It’s time to retire “Can White Authors tell Black Stories?”

Posted on February 25, 2011

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Of course the answer to that highly offensive, why is it even being asked question is YES.

It may make for a titillating title, but wondering whether “white writers can tell black stories” is a simplistic phrase. A catch all that’s being wrongly applied to the multifaceted issue of many authors (not just some white writers) falling back on stereotypes to represent minority characters.

And really,  that’s not the big problem with novels like The Help or The Confessions of Nat Turner, or Imitation of Life among other books that just update mostly negative caricatures of the black culture. Most times the premise of the novel is highly promising. It’s just the execution (especially when the author decides to write in the first person) that tends to derail good intentions.

Take Kathryn Stockett’s depiction of black maids from the 1960s. The author just dusted off two rather stereotypical images from the past. One is the stoic, blindly loyal maid, which would be Aibileen Clark, and the bossy, grousing everybody gets on my nerves but my jokes about them are so funny Minny Jackson.

Two actresses who brought a face to these characters during segregation were Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and an actress who deserved more acclaim, Louise Beavers.

Hattie McDaniel stamp

 

Louise Beavers

 

And now, in 2011 these parts have been handed down to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

Actress Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark in the film version of The Help

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

 
Hopefully, both Davis and Spencer will bring a gravity and seasoned actors touch to these roles, and in turn elevate the movie. At least that’s my hope. My other hope is that the movie deviates from the book. Because it’s the source material that ‘s truly flawed. By falling back on the typical black domestic from days gone by, Stockett also stuck to the script on what the women should look and sound like.
 
 
Note the requirements for these two characters:

The character must be very dark, and is usually described as truly “Black” as in “Black as patent shoes” or “Black as night”

The character must be large, or carry excess weight.

The character must not have command of the English language.

The character must not have an intellect either equal to, or above the main protaganist, who’s usually white.

The character must demean the black male.

The character must be attached to children, a kitchen and most definitely a church.

Guess what? Both Aibileen and Minny fit the above. I’ll list the sections in the novel, and also their prior literary and movie counterparts also, because this isn’t something new. It’s a pattern far too many writers, like Stockett have fallen into. The sad part is, most often books with jacked up depictions become runaway hits.  

But I really do wish people would stop acting like this all boils down to black people not wanting a white author to tell stories with black characters. Richard Price, the author of  “Clockers” and Dennis Lehane, the author of “The Given Day” didn’t have any problem crafting black characters. And Price wrote several episodes of the excellent but under appreciated series “The Wire”

Hilary Jordan’s wonderful debut  “Mudbound”  dealt with black and white characters during segregation.

Conversely, Francine Thomas Howard’s novel “Page from a Tennesee Journal” showed that a black author could craft both white and black couples, and have a racist character fall for a black woman using nuance, writing skill and a different voice for each character.

Harping on whether a white writer can tell black stories only invites whether a black writer can craft white characters. As I’ve previously stated, it’s much more complex than that.       

 

 

Maid at the door

 

 When a book causes controversy, maybe looking at whether there’s any basis to the gripes of those who offer a dissenting view is appropriate.

For example, the problem with Kathryn Stockett’s characters are scenes like these:

Minny, in an attempt at crass humor, tells how the woman who ran off with Aibileen’s husband Clyde woke up to find her ”cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster.”

Aibileen is incredulous at this, and asks, “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

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

The “black magic” reference and Aibileen’s questioning that people may think she practices it, mixes religion with superstition. This is another stereotype of African Americans, that while we may profess to be Christians we’re really not. It’s also another moment where the reader can chuckle at how backwards Minny and Aibileen appear to be in their understanding of God and the bible.

Stockett also throws in a major negative myth used during segregation that spread like wildfire about African Americans. That we had “diseases”. In this instance she uses a character named Cocoa, the woman Aibileen’s husband Clyde has run off with. Perhaps Stockett believed she was giving Cocoa her comeuppance (by putting a venereal disease on the character). And I suspect plenty of readers laughed at this. But the negative connotation outweighs bringing the funny here.

It’s uncomfortable. But most of all, with a closer look it’s highly offensive.

If Aibileen is so devoutly religious as Stockett claims in her official statement regarding the lawsuit, she’d be offended, not curious. And she’d correct Minny, especially since Aibileen is seventeen years older. But in the scene she’s of the same mindset instead of being upset that people would even attribute such a thing to her. And really, where does God even fit in with all of this? I get that Aibileen has her “prayer book” but one thing does not equate to the other. Religion and belief in “black magic” are opposing ideologies.

I truly hope Stockett wasn’t trying to imply that because both characters are black, then naturally, “black magic” would be appropriate in this particular instance. Because it wasn’t.

Frankly, they both sound dumb. I know it was supposed to be funny but it just wasn’t.

Additional posts that explore scenes from the novel:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/white-author-black-character/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/the-wrong-author-for-the-right-story/

Just so it doesn’t look like I’m picking on Stockett, I’m going to add William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Confessions of Nat Turner into this. Styron was a master storyteller. His prose at times flowed and his descriptions were vivid. Much like Stockett,  he wrote in the first person.  But he also tried to explain something he termed “niggerness”.

Cover of the novel "The Confessions Of Nat Turner"

 

Stockett wasn’t that bold but she came close. Writing while black, Stockett has Aibileen talk about her skin color as if she doesn’t care for it (the now infamous roach comparision “He black. Blacker than me”). And Minny makes this far reaching and uncalled for assessment of black men:

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 (Pg 311)

I searched the book to see if Stockett had included a similar opinion regarding what was sorely wrong with many white males. Didn’t find it.

But I did find Skeeter “telling” the reader that the same males who benefited from segregation were “good” as in “I know he’s a good man” (Stuart) and “he’s too honest a man” (her father, Carlton Phelan). Now, why do these guys get labeled “good” while the black male is either a “no-account” a drunk, or an absentee dad? Only Stockett and her editor know for sure.

Getting back to William Styron’s fictional account of Nat Turner, for those unaware, Nat Turner staged a historic  slave revolt. Styron partly used information from a twenty page pamphlet from 1832 to build upon his tale. In Styron’s book, Nat is one crazy mofo.

He’s a leader that distains the black slaves that follow his command and also sexually repressed under Styron’s pen:

“In my fantasies she began to replace the innocent, imaginary girl with the golden curls as the object of my craving, and on those Saturdays 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.” (Pg 183)

Styron further assured the book would be mired in controversy with the character voicing inner dialogue like this:

“a few of the crouched men and boys without shirts, picking their noses and scratching, sweat streaming down their black backs in shiny torrents, the lot of them stinking to high heaven. I sit down on a bench near the window in an empty space between Hark and an obese, gross-jowled, chocolate colored slave named Hubbard, owned by the Widow Whitehead, who sports a white man’s cast-off frayed multicolored vest over his flabby naked shoulders, and whose thick lips even now, as he meditates conscientiously upon the sermon from below. . .I can see around me a score of faces popeyed with black nigger credulity, jaws agape, delicious shudders of fright coursing through their bodies as they murmur soft Amens, nervously cracking their knuckles and making silent vows of eternal obedience. . . Ooooh yes! he groans, a fat house nigger, docile as a pet coon.” (Pg 97)

“The black people do not sing but stand respectfully in the hot gallery, mouths agape or with sloppy uncomprehending smiles, shuffling their feet. Suddenly they seem to me as meaningless and as stupid as a barn full of mules and I hate them one and all.” (Pg 103)

“a negro, in much the same way as a dog, has constantly to interpret the tone of what is being said. If, as certainly possible, the question  was merely drunken-rhetorical, then I could remain humbly and decently mute and scrape away at my rabbit. This (my mind all the while spinning and whirling away like a water mill) was the eventuality I preferred-dumb nigger silence, perhaps a little scratching of the old woolly skull, and an illiterate pink lipped grin, reflecting total incomprehension of so many beautiful Latinisms.”  (Pg 61)

Guess beautiful prose trumps ugly sentiment, because Styron was awarded the top prize in literature for the novel. But this is also the author who followed The Confessions of Nat Turner with the celebrated novel Sophie’s Choice, for which Meryl Streep won an Oscar when the film version was released. 

It remains to be seen whether Kathryn Stockett’s second novel can redeem her first, at least in my eyes.

Because The Help is like someone pissing on my head and telling me I need to shut off my mind and enjoy it.

There are numerous mixed messages in the book.  A few examples:

Carrying weight is an asset for the black domestics, yet it signifies Hilly coming undone.

Skeeter goes from being a recorder of the maid’s stories to the book’s editor and then the author, even though she refused to include her own mother’s tale. The one where Charlotte had Constantine choose between staying with the Phelans as their maid or give up her daughter again, (Lulabelle). Nevermind that Lulabelle was Constantine’s only child that she’d longed to reconnect with.

Good help it seems, is that hard to find. Wimp that she is, of course Skeeter declines to include the story in the book. The maids are all baring their souls and willing to face the consequences while Skeeter just can’t bring herself to, even though it’s for Constantine. All through the novel Skeeter’s been whipping herself into a frenzy over what happened to Constantine. Then when the answer comes and she doesn’t like it, she proves just how all of her whining was for show.

Being an even bigger wimp is Aibileen, once again in Uncle Tom mode, who tells Skeeter it’s okay to do so. Aibileen never says, but could you at least throw in a shout out to my son, since he’s the one who gave you the idea to compile the maid’s tales to begin with? Nope. Aibileen never asks for anything more, though if she really thought about it, Skeeter needed her more than vice versa.  And Aibileen did all the heavy lifting, like getting the maids together and playing hostess when the maids (as well as Skeeter) met in her home.

Stockett even segregates the black characters. The big three who “challenge” the status quo and pay dearly for it are Lulabelle, Yule May Crookle (as in she’s a “thief” so look how funny it is that I gave her this last name. NOT) and Gretchen, who tells off Skeeter and incurs the wrath of the book’s resident Uncle Tom Aibileen. These are also three ladies who, by education and hair with “no naps” AKA having good hair (Yule May Crookle) lightness of skin (Lulabelle) and wearing pink lipstick just like Skeeter and the gang, while also speaking like them (Gretchen) have the courage to publicly lash out.

The ones who stick to the script are the heavy set, demolishing the english language and talking about their own people behind their backs Aibileen and Minny. I have to add Constantine into this to complete Stockett’s Mammyish triad. Because the author had to know she’d separated the black domestics based on their dissimilar characteristics to whites in this book. And if she couldn’t see it, I’m pretty sure someone else did. Another thing that divides the big three (and they are big in this book, since all are described as carrying excess weight) is their skin tone. Stockett goes above and beyond making the point of letting the reader know that Aibileen, Minny and Constantine are considered dark or black, sorta like this:

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" serves up Mammy 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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