How Kathryn Stockett can win in court but still Lose

Posted on February 21, 2011

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I’m not a fan of the novel The Help. Even though I believe Kathryn Stockett is a talented writer, what she put on the pages of the novel in my opinion, were simply negative caricatures from long ago.

And while Stockett may win the lawsuit (even if settled out of court, the author still wins in a sense) over time her novel will face more scrutiny. Much like beloved “Classics” such as Disney’s Dumbo, Fantasia, and Song of The Song contained characters at first thought by the public to be positive portrayals of African Americans, over time the jive talking crows from Dumbo (with one actually named Jim Crow) and the faceless black workers who sang a song with insensitive lyrics regarding their station in life were viewed differently.

The hoof shining little fawn Sunflower from Fantasia, while humorous to many, has been deleted from the current DVD:

Sunflower at work, shining a hoof in Disney's Fantasia

Perhaps the saddest character of all was James Baskin’s Uncle Remus from Song of the South.
Much like Aibileen and Constantine from  The Help drop an over abundance of similies and metaphors, jolly old Uncle Remus became a hit with his folksy sayings and laid back, affable personality. Only because of segregation, he wasn’t able to walk the red carpet for the movie’s premiere.

Uncle Remus from Disney's "Song of the South"

 

Over the years and changing racial attitudes, others began to see that these depictions, though well meaning at the time, only perpetuated negative stereotypes that had been ingrained in American society.

At some point many of those who’ve read The Help and co-signed Stockett’s stereotypical characters may have to finally realize the novel contains:

A black character with a venereal disease, even though this was a common negative stereotype many southern whites used to explain why they didn’t want to associate with African Americans. Note the middle quote from a real resident of Jackson, Mississippi which was printed in the anti-integration newspaper the Clarion-Ledger back in 1963:

Clarion-Ledger quotes from real housewives of Jackson, 1963

Stockett’s novel also includes a black character named Yule May Crookle, who lives down to her last name by stealing from the book’s villain Hilly Holbrook, which lands her in prison.

Another common myth during segregation about African Americans was that we weren’t trustworthy and we stole. Yet Stockett creates a character who does just that, simply to advance the plot (more maids sign on to help Skeeter after Hilly uses her influence to get Yule May additional jail time).

One of the main protag’s (Aibileen) discusses whether her power of prayer made others think she had “the black magic” to call down a venereal disease on the character of Cocoa.  Which is yet another stereotype regarding blacks and religion. Back in the day, no matter if we professed to be Christians, somehow we reverted back to our roots, which was voodoo or “Black Magic”. This was yet another myth used to try to block integration. That somehow African American religious beliefs were still different than whites, and therefore we weren’t equal.

The excerpt from the novel. Minny is speaking first with Aibileen responding:

“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)    

 
 

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help

 Stockett peppers her novel with character tropes like the black “brute” (Leroy) which the novel The Clansman and also the movie Birth of a Nation used to stir up racial hostility. The tragic mulatto, (Lulabelle) a character also used in movies like Kings Go Forth (Natalie Wood played the mulatto) Pinky, based on the book Quality. Actress Jean Crain played Pinky and veteran powerhouse actress Ethel Waters played the nurturing Aunt Em. The best known tragic mulatto was Peola/Sarah Jane from the movie Imitation of Life, written by Fannie Hurst.

Many readers have stated that the two main black protagonists, Aibileen and Minny are the most “admirable” in the novel. Unfortunately, these two characters represent the only roles Hollywood would have African American females play during segregation’s heyday, that being the blindly loyal maid or the grumbling, bossy maid. Two actresses who made the most of the only parts given to them were Hattie McDaniel, an Oscar winner for Gone With The Wind, and Louise Beavers, who could possibly have won the first Oscar by an African American, had there been a best supporting actress category in 1934.      

 
 

 

 
 

Well deserving of acclaim, a postage stamp commemorated the actress Hattie McDaniel

 

 

Louise Beavers won raves for her portrayal of Delilah in Imitation of Life, which was the original film version of Fannie Hurst’s novel.     

 
 
 

 

 
 

Delilah in Imitation of Life, played by Louise Beavers

 

In The Help, Aibileen Clark is almost a ringer for Imitation of Life’s Delilah. Aibileen is so sweetly docile and accommodating that it was impossible for me not to recall Delilah, the maid more than willing to give her percentage of a pancake fortune to Bea, just so she could stay on and take care of Bea and her daughter Jessie. This type of character is more than just saintly. They’re the white ideal of how blacks were supposed to behave. The term used was to be “a credit to your race”. The “Aibileen’s” didn’t make waves publicly, and were considered “Good Negroes” because they quietly followed the status quo.

But what Stockett also did was give Aibileen a little something extra. The character reads as if she hates the skin she’s in. Several times in the novel Stockett throws in Aibileen’s view of how black she is, and it’s not positive. I’m not sure if Stockett even considered that the book would be read by African Americans, and how this would impact on someone’s enjoyment of the book. Aibileen compares her skin color to a roach, one of the filthiest creatures on the planet. Yet Stockett has the character saying “He black. Blacker than me” (Pg 189)

Aibileen even jokes to one of her now grown white charges “Don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” then when he says because of her advice, he hasn’t touched a drop, she crows, “it’s nice to see the children grown up fine” or some such nonsense.

Here’s the excerpt from the novel:

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)

There’s also the matter of how the author handled the character Minny, a character resembling Mammy, the grouchy comedic maid of Gone with the Wind.

Minny Jackson is an abused woman, yet Stockett throws out all known medical data on domestic violence just to continue with the “bossy maid” stereotype. And some readers completely bought it.

A woman like Minny who’s been abused for over fifteen years and quaking in fear of her husband would not take up a knife to defend Celia Foote. A. Knife. Another stereotype of the black culture during segregation. That it was our weapon of choice and we were quick to confront. To add insult to injury, Stockett has the character smacking her daughter Sugar, after the girl gossips about Celia Foote, something Minny has been doing throughout the novel.

So a woman currently experiencing violent abuse at the hands of her husband, also abuses one of her children. Somewhere along the way, either the writer or her publisher believed that black women behave contrary to other cultures, even in this day and age.

 
 

Actress Octavia Spencer plays Minny in the film version of the novel The Help

 

But how could Minny gather the courage to defend Celia, who’s locked in the house by the way, especially since the woman doesn’t have the backbone to defend her own children when Leroy rages? Stockett even has a section in the book where Minny tells her son to “be brave” because the boy has to wake his father up. And then she has Minny and Aibileen scurrying down the street to get to church, even after they hear Leroy waking up and hollering at Benny.

There’s no way I could read this scene and think these characters were admirable. They were sorry excuses for women as written by Stockett in this scene. Stockett even has Aibileen thinking that she needs to walk faster to stop Minny from going back.

And why does Aibileen want to walk faster? Because somehow, church is more important to them, even though all they do when they get there is gossip about other people. I couldn’t relate to these two women, though I realized they were supposed to be stand-ins for the countless maids who toiled under the oppressive system ruled by segregation.

But Aibileen had a few personality quirks that made her behave like an Uncle Tom. She’s intent on instilling positive affirmations to Mae Mobley, but ignores the abuse her best friend’s kids receive? How is that admirable? So it’s okay to nurture the little white kid but ignore the black ones experiencing far worse?

Again, this was the stereotype of the “Good Negro” the black who’d fawn over whites, but distain his or her own culture. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had such a character. Mammy, who spawned countless other versions, including it now seems, part of Aibileen’s personality.

"Mammy" Jane from Uncle Tom's Cabin

Though Kathryn Stockett wrote about life in the 1960s, we’re not in the 1960s. It makes no sense for a writer to dredge up stereotypes and not know their impact. The book isn’t a satire.

It reads more like Stockett was giving a wink and a nod to much of what she’d been erroneously taught or wrongly believed. But what about people who read the book BEFORE it was published, didn’t they see it?

Or were they too willing to overlook these stereotypes just because they though a “Beautiful story” could tamp down any objections. Maybe if this was 1933, when Imitiation of Life was released to almost the same objections and controversy.

It’s odd how Stockett’s novel follows the playbook from Fannie Hurst’s experience with her novel. Hurst had Zora Neale Hurston to champion her novel. And at one point Langston Hughes. But for whatever reason, Hughes changed his mind, writing a parody of the novel as a stage played titled Limitation of Life.

The same controversies were ignored when African Americans and others brought up criticism of Edna Ferber’s Showboat. Most people only know the musical, and fell in love with the song “Old Man River” without realizing that in the novel Jo was described like this:

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.” (line uttered by Queenie, Jo’s wife in the novel Showboat Pg 118)

Jo is also labeled as someone who smells of gin.

Fannie Hurst also denegrates the black male, having Delilah say this about her ex-husband in the novel Imitation of Life:

“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.”

Imitation of Life poster for both movie versions

Even William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner  has the main protag, saying this about other blacks:

“a disheveled, ragged lot. . .laughter high and heedless, and loutish nigger cheer’”

“faces popeyed with black nigger credulity’, ‘sweat streaming off their black backs in shiny torrents, the lot of them stinking to heaven.”

And like Stockett, Styron has his main black character enamored with a white character, though Styron admitted he had no proof, he chose to portray Nat Turner as lusting over a young white woman:

“when I stole into my private place in the carpenter’s shop to release my pent-up desires, it was Miss Emmeline whose bare white full round hips and belly responded wildly to all my lust and who, sobbing ‘mercy, mercy, mercy’ against my ear, allowed me to partake of the wicked and godless yet unutterable joys of defilement.”

Thankfully Stockett doesn’t include this type of characterization for the black males in her novel. No, she just concentrates on the black “Brute” and “no account” black male, even knowing full well that this is what many African American males faced during segregation:    

A lynching in Marion, Indiana 1930. The ultimate price black men paid during segregation

 

So Stockett’s novel has a been there, done that feel concerning the black characters. Especially with nuggets like these concerning black males who were persecuted during segregation:

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 on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known  (Pg 5 Aibileen, teaching her young son to refer to his estranged father as “Crisco”).

And this far reaching, but highly offensive assertion that had no place even being in the book:

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 about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

To which I counter with this quote from Medgar Evers:

“We fought during the war for America, Mississippi included. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn’t killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would.”

To Be continued. . .

 
 
 

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