Few Good Men: Reviewing the males of The Help

Posted on December 11, 2010

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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)

If this same sentiment had been expressed about black women, more readers  would probably react. So instead of being secure in the knowledge that well, she wasn’t talking about me, there was no way I could read this line and not wonder where Stockett got the nerve to make such a far reaching observation, especially in 1962. I’ve searched the book to see if a female character made a similar statement about white males in the book, and there wasn’t one. Not even about the vilest of men, the naked, bigoted pervert who came out of the woods (in one of the weirdest scenes of the book). And I still say, if it had been Plenty of Hispanic men, or Plenty of Jewish men many of the reviewers who casually overlooked the statement wouldn’t have.

In order to show just how absurd the statement was, I attempted to write one equally ridiculous. Especially since in 1962, the picture of rights marchers show what “plenty of black men” were doing in the south:  

Joined in solidarity

 After the shocking intrusion of the naked pervert, Celia Foote never thinks Plenty of white men like to hide in the woods naked, only to emerge and jack off in front of others. But that’s just not something the white woman does. We’re got a reputation to think about.

Even when Skeeter gives Stuart a second chance (which he again blows), she offers no far reaching assessment on the romantic expectations of white men. No Plenty of white men prefer their wives dumb and docile. But that’s not something white women expect in their mates. We’ve got our happiness to think about.

In that extremely far reaching quote, Minny is referring to Leroy, her husband and abuser, and also the black male who gets most of the page time in the book. How she jumps from dealing with his lone actions to labeling that’s how other black men also behave is never explored further. But perhaps the answer can be found in Stockett’s crafting of the other black males in the book, since Aibileen’s husband has also left her to raise a child alone, and Constantine was also abandoned after giving birth to the near white looking Lulabelle. Minny also has derogatory words to say about her father.

The name for the type of character Leroy represents is the “Black Brute”. This character’s origins have been traced to novels after the Civil War.

Birth of a Nation movie poster

An example of a novel where the Black Brute features prominently is author Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, which was the basis for the movie Birth of a Nation.

In the novel, Dixon describes what changes occurred in the black male after Emancipation, which the whites must guard against:

“and this creature, half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit…a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger.”

Pg 292 and 293 of the full online text of the novel The Clansman, which can be found here:

http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/dixonclan/dixon.html

Dixon used the brute character to inflame readers fear of free, educated and armed black males, specifically black Union soldiers and politicians. Though Birth of a Nation contains not only inflammatory portrayals of the African American culture with whites in blackface, it is still widely regarded as a ground breaking piece of film.

In The Clansman, as well as the film, the Black Brute’s lust for the white female is at the center of why the hooded riders, today known as the Klan are the only thing standing between virginal white females and black males.

Here’s an excerpt of an exchange between Silas Lynch, a black soldier and Elsie, a white female protagonist in The Clansman:

He  (Lynch) stopped on the lower step, looked back with smiling insolence, and gazed intently at her beauty. The girl (Elsie) shrank from the gleam of the jungle in his eyes and hurried within. (Pg 208)

This excerpt is tame compared to the other descriptions of blacks in the book.

And so imagine my surprise to see that Kathryn Stockett would put this in her novel:

A truck full of cotton rumbles by on the County Road. The Negro in the passenger side leans out and stares. I’ve forgotten I am a white girl in a thin nightgown. (Pg 71)

Nevermind that perhaps standing in the road not properly dressed could cause a stare. No, it has to be that a black male is staring because she’s a white girl in a thin nightgown. That small excerpt is but one example of what went wrong in my opinion with The Help.

Every so often  Stockett inserts reminders of what she was perhaps taught or raised on regarding why blacks and whites need to be separated. In this case, it’s the boogey man called the black male.

Stockett has Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s scatterbrained mother saying this about a field hand named Jameso and the maid Pascagoula:

“You cannot leave a Negro and a Nigra together unchaperoned. . .it’s not their fault, they just can’t help it.” (Pg 70)

Loyal ex-slave Jake knocks out a soldier in defense of Dr. Cameron, in an illustration from the novel The Clansman

 

So how is it that the majority of black males in The Help are painted in a negative light, unlike the white males?

The first place I looked was at the author’s interviews and her statement at the book’s end.

In the acknowledgement section of the novel, under the heading Too Little, Too Late Stockett mentions how sweet her grandparent’s maid Demetrie was, and how the woman was saddled with an abusive mate. Not only did Stockett use Clyde/Plunk as the prototype for Leroy, but it seems he was also used for the other “no account” black characters such as Clyde (Aibileen’s estranged, absentee husband) Connor, (Constantine’s absentee lover) and Minny’s father (also desribed as no account and a drunk).

From the novel:

“Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day.”

Stockett also mentions Clyde in a UK interview:

“Demetrie’s husband was called Plunk, and he was drunk and abusive, so much so that she slept with a pistol underneath her pillow. ‘As I understand it he beat the crap out of her, but at the funeral this man was wandering the aisles, screaming, fainting from heartbreak that Demetrie was dead, calling out her name and throwing himself at the coffin – people were dragging him away, soothing him. It horrified our family. I was 16. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut.’ “

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

Even before I’d read the interview and her statement at the book’s end, I’d wondered why the black male was perceived so negatively. Leroy plays a major part in the book. He is Minny’s tormentor, almost on a daily basis. In the character of Leroy, Stockett has created a bully that terrorizes his whole family. Leroy is a character who embodies the stereotype of the Black Brute, a man that not only the white female must fear, but also the black female.

But the character brings up questions that are never answered in the novel. Like how could a woman as head strong and vocally opinionated as Minny end up with someone like Leroy? And if somehow, over time  Leroy changed into such a controlling, abusive man, why would a character (Minny) that Stockett takes great pains to show doesn’t suffer fools, why would she stay long enough to have five children (and a sixth as the novel ends) with him?

Perhaps Stockett was trying to show that not only were black women confined by the invisible and visible boundaries of segregation, but that they also were controlled by their husbands in a sense.

But Leroy, Connor, Clyde and Minny’s father share similar traits. They are one note characters, with no shades of gray. The reader is told to dislike them early in the novel. 

Take for example Clyde, Aibileen’s absentee spouse that she calls “Criso” because he’s “no-account” . Minny and Aibileen then have an unsavory discussion about a woman named Cocoa,  who has apparently contracted a venereal disease after running off with Aibileen’s ex.

Book promoting the Black Brute stereotype. Image from Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum

  

Betty Page surrounded by the African Brute stereotype. Image from Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum

 

Novel featuring the Brute stereotype. Image from Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum

 

In The Help, not only do the black males do the leaving, but at least in Cocoa and Clyde’s case, the spreading of disease is something to be laughed at and not medically taken care of. There’s no mention of any characters in Skeeter’s circle of friends even remotely talking or overhearing the same. It’s ironic that Stockett would have the book’s villain, Hilly, discussing how Negroes carry various diseases and then the character of Cocoa serves as an example. 

Hilly also runs about Jackson accusing innocent maids of thievery, and again Stockett has a black character do just that.  Enter Yule May Crookle, a maid who lives down to her last name when she steals a ring from her employer, who conveniently happens to be Hilly.  

The main black characters have men who wed, bed, and leave. Or bed and just leave. The one male who does stick around is Leroy, a character who’s wanting as a man and a father. Of course, he mistreats the black female.  But then, with most of the maids described as large, overweight, and dark, Stockett has de-sexualized them enough that Skeeter, a skinny white girl with frizzy hair and a bumpy nose would somehow become an object of desire for both black and white males in the book, even though the character at twenty three has yet to have a steady relationship.

The subject of weight is another hint that Stockett weaves throughout the novel, that to be thin is still the most desireable trait to be had, and extra weight, even if it’s considered a “friendly softness” (Skeeter’s description of the weight Aibileen is carrying in her mid-section) is a big no-no. When Hilly comes undone, several sections mention the weight she carries, with one line stating “her legs were still thin and pretty.”

Rounding out the black males in the book, there are side characters like Treelore, who’s deceased, Robert, who has a couple of lines and is blinded in a vicious assault, and Reverend Johnson.  Stockett also makes mention of Rights Activist Medgar Evers’ murder. But in The Help, Leroy is the primary black male.

In contrast, the primarly white male who does any leaving is Stuart Whitworth, but there has been no intimacy along the likes of what Constantine and Aibileen have experienced.

After Skeeter tells Stuart about her involvement with the maids and their novel, here’s what the author has Skeeter “telling” the reader:

“I didn’t. . . mean it like that,” he (Stuart) starts again. “What I mean is, things are fine around here. Why would you want to go stirring up trouble?”

I can tell, in his voice, he sincerely wants an answer from me. But how to explain it? He is a good man, Stuart. As much as I know what I’ve done is right. I still understand his confusion and doubt. (Pg 382)

Perhaps having role models like her father and her brother, and other white males in her community have given Skeeter enough positive images so that she realizes Stuart is not the be all, end all of males. But to somehow proclaim him as “good” when there really have been no scenes to suggest at his core, that the man is good makes me think that above all else, the white male must be protected in this novel.

Not so for many of  the black males in The Help.

Clyde, Aibileen’s ex is first introducted in a truly sad game she plays with her son Treelore:

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-account you ever known. (Pg 5)

Contrast this with Carlton Phelan Sr, when Skeeter demands to know why Constantine is no longer employed in the Phelan household:

Daddy doesn’t even stop for church during harvest time, but on Sunday night, I catch him in the dusky hall, between his supper and sleep. “Daddy?” I ask. “Will you tell me what happened to Constantine?”

He is so dog-tired, he sighs before he answers.

“How could Mother fire her Daddy?”

“What? Darlin’, Constantine quit. You know your mother would never fire her.” He looks disappointed in me for asking such a thing. . .

He wanders down the hall to bed. He is too honest a man to hide things so I know he doesn’t have any more facts about it than I do.  (Pg 82)

Now, back to Leroy:

“Kindra, I don’t want a see so much as a bean setting in the sink when I get back. Clean up good now.” Minny give her a hug. “Benny, go tell Daddy he better get his fool self out a that bed.”

“Aww, Mama, why I-”

“Go on, be brave. Just don’t stand too close when he come to.”

We make it out the door and down to the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for.

“Glad we going to church tonight.” Minny sigh. We round Farish Street, start up the steps. “Give me an hour a not thinking about it all.”

Reading this, I had to think what sorry excuses for women both Minny and Aibileen were, and wonder how Kathryn Stockett could possibly believe this was a scene where a reader was supposed to feel sympathy for Minny. Minny’s advice to Benny  to “be brave”  when Leroy continuously scares the mess out of her makes no sense. Hiding in church was no excuse to run off and leave her children at the mercy of Leroy.

But of course, this was the night the church honored both gals for their maids novel called “Help”. So I guess that was supposed to justify them running off.

That Aibileen’s first notion in the scene is to flee, when Stockett has her wanting to protect Mae Mobley at every turn just shows how this “saintly” character plays favorites, virtually ignoring Minny’s young children.

It’s also another contradictory problem with the novel, where the safety and well being of Mae Mobley is of utmost concern, and the abuse Minny’s children witness and experience are not.

But, back to the point of this post. That Leroy has no redeeming qualities:

Leroy gets up and flings the back door open again. “It’s hot as hell in here!”  He comes to the stove where I’m (Minny) standing.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks, about an inch from my face.

“Nothing.” I say and move back a little. Usually, he doesn’t mess with me when I’m pregnant. But he moves closer. He squeezes my arm hard.

“What’d you do this time?”

“I-I didn’t do nothing,” I say. “I’m just tired.”

He tightens his grip on my arm. It’s starting to burn. “You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month.”

“I didn’t do nothing, Leroy. Just go set and lemme get to supper.”

He lets go, giving me a long look. I can’t meet his eyes. (Pg 406)

And there’s this exchange, where Minny pleads to know why Leroy continues to abuse her:

“Why? Why are you hitting me?”

“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” (Pg 413)

Truly, Leroy is the stereotype of the black brute.

Intra-racism with the Black Brute Stereotype. Image from Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum

Interesting enough that by novel’s end, even Charlotte Phelan is afforded some sympathy. And Hilly’s  display of love for her children is used to blunt how she refuses to treat the help or anyone who disagrees with her with an ounce of compassion.

Stuart and also his father, Senator Stoolie Whitworth are given a pass of sorts. While all the white males in The Help benefit from cheap labor and are the power brokers, Stockett insists on letting the reader know that the fault lies not with them, but with the system of segregation that forces them to behave like they do:

The picture pans back and there is my old administration building. Governor Ross Barnett stands with his arms crossed, looking the tall Negro in the eyes. Next to the governor is our Senator Stoolie Whitworth, whose son Hilly’s been trying to set me up with on a blind date. (Pg 83)

Stockett gives Stoolie an out, by having him as a man who only practices segregation because he’s been elected to uphold the will of his constiuents:

“But your father, at the table. He said he thought Ross Barnett was wrong.”

“You know that’s not the way it works. It doesn’t matter what he believes. It’s what Missisippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Skeeter and Stuart, Pg 273)

James Meredith stopped at the steps of Ole Miss

 It’s as if a coin was tossed to decide which sex in which race would play the bad and good guys. The white females (Hilly, Elizabeth, Charlotte) lost the coin toss. Apparently so did the black males (Leroy, Clyde, Connor, Minny’s father).

There aren’t any “no-account” white males in the help, save for the naked pervert and the men who attack Robert. While Stockett has Aibileen mention the lawyers, doctors and newspaper owners who attend her church, apparently the maids are also segregated there too, because the only person Aibileen and Minny deal with from their congregation is Reverend Johnson (unless I also include the unsavory quips Minny makes on her fellow female parishoners).

Why the author decided not to diversify the occupations and interactions of her black characters is another issue. It’s as if the only way Kathryn Stockett can see her black characters are as domestics or laborers.

Of the black males, Stockett has the laborers who install the outhouse in the Leefolt household, Robert who does lawn maintenance, Leroy who works whenever he’s not drunk and that’s about it.

For her white characters, Johnny Foote owns a real estate business. Raleigh Leefolt is an accountant. Carlton Phelan is a farmer, Carlton Junior is attending LSU. Stuart Whitworth wheels and deals in the oil  industry (I’ll have to recheck the novel regarding his exact title). The point is, Stockett makes certain the white males who kept the wheels of segregation turning have a profession. No one is unemployed, no one is cheating on their wives. These are romance novel hubby’s, as ideal a man that a writer can dream up, while making the black males into “Brutes” who have no professions, no education, no future.

And this was at a time when men like Medgar Evers were college grads and rights activists, James Meredith sought higher education at Ole Miss, and black male college students  initiated the Greensboro, North Carolina sit ins.

The Greensboro sit in staged by Black college students

 

SNCC's young heroes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On February 1, 1960, four Black men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NCA&T) — Ezell Blair Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond — sit down at Woolworth’s ‘whites only’ lunch counter and ask to be served coffee and doughnuts. They are refused. Though they are prepared to be arrested that does not occur. They stay until the store closes. The next day they return, now joined by Billy Smith, Clarence Henderson, and others. They sit from 11am to 3pm but again are not served. While they wait, they study and do their school work. The local newspaper and TV station cover this second sit-in. At first they call it a ‘Sit Down,’ but soon everyone is using the term ‘Sit-In. ‘ “

-excerpt from The Greensboro Sit-in link:  http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis60.htm

Click image for a larger view:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So let me be clear on this. Stockett may have taken on the “voice” of a black woman, but she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.

Images from Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum can be found here:

http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/menu.htm

 

 

To be continued. . .

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