On Trial: Judging the character of Aibileen Clark

Posted on March 12, 2011

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This post explores the contrasting viewpoints, as well as the perceived pros and cons of the character Aibileen Clark  from the novel The Help.

Pro opinion of Aibileen

Many readers believe Aibileen Clark is a compassionate character. The book blurb states the character is “regal” and “wise”. While the author offered this explanation in light of the lawsuit:

“As readers of The Help know, my Aibileen is a true heroine: she is intelligent, an author, a devoted servant of the Lord and a good mother.”  —– Kathryn Stockett

Link: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2011/02/help-author-kathryn-stockett-fights-lawsuit/1

Actress Viola Davis portrays Aibileen in the movie The Help

 

Aibileen’s favorable rating is based several factors:

Personal loss: Estranged husband Clyde, the untimely death of her only child Treelore at age twenty-four.

Sexual abstinence: Middle aged woman living an isolated or solitary life. According to the book, Aibileen was born in 1909, making her 53 years old in 1962 when the novel starts. In an upcoming excerpt on this post, Aibileen states she swore off men twenty years ago, after her husband ran off with another woman. She would have been 33. So her son would have been six when Clyde abandoned them. The book states Treelore was 24 when he died, which was in 1960 (per the novel Treelore has been dead two years at the start of the story)

Devotion and showering of affection first to the love starved toddler Mae Mobley, and then assisting Skeeter with her novel, in spite of the personal risks it entailed. In limited flashbacks Aibileen recalls her love for her only son.

Regular church attendance which appears to equal religious devotion

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

 

Other factors to consider:

Friendly, easy going personality. Sweet but slow nature. Self effacing, easily hurt, hard worker, loyal friend, open and honest.

To many readers this character’s lifestyle and behavior is entirely plausible. But what readers may be responding to is an ingrained social norm of  how  a “good” black person should act, and what constituted negative behavior, especially during the 1960s.

In addition to the novel, historical norms regarding the subservience required of African Americans during segregation are important in this analysis.

Kathryn Stockett has stated the character of Aibileen was based on Demetrie, her grandparents maid, but also a woman who was like a second mother to her. Per her article for the UK’s Dailymail:

“When I grew older and awkward, when my parents divorced and life had gone all to hell, Demetrie stood me at the wardrobe mirror and told me over and over, ‘You are beautiful. You are smart. You are important.’ It was an incredible gift to give a child who thinks nothing of herself.”

“And yet, as much as we loved Demetrie, she had a separate bathroom located on the outside of the house.”

“I never once sat down to eat with her at the table. I never saw her – except the day she lay in her coffin – dressed in anything but that white uniform.”

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

 

And yet, with everything Demetrie sought to instill and provide to Stockett, here’s what was negative about the character Stockett says is based on the real life maid:

Con opinion of Aibileen

To other readers Aibileen Clark is one part Mammy, and one part Uncle Tom. And while the author defends her depiction, the novel highlights the dual nature of not just this character, but others.

Personal loss: The irresponsibility of her philandering husband Clyde, which forced Aibileen to raise their child alone certainly gains the character  sympathy. But it doesn’t fully explain why Aibileen would swear off all men after that. Stockett uses a single paragraph to explain a life altering decision:

Time to time, I think I might find myself another man, one from my church. Problem is, much as I love the Lord, church going man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain’t the kind that stays around when he done spending all you money. I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish street, one they call Cocoa. I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind a business. (Pg 22)

What kind of business? Being a healthy female with sexual desires? So Stockett turns Aibileen into a woman who just gives up companionship because of one man, or because of her attraction to the wrong kind of man? This is bogus rationale in order to keep Aibileen “pure” as in good enough to coddle and nurture Mae Mobley because she abstains from any sort of relationship.

 

Click on image for a larger view:   

 
 
 
 
 
Regularly attending church: Is Aibileen  as religious as the character is portrayed? This is what Minny reveals from  Pg 126-127

I see Aibileen in our usual pew, left side, fourth from the front, right by the window fan. We’re prime members and we deserve a prime spot. She’s got her hair smoothed back, a little roll of pencil curls around her neck . . . as usual, she looks plump and respectable, but for all her prim and proper, Aibileen can still tell a dirty joke that’ll make you tinkle in your pants.

I walk up the aisle, see Aibileen frown at something, creasing her forehead. For a second I can see the fifteen-odd years between us. But then she smiles and her face goes young and fat again.

“Lord.” I say as soon as I’m settled in.

“I know. Somebody got to tell her.” Aibileen fans her face with her hanky. It was Kiki Brown’s morning for cleaning and the whole church is gaudied up with her lemon smell-good she makes and tries to sell for twenty-five cents a bottle. . .

“How’s Benny’s asthma?” Aibileen asks.

“Had a little spell yesterday. Leroy dropping him and the rest of the kids by in a while. Let’s hope the lemon don’t kill him.”

“Leroy.” Aibileen shakes her head and laughs. “Tell him I said he better behave.  Or I put him on my prayer list.”

“I wish you would. Oh Lord, hide the food.”

Hoity-toity Bertrina Bessemer waddles toward us. She leans over the pew in front of us, smiling with a big, tacky blue-bird hat on. Betrina, she’s the one who called Aibileen a fool for all those years. . .

Aibileen smiles, nods. Bertrina waddles off to her pew.

“Maybe you ought to be a little pickier who you pray for.” I say.

“Aw, I ain’t mad at her no more, says Aibileen. “And look a there, she done lost some weight.”

“She telling everybody she lost forty pounds, ” I say.

“Lord a mercy.”

“Only got two hundred more to go.”

Aibileen tries not to smile, acts like she’s waving away the lemon smell.

End of Excerpt

There are a few other scenes with Aibileen and Minny in church, but they do more gossiping than anything else. These scenes are used to add humor to the novel. Which is a pattern that Stockett uses routinely,  having the black characters inject humor far too often in the novel, at their own expense. As far as the white characters, Hilly’s mother Miss Walters is used to keep Hilly in line, but sparingly. Too often the black characters are being laughed at, and not with.

 

“Minny, do you and Leroy ever talk about ever talk about civil rights?” Miss Skeeter ask. “When he comes home from work?”

And Aibileen thinks this about her “Best” friend: Minny had that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come home from work. He push her around.

 

And there’s this unflattering observation Aibileen of all people makes about Minny, her closest friend:

She roll her eyes and stick her tongue out like I handed her a plate a dog biscuits. “I knew you was getting senile,” she say.  Aibileen, noting Minny’s canine like expression before she answers. (Pg 430)

Currently, the most controversial line that seems to be getting publicity around the internet is the one Stockett has Aibileen uttering after she compares her skin color to a roach (items in bold are my doing):

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

That line is certainly controversial and offensive. Yet Stockett gives Aibileen more such lines. And more scenes where she behaves less like the regal, intelligent character that Stockett claims, but as a Mammy of the old south.

One example is Aibileen’s not so funny line to one of her used to be kids, now grown:

 . . . 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)

There’s also this scene, running about equal in offense to the roach color swatch:

“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)

That’s right. Aibileen has the power, via her prayers to God to call down a venereal disease on Cocoa. But it’s important that readers know blacks having “diseases” was a common misconception. It spread like wildfire, and it was one of the reasons southerners didn’t want integration. Note these scans from the Clarion-Ledger expressing bigoted concern: 

 

 

Twisted Logic, 1963 style

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

Speaking in ignorance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 And to make matters worse, Stockett adds in the demeaning notion that Aibileen wonders if people think she did it via black magic. Because we all know Christianity and black magic must go hand in hand. NOT. Stockett’s joke went terribly wrong. But one that the author apparently feels is so funny, she read Minny’s part, fake “black” dialect and all while on a book tour.

The character  of Aibileen is certainly compassionate, if not too swift.  But her considerate nature only manifests itself when dealing with certain characters. There’s her deceased son, her seventeen white kids she’s raised, Mae Mobley and Skeeter. I can’t include Minny especially after some of the things Stockett’s got Aibileen thinking around her “best friend” Minny. And take a look at how Aibileen handles an elderly black worker’s question on using the Leefolt restroom:

“Beg a pardon, he say, “but where . . .” He stand there a minute, look down at his feet. “Where might I go make water?”

He look up and I look at him and for a minute we just be looking.

 . . .this fella, he a old man. Got heavy wrinkled hands. Seventy years a worry done put so many lines in his face, he like a roadmap.

 “I spec you gone have to go in the bushes, back a the house. “ I hear myself say, but I wish it weren’t me. “Dog’s back there, but he won’t bother you.” (Pg 20)

Thinking freely isn’t something Stockett equipped Aibileen with. Reality must intrude once again. Because having a black man relieve himself in the backyard of a residential neighborhood in Mississippi, especially in 1962 would have resulted in the worker being arrested. Or worse.

Here’s a few other excerpts on how Aibileen’s mind works under Stockett’s direction:

I got my prayer book out so I can write some things down. I concentrate on Mae Mobley, try to keep my mind off Miss Hilly. Show me how to teach Baby Girl to be kind, to love herself; to love others, while I got time with her. . . (Pg 192)

That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her.  (Pg 437)

Heather, Miss Hilly’s girl, she pretty cute. Heather got dark, shiny curls all over her head and some little freckles, and she real talkative. One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss Will on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her momma too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it make me think about Treelore, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)

Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. . . (Pg 208)

Still more excerpts point toward Aibileen appearing less than kindly when her inner dialogue turns to her good friend Minny:

As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Pg 396) 

So that’s what Aibileen thinks of her best friend’s home. In the process she’s showing a lot less compassion than on her day job.

And what about the kids? Surely Aibileen will be as loving and patient with Minny’s children as she is with Mae Mobley and the needy woman child Skeeter:

Excerpt from page 396, Aibileen is the narrator:

“Kindra! Get your butt off that floor!” Minny holler. “Them beans better be hot when your daddy wakes up!”

Kinda- she seven now-she sass-walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place.

“Why I got to do dinner? It’s Sugar’s turn.”

“Cause Sugar at Miss Celia’s and you want to live to see third grade.”

End of Excerpt

The surprise here is that Aibileen feels no need to be protective of Kindra. Even though she’s well aware that Leroy is abusive, and that Minny’s shouting is no different than Elizabeth Leefolt’s. However, with Stockett at the helm Aibileen’s protective meter takes a vacation:

“Kindra, turn that flame down fore you burn the house down!”

 And here’s how Aibileen replies, never once jumping in to offer advice or help:

“We better go Minny,” I say, cause this could go on all night. “We gone be late.”

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

“Awww, 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 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. (Pg 397)

 

This post is in development . . .

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