Challenging Kathryn Stockett’s spin on Segregation

Posted on January 17, 2011

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Instead of starting this post examining the usual suspects like Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny, I thought I’d examine the conflicting messages of the side characters, those practicing and benefiting from segregation, but in a few scenes Stockett throws in a “twist” regarding how they outwardly appear versus how they really are. Yes, these are characters who go along just to get along, being held hostage by peer pressure.

The Segregationists who somehow really weren’t     

Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth, a character Stockett has blocking James Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss on page 83, but characterized like this when Stuart whines over his former fiancé while Skeeter listens:

Protesting for an equal seat at the table

“You know the really crazy part, Skeeter? I could’ve gotten over it. I could’ve forgiven her. She asked me to, told me how sorry she was. But I knew, if it ever got out who he was, that Senator Whitworth’s daughter-in-law got in bed with a Yankee activist, it would ruin him. Kill his career like that.” He snaps his fingers with a crack.

“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 Mississippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Pg 271)

So the twist here is that while Stoolie plays the loyal segregationist by day, apparently he’s a man unable to express his true feelings. Perhaps even a politician who believes segregation is wrong. Yes, the way Stockett has crafted Stoolie, the man was only blocking James Meredith because that’s what was expected of him. The author drops several hints that Stoolie is not the staunch segregationist readers may believe he is. At a certain point in the novel, Hilly seems to be the only one without a liberal bone in her body (I’m being sarcastic here)

So what preceeded Stuart’s revealing conversation to Skeeter? Well, earlier in the evening Skeeter noted her father and Stoolie Whitworth’s conversation about the lynching of Carl Roberts, a black man strung up for speaking ill of the current Mississippi governor:

“I’ll tell you something, Carlton,” the senator says . . . “Those were not wise words to say about our governor.”

“I agree one hundred percent,” Daddy (Skeeter’s father) says.

“But the question I’ve been asking myself lately is, are they true?”

At this point Mrs. Whitworth interrupts him with a hiss, apparently trying to get him not to reveal his true “feelings”. She even adds “Now Stoolie, our guests here don’t want to get into all your politicking during-”

“Francine, let me speak my mind. God knows I can’t do it from nine to five, so let me speak my mind in my own home.” (Pg 268)

 

 

The scene ends with Stockett adding description on how the mood has soured and the way Francine and Stuart are quietly reacting in anger. No one says anything (the dining party consists of Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter, Carlton Phelan, Stoolie Whitworth, Francine and Stuart) until someone in the group changes the subject.

 The scene doesn’t convey the message that Stoolie has now changed his mind over black and white relations (nor did I expect it to). Or even that he’s had hidden feelings regarding how wrong aspects of segregation are.  There’s a big difference between someone disagreeing with a governor who openly practices and espouses segregation, and someone who may have a personality conflict with that same person, which is what I took the conversation to be.

There’s nothing that Stoolie says that would lead the reader to believe he somehow thinks segregation is wrong or as the author has Stuart stating “It doesn’t matter what he believes” to Skeeter. Perhaps Stockett thought the implication was enough, but Stoolie’s actions coupled with a closer look at his words read otherwise.

The smoke screen is when he snaps at his wife, and the reader is led to believe Stoolie was just about to proclaim his opinions  which may be contrary to many of his associates in the south.

Stockett does this “twist” with several characters.

Stoolie asks Skeeter if she read an article on Carl Roberts, the black man who was lynched for saying Governor Ross Barnett was “pathetic” and had “the morals of a streetwalker.”

Skeeter looks to Stuart to gauge his reaction. She recalls that she’s never asked him his position on civil rights. But noting how angry he appears, she doubts if he’s listening to the conversation.

Then Carlton Phelan, Skeeter’s father surprises her with this statement, in an excerpt from the novel:

My father clears his throat.

“I’ll be honest,” he says slowly. “It makes me sick to hear about that kind of brutality.” Daddy sets his fork down silently. He looks Senator Whitworth in the eye. “I’ve got twenty-five Negroes working my fields and if anyone so much as laid a hand on them, or any of their families. . .”

Daddy’s gaze is steady. Then he drops his eyes. “I’m ashamed, sometimes, Senator. Ashamed of what goes on in Mississippi.”

Mother’s eyes are big, set on Daddy, I am shocked to hear this opinion. Even more shocked that he’d voice it at this table to a politician. At home, newspapers are folded so the pictures face down., television channels are turned when the subject of race comes up. I’m suddenly so proud of my daddy, for many reasons. (Pg 268)

 

I didn’t read this as being somehow Skeeter’s father believes that blacks and whites are equal. The man mentioned his workers on his farm. He talked about his livelihood and if someone were to harm those who helped him bring in his crops or to put it bluntly, affected his cash flow.  

What readers should be reminded of, is the cheap labor African Americans were forced into during segregation. Most people know that females are generally paid less that males in modern society when hired for comparable positions and many would agree that this practice is unfair.

What most don’t realize is that during segregation, blacks were paid little to nothing for their efforts, and that many times they were shortchanged by unscrupulous landowners.

There was no recourse or means to challenge this, especially if you wanted to keep living. There were also no health benefits paid, no sick days, no social security withdrawn, which meant no pension payments.

So while on the surface, the character of Carlton Phelan, and to some extent Stoolie are “redeemed” in the eyes of many reviewers and readers, they struck a false note with me, and perhaps others aware of what black workers were cheated out of during segregation.

A major problem I have with this novel is the rose colored spin Stockett chose to use when delving into the life of black domestics. Because the relationship between a black domestic and their employer during segregation was one based on power and control.

Far too often black/white association was physical.

For example, if a man, woman or child’s smile wasn’t perceived as broad or genuine enough, an African American was viewed with suspicion.

The littlest victim of Segregation

If the tone of voice contained attitude or the speech sounded too proper, blacks were in danger of being considered “uppity.” This was a term that could lead to an assault, or worse, being run out of town or disappearing altogether by nefarious means.

Segregation was an atrocity, plain and simple. One that lasted well over one hundred years.

And out of segregation came caricatures of how African Americans are perceived to look, speak and behave, the remnants of which are still with us today.

In addition, the “myth of Affection” Southerners like Stockett continue to cling to still has legs.

So in order to challenge Stockett’s “white-washing” of this time period, it’s important to know where she got her ideas. The author decided to “tweak” the story and her non-minority characters, so that those who practiced segregation and who act as if it was their ordained calling don’t appear quite as bad. It’s vital for readers to understand that Stockett grew up in a segregated household during the 70s and 80s. And it shows in the pages of her work. The misleading ideology on African Americans seems to have rubbed off on the author. Unfortunately, while Stockett now has misgivings, the book serves as a testiment on how someone believing they have the best of intentions can still come across terribly wrong.

From an early interview with the author:

“. . .On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.”

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

 

 

Stockett mentions DAR in the novel, when Lulabelle returns to Jackson and mingles with Charlotte Phelan’s DAR meeting. What most readers may not know, is that in the early 1920s, an organization called the UDC, or The United Daughters of the Confederacy  tried to get a National Mammy Monument built in our nation’s capital in admiration for the countless faithful black women who raised and cared for them.

After the outpouring of  love for the black caricatures in The Help by some readers, it seems the UDC  finally have their “Mammy Monument” in the form of Kathryn Stockett’s novel.

More in depth info on the UDC’s public push for a Mammy Monument can be found in this post: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/the-affection-myth/

Solidarity for Segregation at Ole Miss

In this post I’ll also try to address the reasons why Kathryn Stockett, or any author for that matter who uses history in their fiction novel are not immune from being challenged. Please note I used the word “challenged”. I didn’t say writers should not explore or write in the voice of another race or culture. It is their right, just like it’s the right of those who may object to perceived inaccuraries or depictions to express it.

For any survivors or relatives of those who perished during the 9/11  terrorist attacks, The Holocaust or Segregation, please understand that I am not making light of these atrocities. I’m using them to illustrate a point, so if anyone is offended I do apologize.

I’m using some of these atrocities because there are still readers who don’t get what all the fuss is about from readers who object to certain scenes and depictions in The Help. For some, the book doesn’t read as anywhere near a “Beautiful” story. So just suppose:

An author writes a novel about The Holocaust. In it, the Nazi’s are portrayed as men just doing their nine to five jobs. It’s told from the perspective of their wives who hire Jewish maids. Their Jewish husbands are described as “no account” ,”drunks” and one is abusive. A comedic Jewish maid decides to risk her life for her female employer when a Nazi exposes himself in the woman’s back yard. This same maid makes quips and jokes about other Jews, and readers think it’s hilarious. Reviewers respond with “Since the author had Jewish maids, she gives insight and skillfully duplicates how Jews talk without resorting to caricature. This is a girl friend book, full of humor and highly entertaining”

Those who know anything about how Jews were treated in Germany are outraged, yet the book becomes a best seller, with defenders stating “It’s not about the Jewish Male, the author is telling the tale of Jewish females.”

I hope the above example sheds more light on why the book is considered an epic fail for some readers, like myself.

There’s no way to somehow twist those who believed and practiced segregation into misunderstood individuals, or henpecked sit-com hubby’s with nagging wives.

Quite simply, during that time period many of those individuals thought they were doing the right thing.

And it’s important to remember, there was an economic benefit to Segregation.

Another character who appears to function well within Jackson society circles while somehow being a liberal at heart is the realtor Johnny Foote.

When Minny comes to work for Celia Foote, she’s asked to conform to a ruse Celia is perpetrating on her husband Johnny.

Celia can’t cook or clean house, but she doesn’t want Johnny to know that she’s hired a maid to assist her.

As far as her new job, Minny says this:

Working for Miss Celia, I’ll get to see my kids off to Spann Elementary in the morning and still get home in the evening with time to myself. I haven’t had a nap since Kindra was born in 1957, but with these hours- eight to three- I could have one every day if that was my idea of a fine time.  (Pg 40)

Of  her new surroundings, Minny states:

After I’m done with the bear, I dust the fancy books nobody reads, the Confederate coat buttons, the silver pistol. On a table is a gold picture frame of Miss Celia and Mister Johnny at the altar and I look close to see what kind of man he is. I’m hoping he’s fat and short-legged in case it comes to running, but he’s not anywhere close. He’s strong, tall, thick. And he’s no stranger either. Lord. He’s the one who went steady with Miss Hilly all those years when I first worked for Miss Walters. I never met him, but I saw him enough times to be sure. I shiver, my fears tripling. Because that alone says more about the man than anything. (Pg 42)

Mike Vogel portrays Johnny Foote in the movie

I put in bold the sentences that emphasize Minny’s fear of Johnny Foote.

Later on Minny is so unnerved when she believes she sees him coming up the walk, she panics and hides in the bathroom, crouched on the toilet as she inwardly chides herself for behaving “like a fool” (Pg 53)

 On Page 125 When Miss Celia tells her how much Johnny loved those pralines she made (Celia brags “He thought I was the smartest girl he’d ever met when I gave him those”) Minny thinks :

I turn my back to my dough so she can’t see my face. Twice in a minute she’s managed to irritate me. “Anything else you want Mister Johnny to think you did?” Besides being scared out of my wits, I am sick and tired of passing off my cooking for somebody else’s. Except for my kids, my cooking’s the only thing I’m proud of. (Pg 125)

**A side note. Finally, a sentence where Minny says something complimentary about her own children.  The negative comments  this character spouts about her kids out number the positive**

And Minny’s worst fears seem to come true when she and Johnny finally meet. But like Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth, Johnny is another male with a “twist”.

From the novel:

“Who are you?”

I drop the sack.

Slowly, I back away until my bottom bumps the bureau. He’s standing in the doorway, eyes narrowed. Real slow, I look down at the axe hanging from his hand.

Oh Lord. I can’t get to the bathroom because he’s too close and he’d get in there with me. I can’t make it poast him out the door unless I pummel him, and the man has an axe. My head throbs hot I’m so panicked. I’m cornered.

Mister Johnny stares down at me. He swings the axe a little . Tilts his head and smiles.

I do the only thing I can do. I wrinkle my face as mean as I can and pull my lips across my teeth and yell: “You and your axe better get out a my way.” 

Mister Johnny looks down at the axe, like he forgot he had it. Then back up at me. We stare at each other a second. I don’t move and I don’t breathe.

He sneaks a look over at the sack I’ve dropped to see what I was stealing. The leg of his khakis is poking out the top. “Now, listen,” I say, and tears spring up in my eyes. “Mister Johnny, I told Miss Celia to tell you about me. I must a asked her a thousand times-”

But he just laughs. He shakes his head. He thinks it’s funny he’s about to chop me up.

“Just listen to me. I told her-”

But he’s still chuckling. “Calm down girl. I’m not going to get you,” he says. “You surprised me, that’s all.”

I’m panting, easing my way toward the bathroom. He still has the axe in his hand, swinging it a little.

“What’s your name, anyway?”

“Minny,” I whisper. I’ve still got five feet to go.

“How long have you been coming, Minny?”

“Not long.” I jiggle my head no.

How long?”

“Few . . . weeks,” I say. I bite down on my lip. Three months.

He shakes his head. “Now, I know it’s been longer than that.” (Pg 138)

 

 

Not to worry. Johnny just loves Minny’s cooking. Therefore while he probably doesn’t show black clients any homes, he can bond with Minny over their love of food, as he explains:

“Minny, I promise. It’s fine that you’re here,” he says. And he even adds, “Fire you? You’re the best cook I’ve known. Look what you’ve done to me” (he looks down at the gut he’s getting from her good cooking).

He explains “I haven’t eaten like this since Cora Blue was around. She practically raised me.”

Minny, much like Aibileen, explains that she knew Cora Blue (yes, in this novel most of the black characters know each other. For instance Aibileen knew Constantine).

She states:

I take a deep breath because his knowing Cora Blue seems to safen things up a little. “Her kids went to my church. I knew her.”

“I sure do miss her.” He turns, opens the refrigerator, stares in, closes it . . .

As their conversation progresses, Johnny asks about Celia. He wonders why Celia didn’t want him to know Minny was working for them.

“I don’t care if she can cook. I just want her here” – he shrugs – “with me.”

Minny takes a second look at the man: He rubs his brow with his white shirtsleeve and I see why his shirts are always so dirty. And he is sort of handsome. For a white man.

Johnny asks if Celia is seeing another man because he doesn’t think Celia’s happy. Minny assures him that she isn’t.

Finally, Johnny and Minny get to the heart (or the meat of the matter)

“I guess I’ll go get lunch in town somewhere.

“I fix you something. What you want?” (no, that’s not a typo. Minny says “I fix you something”)

He turns around, grinning like a kid. I start going through the refrigerator, pulling things out.

“Remember those pork chops we had that time?” He starts nibbling on his fingernail. “Will you make those for us this week?”

“I fix em for supper tonight. Got some in the freezer. And tomorrow night you having chicken and dumplings.”

“Oh, Cora Blue used to make us those.”

“Sit up there at the table and I’m on do you a BLT to take with you in the truck.” (Minny’s response is not a typo. While Johnny reads as if he’s been transplanted from some place up North,  Minny continues to descend into a thicker dialect)

“And will you you toast the bread?”

“A course. Can’t have no proper sandwich on no raw bread. And this afternoon I’ll make one a Minny’s famous caramel cakes. And next week we gone do you a fried catfish. . .” (Oh the horror. The horror of this dialogue and dialect)

I pull out the bacon for Mister Johnny’s lunch, get the skillet out to fry. Mister Johnny’s eyes are clear and wide. He’s smiling with every part of his face. I fix his sandwich and wrap it in waxed paper. Finally, somebody I get the satisfaction of feeding. (Pg 140)

Yes, the scene veers into stereotype. But it also illustrates how the novel believes unity between races can take place, or we all can get along after a good meal.   

Tiana from Disneys "The Princess and the Frog"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next side character who earns Stockett’s special “twist” is Mr. Golden, the newspaper editor who not only gives Skeeter her first job, but also agrees to hire Aibileen when Skeeter leaves for New York. A mighty liberal gesture, on Mr. Golden’s part. If only Stockett hadn’t introduced him saying this:

“Hell, I know niggers a hundred years old look younger than those idjits out there.” (Pg 73)

And Stockett never explains just how Aibileen is supposed to get her articles to Mr. Golden. It’s not as if she can walk in the front door and ask for the man, especially with these stipulations:

“I told him you’ve been giving me the answers all along. He said he’d think about it and today he called me and said yes, as long as you don’t tell anybody and you write the answers like Miss Myrna did.” (Skeeter giving Aibileen the good news, Pg 435)

 

That’s about it for Mr. Golden. There’s nothing in the book such as Skeeter handing Aibileen her typewriter while passing the torch (apparently Skeeter must think Aibileen writing the answers on a piece of paper will suffice)

Unfortunately, Mr. Golden giving Aibileen a job as a ghost writer adds more questions than answers. And it reads as if this good will gesture was hastily tacked on.

But it does give Saint Aibileen yet another reason to say “Thank you, Miss Skeeter. For this, for everthing.”

No, that’s not a typo. That’s exactly the way the book stated Aibileen’s reply.

Which makes me wonder just how Mr. Golden will deal with Aibileen’s numerous errors in grammar when she submits her articles. Recall that Skeeter acted as both the editor on the book and whenever Aibileen gave answers for the Miss Myrna column.

Now, this could have been overcome, if Stockett hadn’t been insistent on making Aibileen (and most of the African Americans in the book) bordering on illiterate.

More information on males from the book can be found in these posts: 

The Biggest Blunders Kathryn Stockett Made

 Few Good Men: Reviewing the males of The Help

 

 

To be continued . . .

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