished product was envisioned as three white children assembled around a black maid who was seated.  An elaborate fountain was also part of the design.
   
Just imagine, there could have been a monument commemorating Aunt Jemima not far from Abraham Lincoln’s.
 

I found this interesting bit of history while researching why so many are in love with the black woman as “Mammy.”

 Credit for this information also goes to Micki McElya, for her book  Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America. Ms McElya is an Assistant Professor of History, University of Connecticut. She has a PhD in History, having graduated from NY University in 2003. 

The National Mammy Monument was also focused on by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, who is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s studies at Emory University. She received her PhD from Boston University and is the author of  Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory  and the editor of Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture .

The Faithful Slave Monument in Fort Mill, SC

Wallace-Sanders has a number of archival photos of African American maids with their employers at the turn of the century here: http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/southern-memory-southern-monuments-and-subversive-black-mammy

She also addresses 1911 plans for the Black Mammy Memorial Institute in Athens, GA, which was slated as a monument and domestic training school for African-Americans.

So what did African Americans do after hearing of  the UDSC ‘s plans to honor a symbol of opression?

Keeping in mind segregation was still going strong, they expressed themselves in various ways, one of which was through protest cartoons:

Mammy memorial protest

 Click the image for a larger view.       

 Character on the left’s message states:

“In Grateful Memory to one we never paid a cent of wages during a lifetime of service”

 The character on the right’s plea/protest  is:

“Use that monument fund to pass a law that will STOP lynching of my children!!”

 

Robin Bernstein of Harvard University reviewed Micki McElya’s book. What she points out is directly related to this blog post:

Author Micki McElya

Through prodigious research in the UDC archives, McElya has reconstructed the process by which the Daughters claimed that their “memories” of faithful slaves, especially mammies, gave them “specialized racial knowledge” (64). The Daughters constructed memories of benign servitude through dialect performances, “epistolary blackface” (59) in which white women wrote in the voices of mammies, and, in a most spectacular effort, a nearly successful push to establish a national monument to the mammy to stand “in the shadow of Lincoln’s memorial” in Washington, DC (116). The contest over mammy [End Page 151] memorials illuminates the competing, high-stakes concerns that intersected in this mythic figure: the UDC wanted the mammy memorial to substantiate their memories as “official ‘truth’” (118) and thus to authorize elite white women such as themselves as the guardians of antebellum American history. Furthermore, against the backdrop of labor unrest, race riots, lynching, and the Great Migration of African Americans from rural South to urban North, the UDC wanted to posit an imagined past through which to envision a future of racial harmony based on black subservience.

African Americans understood these stakes, and they responded in well-organized protests, which McElya tracks through the black press. African American newspapers argued that white fantasies of faithful slaves, particularly mammies, “did not stand in opposition to this violence [of lynching and other attacks on African Americans] but was very much a part of it” (160). The UDC claimed that their proposed memorial commemorated affection, and African American newspaper writers countered not by claiming that enslaved caregivers and white children never felt affection for each other, but instead that such affection “was itself a form of violence and that the memorialization campaign itself was deeply vicious” (161). New Negro writers and activists confounded the UDC and other mammy fantasists by honoring enslaved mothers who struggled, often to the point of self-sacrifice, to care for their own children despite impediments that included forced labor in white households. New Negro writers and political cartoonists also explicitly showed how fantasies of asexual physical intimacy between white child and black mammy masked white anxieties about another form of interracial congress: white men’s rape of enslaved African American women. For example, a political cartoon in the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender in April 1923, critiqued the mammy memorial by proposing a parallel “white daddy” statue in which a white man assaults an African American woman. Protests such as these successfully prevented the national mammy memorial from ever being built.

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_youth_and_childhood/v002/2.1.bernstein.html

 

It appears the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It’s entirely possible Kathryn Stockett was prepped for her promotional tours and interviews  for the novel The Help without knowing just how close her sentiments were to the UDC.

 

For example, the UDC stated this:

” . . .the Daughters claimed that their “memories” of faithful slaves, especially mammies, gave them “specialized racial knowledge” (64). The Daughters constructed memories of benign servitude through dialect performances, “epistolary blackface” (59) in which white women wrote in the voices of mammies . . .”

 

And Stockett has repeatedly said this:

“Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help].”

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

“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.”

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

 

 

And on performances during the book tour:

“. . . I’m so lucky that Octavia has agreed to go on the book tour with me. So on the book tour event, she’s actually going to be reading the parts of Aibileen and Minny and also take on a few of the white women’s voices which will be very funny to listen to.  And I will read the white roles and hopefully it will be a lot of fun. . . ”

 “. . . My greatest relief in this process is that Octavia Spencer, who is such an amazing actress and a comedian really, like wet yourself funny is coming on tour with me. So,while people will be listening to me read these rather dramatic white voices, they’ll get to listen to Octavia. It’ll be so fun to hear her just roll. . . ”

Link – http://covertocover.podbean.com/2009/04/26/kathryn-stockett-the-help/

 

 Another source of reference on the Mammy Monument Movement is: Monuments to the lost cause: women, art, and the landscapes of southern memory  By Cynthia Mills and Pamela Hemenway Simpson.

Edward V. Valentine family Governess Aunt Sallie, circa 1855. Courtesy of Valentine Richmond History Center

The ingrained mindset to see black women as steadfast “mammies” or caretakers to Southern whites is one that is also prevalent in women’s fiction, to this very day. While being interviewed by Nate Berkus for Oprah Radio (August 10, 2009) and also on the Penguin site taking questions about the novel, Kathryn Stockett recalls her time in New York with a group of co-workers who also once resided in the south. They discuss the things they have in common, like how much they miss the black women who were their help. It would be easy to dismiss their nostalgia as women bemoaning the fact that they no longer have a domestic to attend to their needs.

It’s actually more than that. It’s much like the chapters of the United Daughters of the Southern Confederacy, who truly believed their hearts were in the right place to seek contributions and work toward a nation monument for Mammies.

Stockett’s quote, per the Penguin Publishing website:

“. . . I knew a lot of Southerners in the city, and every now and then we’d talk about what we missed from the South. Inevitably, somebody would start talking about the maid they grew up with, some little thing that made us all remember—Alice’s good hamburgers or riding in the back seat to take Willy May home. Everybody had a story to tell.”

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

 

But even Stockett admits how these same indispensable maids weren’t truly shown the same “affection” as a member of the family.

From an interview with UK site The Telegraph:

“Stockett says it took her 20 years to realise the irony of the situation with her beloved Demetrie. ‘We would tell anybody, “Oh, she’s just like a part of our family,” and that we loved the domestics that worked for us so dearly – and yet they had to use a bathroom on the outside of the house.’ “

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

So where did the “affection” terminology and ideology originate?

An excerpt from Encyclopedia Virginia may hold a clue:

“Following the war, white Southerners told stories of the happy slave, the “Mammy” or “Uncle Tom” who appeared as part of the family. “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition,” according to the 1908 edition of the textbook History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill. The 1964 edition of Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman P. Poole was not much different. “A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes,” the authors wrote. Such statements are not supported by modern scholarship, which suggests that many slaves were desperate to escape their often harsh conditions both before and during the war, when they became refugees. In fact, escaped slaves helped to precipitate national political crises such as the one surrounding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The image of African Americans who had been happy under slavery but were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of freedom became widespread and could be found in the fiction of  Thomas Nelson Page and Margaret Mitchell, whose novel Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The image also proved particularly useful to white supremacists. In the 1880s and 1890s, white Southerners, decrying “Yankee aggression” and black “betrayal,” embarked on an effort to reverse the policies of Reconstruction (1865–1877). They sought to remove black office holders, disenfranchise African American men, forestall black economic advancement, and institute state-sanctioned segregation.”

http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Lost_Cause_The

 

When being “Colored” was King

The desire to view the relationship between Southern employers and black help as one less about race, class and power, and more favorably thought of as affection is nothing new. It’s addressed in a quote by historian Micki McElya.  In her book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 Micki McElya writes, “so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all.”

This is part of the nostalgia for characters like Aibileen and Minny, and even Constantine from The Help.  The author herself has promoted the novel as a homage to her grandparent’s former maid, Demetrie. But while Stockett mentions in the Too Little, Too Late section at the end of  the novel about “trying to understand” and “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi” (Pg 451), none of her research involved learning about how African Americans, even Demetrie’s still living relatives felt during segregation. Stockett admitts she did this when coming up with the African American dialect in the book:

“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/

In leaning upon her own understanding, Stockett did what many of her female writing contemporaries have done when including African Americans in their novels. They followed a pattern.

In no particular order, here are a few examples as written, of  the Black character(s) doing fairly stupid things that are supposed to read as noble and that continue to perpetuate the myth of  “affection”.

In Imitation of Life (the original novel) Delilah is willing to reveal her family’s recipe and also sacrifice her earnings just so things can stay the same with her employer named Bea. Here’s an excerpt from the movie dialogue where Bea tries to explain what it means to get 20% of their multi-million dollar pancake company.

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay

Bea: “You’ll have your own car. You own house.”
Delilah: My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can’t live with you? Oh, honey chile, please don’t send me away. How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain’t here? I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook. I gives it to you (the pancake recipe), honey. I makes you a present of it.”

So moved by Louise Beaver’s performance as the selfless, hard working Delilah, columist Jimmy Fiddler wrote:

“I also lament the fact that the motion picture industry has not set aside racial prejudice in naming actresses. I don’t see how it is possible to overlook the magnificent portrayal of the Negro actress, Louise Beavers, who played the mother in Imitation of Life. If the industry chooses to ignore Miss Beavers’ performance, please let this reporter, born and bred in the South, tender a special award of praise to Louise Beavers for the finest performance of 1934.”

Pocket Books paperback edition 1940s

In Showboat, the passing for white character of Julie Dozier gives up her singing job at the Trocadero, where she headlines. In the movie version, a now drunken wreck Julie overhears Magnolia, the lead character in the novel singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.”  Julie gives up her only source of income in order for Magnolia to have the job. And Magnolia knows nothing of this sacrifice.

There are several instances in the novel The Help where Stockett makes the same mistake of crafting black characters in scenes where they’re being supernaturally chivalrous, as if the acts alone equate to racial harmony and platonic love. But it’s interesting that in most, if not all of these stories, it’s the black character who must “prove” themselves by sacrificing for the white character. 

The romantized notion that a black character is so loyal she would even risk her very life for her employer is shown in Stockett’s depiction of Minny confronting the naked pervert in Chapter 24.

Though there is a crazed, naked man outside, Minny believes its her place to leave the home by rationalizing it this way: Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first. (306)

After arming herself with a knife and a broom, Minny then admonishes Celia to lock the door behind her.

Stockett gives the reader no insight into why Minny feels it’s her place to do so. The reader is also mindful that Minny has experienced a night of terror at the hands of her abusive husband Leroy, and has a nasty cut on her brow. This inexplicable turn of events, where Minny’s plight as the abused woman has now been turned into “Celia’s honor must be protected at all costs” rests squarely with the expectation that the slave was expected to lay down their lives for their master 

So the affection afforded to black characters in these novels is due in major part to their faithfulness and sacrifice, much like the attributes for the 1923 Mammy Monument proposal.  

 And while the scenes may read as honorable to many, this sentiment is lost on those who recognize a message of black servitude even unto death being advocated. Minny’s desire to protect Celia is an example of what black historian Donald Bogle calls the “noble savage” syndrome. Something else to consider is that Minny is a mother with five children. How she could forget that if anything happened to her, then her children would end up at the mercy of their abusive father makes the Minny and Celia fight off a naked pervert and live to brag about it scene all the more absurd. Remember too, that this is Minny we’re reviewing. A character who boasted that if she were Mammy from GWTW, “I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her little white pooper. ” (Pg 50)  So the turnaround in Minny is even more unexpected. But now that she has proven her faithfulness, she’s become a credit to her race.

Like other characters created by white authors, quickly crowned as “authentic” by an overwhelming number of their readers and reviewers (though both black and white readers have offered dissenting voices through the years). Aibileen, Minny,  Constantine , Leroy and the like represent the blueprint for creating best selling historical women’s fiction in America.

Blueprint for historical, racially themed fiction

First there was Harriet Beech Stowe ‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852 . Then Showboat in 1926 by Edna Ferber. Fannie Hurst penned Imitation of Life in 1933. Margaret Mitchell swept to fame with Gone With The Wind in 1936.

What most of these novels have in common is a lead character many readers can identify with.  And a supporting character of color who’s a domestic.

I didn’t include To Kill A Mockingbird in the list, though some now believe the depiction of the African American characters in Harper Lee’s classic tale also borders on stereotype.

But To Kill A Mockingbird is a Young Adult novel, while the others were considered women’s fiction.

“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.” Micki McElya in “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “

These popular novels share a similar blueprint when dealing with the African Americans.

1. Dialect of the white and black characters differ sharply.

2. The female domestic/character is both a confidant and secondary caretaker.

3. African American males in the original novels are either non-existent, having left the domestic character long ago, or if they are present, they represent males who are “Shiftless” and “No-Accounts”.

In Showboat the novel, Queenie describes Joe as both shiftless and a no-account who smells of gin. In The Help, Minny’s abusive husband is labeled as “a fool” and Aibileen’s estranged husband as well as Minny’s father are “no-accounts”.

Queenie talks about Jo (in the stage play Joe sings “Ol’ Man River and is a stevedore. He was a cook in the novel. And speaking of the much beloved Ol’ Man River tune, per Slate’s Mark Steyn it’s important to remember ” ‘Ol’ Man River” is not a Negro spiritual. It’s a show tune cooked up in 1927 by a couple of middle-class honkies who needed something for a spot in the first act. Yes, Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric is full of “dat” and “dese” http://www.slate.com/id/2896/)

Queenie: “That shif’less, no-’count Jo knew about cookin’ like you do, Cap’n Andy, Ah’d git to rest mah feet now an’ again, Ah sure would.” (Pg 118)

Imitiation of Life 1959 movie version. Juanita Moore is Annie and Susan Kohner is Sarah Jane

The next excerpt is from Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life concerning Bea interviewing Delilah for the job as her maid. As per my contention that the dialect is intentionally broad for the African American characters in order to differentiate between the white and black characters, it’s not hard to figure out whether Bea or Delilah is speaking:

“Do you know of anyone who wants a position for general housework, sleeping in?” she inquired of the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black moon face that shone above an Alps of bosom, privately hoping that the scubbed, starchy looking negress would offer herself.

“I sho does, miss, and dat’s me. But I’s got a three-month old chile, honey. You white folks ain’t got no truck with a black woman wid a chile. I’s learned dat, walking my laigs off this mawnin’.”

“You mean you would want to bring your baby too?”

“Honey chile, I’ll work for anything you is willin’ to pay, and not take more’n mah share of your time for my young un, ef I kin get her and me a good roof over our heads. Didn’ your maw always tel you a nigger woman was mos’ reliable when she had chillun taggin’ at her aprum strings? I needs a home for us, honey, and ef you wants to know what kind of worker I is, write downto Richmon’ and ask Mrs. Osper Glasgow, wife of Cunnel Glasgow, whar I worked since I was married . . . “

“You have a husband?”

“Died six months ago in the Atlantic City Hospital of a lung misery that brought us here from Richmon’. A white nigger, miss, that you’d never think would’ve had truck with the likes of me. God rest his soul. It wasn’t ‘til after de Lawd took him dat I learned it was a bigamist’s soul. Ef you don’t believe I kin housekeep, miss, wid a baby under my arms, try me.”

Why not! The child would insure this woman’s permanence. In a town with nine thousand colored population, reliable houseworkers were nevertheless difficult to obtain. With the wives of waiters themselves veering from general housework and angling for the less confining duties of waitress or chambermaid, domestic help was what it had always been in Atlantic City- a nomadic procession of women with home ties of their own, or of slim young blackbirds with no stability whatsoever.

“Is your little one healthy?”

“The purfectest white nigger baby dat God ever dropped down in de lap of a black woman from Virginie. Her pap didn’t leave her nothin’ but some blue-white blood a-flowin’ in her little veins. ‘Twas de ruination of her pap, dat blue-white blood. ‘Tain’t gonna be hern. We’s black, me and mah baby, and we’d lak mighty much more to come work for you.”

UK Cover of the Help

So how does The Help compare to these former best sellers? I took an excerpt from the end of the novel, when Skeeter is about to leave for New York and Aibileen gives her blessing. This is another example of “affection” that the authors love to show about black domestics. Since the novel is written in first person, Aibileen is the narrator:

From page 437:

“Actually, I’m going to go to Chicago first. Only for one night. I want to see Constantine, her grave.”

I nod. “I’m glad.”

“Mother showed me the obtituary. It’s right outside of town. And then I’ll go to New York the next morning.”

“You tell Constantine Aibileen say hello.”

She laugh. “I’m so nervous. I’ve never been to Chicago or New York. I’ve never even been on an airplane before.”

We set there a second, listening to the storm. I think about the first time Miss Skeeter came to my house, how awkward she was. Now I feel like we family.

“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 don’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 Reverend’s message, that she is part of our family. “You need to remember, ever one a these signatures means it was worth it.” She reads 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 a 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.”

She smile, blinking back the tears, and say, “Thank you.”

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. Part a me wishes I could have a new start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young. My life’s about done.

What, no hug? No tears flowing from Skeeter over leaving Aibileen? Not even a “let’s keep in touch because I don’t want to lose contact with you like I did with Constantine?” I wasn’t expecting Skeeter to blurt out that she now believes segregation is wrong, but I did expect more than just “Thank  you” to end the scene.

Also note how Stockett has Aibileen professing “I think about the first time Miss Skeeter came to my house, how awkward she was. Now I feel like we family.” While Skeeter makes no such proclaimation either internally or publicly.

Skeeter seems a bit overwhelmed by all this “affection”.  

In taking on an African American woman’s “voice” Stockett has repeated what the other writers  like Edna Ferber, Margaret Mitchell, Fannie Hurst, Harriet Beecher Stowe and even  organizations like The United Daughters of the Confederacy intended when writing while black. She’s merely recycled the myth of affection for a modern readership, and been successful at it.

And I really didn’t expect to read where Aibileen is shedding tears over Skeeter, since there’s no scene in the novel where Aibileen is able to show the same type of emotion over the death of her only son.    

 
 

Actress Viola Davis will play Aibileen

Well, I guess “affection” can only go so far.  I’ll take that one over Stockett’s interpretation of two black women having a conversation (Minny and Aibileen)

“You know Cocoa, the one Clyde ran off with?”

“Phhh, You know I never forget her.”

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”

My mouth pop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

“I knew it make you worry if I told you. They think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.”  (Pg 24)

It’s important to note from their exchange, that Stockett brings up another stereotype of African Americans. That although we profess to be Christians, we quickly revert to pagans, thus prayer becomes “You saying people think I got the black magic?” (line uttered by Aibileen in the book excerpt above, after Minny’s “cootchie” reference)

And the maligning, yet again of a black male, this time Aibileen is training her son to think of his father as something akin to Crisco:

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 daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off with his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known. (Pg 5)

To be continued . . .

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