Cracking the code:Deciphering the novel and the lawsuit

Posted on March 12, 2011

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The implosion about to hit The Help, should Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit make it to the jury will probably not be the kind of publicity the movie’s producers (Dreamworks, and Nate Berkus among others) the distributor (Disney) or the writer (Kathryn Stockett) and the screenwriter (Tate Taylor) envisioned.

Because if passages from the novel are allowed as evidence, scenes showing that Stockett indeed wrote Aibileen as a character with problems concerning the skin she’s in, as well as the book’s warped view on black culture will be introduced. The court case could probably make as much noise as the novel did. But it may also put more money into Stockett’s pocket.

Yet another obscure cover for The Help

It’s just speculation on my part, but I don’t believe the the lawsuit is about money. The plaintiff is asking for $75,000. But it’s not cash driving Cooper.

 

 

 

 

 

This whole story is bigger than the allegation of  Stockett siphoning slices of  life from Ablene Cooper, close associates, relatives and perhaps others who cared and worked for her.

It concerns how innuendo, negative ideology and generations of demeaning depictions of the black culture are gladly accepted as truth, culminating in the latest best selling novel dealing with race, called The Help. It’s been done several times before. And it will be done again.   

Aibileen is a familiar character in fiction. The docile, blindly loyal maid who is devoted to the child she cares for. A similar character who comes to mind is Delilah from Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life. It’s ironic there was also controversy in 1933 regarding the depiction of that character. Fannie Hurst even had Zora Neale Hurston championing her book. At one point Langston Hughes was on board. Until Hughes changed his mind and wound up writing a parody of the novel in play form.

Actress Louise Beavers portrayed Delilah in the film version of the novel "Imitation of Life"

I look at Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit as a way to make publicly known that enough is enough. That having a character with her likeness and a similar name who goes to church, yet still wonders if people think she used “black magic” to wish a venereal disease on another woman is not funny, but offensive.

In addition, that telling someone “don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” is not funny, it’s offensive.

That while it’s admirable to instill positive affirmations within an employer’s young child, it’s a coward who’ll ignore her best friend’s children, especially children who witness the violent, physical abuse of their mother on a daily basis.

But of course, if that abused woman is simply the “sassy” maid stereotype, then the abuse may be easily overlooked.

And it is the height of offense to compare brown skin to a roach, especially with more than enough images during the period segregation was legal that demeaned the black culture.

Is this a frivolous lawsuit? Not as far as I’m concerned. Aibileen in my opinion, is a Mammy, not a maid.

And true enough, Ablene Cooper may not win her lawsuit. But at least the lawsuit may open a dialogue on what constitutes offensive stereotype in a minority character, versus paying homage.

Click the image for a larger view:

 

 

If this lawsuit successfully goes to trial, it may be the first time true deliberation is afforded to the legal rights of not just Ablene Cooper, but other minorities who’ve complained about demeaning representations being passed off as honorable. For not only will Stockett’s dialogue and images be examined, but how this country truly sees those who gained equality forty seven years ago.  

Stockett on CBS, a photo of Demetrie is in the background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In 1970s Mississippi I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbour. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html

By all early accounts The Help was a hit with readers. Especially white readers. And the book won over a number of reviewers. It was a top favorite of white reviewers.

Only no one bothered to canvas the racial group which makes up the premise of Stockett’s novel. For within the pages of Stockett’s book, there is an ugliness unmatched by any perceived “beauty” the publisher or author hope to spin in their favor.

Though the lawsuit concerns proving Kathryn Stockett used Ablene Cooper’s name and likeness without her permssion, it’s far more that the casual observer knows.

It’s about being tired of individuals taking advantage of not just Ablene Cooper, but others who couldn’t do anything regarding the way they were depicted, without their permission.      

 

Hires ad, "Yassuh . . .Law"

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Aunt Jemima mangles the english language, just like Aibileen and Minny

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 It’s about far too many in power deciding the way they see minorities will always be the default image. Especially if a profit can be made off that image.  

 

 

       

Stepin Fetchit grovels for Will Rodgers

It’s how African Americans were and are still depicted. From William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, with a conflicted, self loathing protag, to Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life  with a maid so unbelievably accommodating, so sweetly content with waiting on her employer that she begs off any of her own fortune just to stay on as the woman’s maid. There are other novels, books considered “classics” that consist of black characters who fumble and break apart words as if english was a second language. Characters who fit the ideal of the large, slow-witted and definitely dark African Americans who could only prove that they were no “threat” to whites with deeds of obedience and reverence. There are novels as well as films that depict blacks through the narrow lens of white writers intent on using minorities for laughter and derision. Yet these authors and others profess to be liberals, all the while populating their work with known caricatures and stereotypes, and expecting the racial group they skewer to enjoy it. And also validate it.

That’s my guess as to why many African American readers have agreed with Stockett’s crafting of the black characters in the novel, hoping against hope that with the book’s popularity, what domestics suffered through would prompt self reflection on those still alive who perpetrated it, and to educate a new generation.

Only Stockett’s The Help isn’t it. It’s not the miracle some were hoping for. No matter how badly readers (like myself) whose relatives detailed the hardships and overt racism in the south during segregation wanted it to be. In desperation, some are even willing to overlook how much is wrong in the book.  For what little Stockett may have captured of both white entitlement and black oppression, the author pulled a fast one.

The Help is a Trojan Horse, pretending to paying homage to the countless men and women of black ancestry who were targeted and oppression under segregation. Yet in reality, inside its pages is the precious gift of absolution for those who cruelly perpetrated and profited  from a color coded regime.

Stockett admitted this in an early audio interview:

“. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.”

3:42 into a 10 minute interview with Steve Bertrand at Barnes and Noble.

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

 

 

Stockett kept her word. She didn’t criticize segregationists. No, she reserved her criticism for many of the black characters in the novel. In particular, the black male.

Plenty a black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We got the kids to think about. (Minny, Pg 311) 

 

 

Looking at Minny’s “Plenty a black men” statement, it’s not hard to see why she’d think that with the mates Stockett created for the primary female maids. Aibileen’s absentee husband Clyde is no prize. Neither is Constantine’s ex-lover Connor, who abandoned her once Lulabelle was born. And Minny’s husband Leroy is just obnoxious.

Once Stockett  stripped Constantine and Aibileen of  their companions, they were then free to be better Mammies. Repeating the trend, Stockett gave Minny a husband she would be better off without. But all was rectified at novel’s end. Minny finally left Leroy, and Celia awaited with open arms. Now Minny can cook and fuss over Celia and Johnny to her heart’s content. How, oh how was this pattern not noticed? ALL THREE PRIMARY MAIDS ARE LEFT WITHOUT A SIGNIFICANT OTHER.

And it’s hard to believe this wasn’t by design.

Stockett even has Saint Aibileen making not only questionable but downright offensive statements about her own skin color and how she interacted with those of her own community.

. . . 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. (Aibileen, crowing about one of her now grown white kids Pg 91)

There’s also self loathing statements the character makes about her skin color, under Stockett’s direction:

“We was all surprised Constantine would go and… get herself in a family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” Pg 358

 

Yes, in The Help, there’s dumb:

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Minny speaking of a person holding a community meeting concerning the Woolworth sit-ins for civil rights Pg 217)

And  dumber:

“You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month” (Leroy interogating Minny, who’s carrying his sixth child Pg 406)

 

Per abcnews.com:

“The lawsuit said the author’s conduct  ‘is not a mere insult, indignity, annoyance or trivial matter to Ablene. Kathryn Stockett’s conduct has made Ablene feel violated, outraged and revulsed,’ according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

Despite the fact that Kathryn Stockett had actual knowledge that using the name and likeness of Ablene in ‘The Help’ would be emotionally upsetting and highly offensive to Ablene, Kathryn Stockett negligently and-or intentionally and in reckless disregard for the rights and dignity of Ablene proceeded with her plans,’  it says.

Kathryn Stockett’s appropriation of Ablene’s name and likeness was done for Kathryn Stockett’s commercial advantage, namely to sell more copies of ‘The Help. . .

The author’s father, Robert Stockett Jr. of Jackson Miss., told ABCNews.com that he is “neutral” in the division between his son and daughter, but agreed that plenty of people are profiting, especially filmmakers who plan to release a movie version of the book this year.

The abc site also reported Stockett as saying: ” ‘Sure, I liked the book. It’s fiction. They didn’t give me the critics’ copy until it was too late,’ he said. “I would have got some factual things changed. But I’m low down the totem pole . . .”

Stepin Fetchit's greatest role: The confused coon

If Stockett is vilified in court, she’ll take along those who encouraged and nurtured her view of  a docile domestic and  a motormouth  maid. In addition, there’s her demeaning assessment of black males, a testiment to how she enjoyed putting “different” voices on the page. African Americans are negatively portrayed in our thoughts, speech and lifestyle in this novel, though the publisher and Stockett profess otherwise.

As far as the movie, the excuses will probably include how the producers recognized the flaws in the novel, and worked to correct them. In addition, the phrase “Based on the novel” will feature prominently, as this seems to be a catch all when the source material isn’t up to par.

Should the words “Based on the beloved best seller” wind up being used, then you’ll know that the studio as well as the producers still don’t get it. And I’d venture to guess test audiences viewing the early cut of the film will have more diversity among them than the whole of the agencies behind the movie.

Or the book for that matter.

In the south, the slave master had the power. After slavery ended, the southern employer had the power. Equality would not be given until blacks “earned” it. Yet the the same ones who made the rules changed them at their own whim. And they used images created during segregation to show why blacks could never achieve equality and freedom.

It was a system of pats on the head, imposed on blacks who knew their place by behaving in the image that some whites had created for them. That being the slumped shouldered, lowered eyed domestic, not so far removed from the roles played during slavery.

Take Stepin Fetchit, the first black thespian millionaire. But how did he do it? Well, he became what whites wanted. The shuffling, confused acting, slow talking, emasculated black male who posed no threat. He was considered a “credit to his race” because he knew his place. And so long as he continued to play the role of the comic coon, he made money.

Drawing of Stepin Fetchit, ironically from the Disney movie "Mother Goose from Hollywood"

Unfortunately for Stepin, but fortunately for the black community, times changed. However I maintain that because the role Fetchit played was all he’d ever be allowed to play, then the fault didn’t entirely lay with him. Even Paul Robeson, as regal and talented a man as he was, wound up taking parts he wasn’t too crazy about. And though he’s noted for singing “Old Man River”, because Robeson didn’t speak in “dese” and “dat”, as the story goes, he deviated from the written lyrics given to him, turning “Dat Ol’ Man River” into “That Old Man River.”

Again, this popular song illustrates how two white songwriters perceived the black dialect, and wrote a song that many people wrongly believe is based on a black spiritual. Much like Stockett’s book has become popular enough that some readers believe it’s a true story based on her life, The Help  serves to perpetuate the same type of misinformation that “Ol’ Man River” has.

   

From the Disney animated film Mothergoose from Hollywood, a caricature of Stepin Fetchit

Any sort of apology coming from Stockett or her publisher isn’t likely. It would be empty anyway.
The book’s out there, having been published in several countries and translated into a number of different languages. I also have a hard time believing it wasn’t done intentionally.
I would however suggest that the publisher initiate diversity training. Because too many of the passages and dialogue in The Help are insensitive and downright offensive. Yet they were edited and published in spite of it all. And to her credit Stockett offered this in 2009: 

Interview with Michele Norris of National Public Radio

Excerpt:

“I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.”

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

Sometimes the cruelest cut of all is by those who claim to empathize.
To be continued . . .
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