The Southern Identity Crisis in The Help

Posted on March 19, 2011

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Whenever the controversy over the dialect in The Help  is brought up, what’s usually focused on is how Stockett saddled most of the black characters with a folksy, stereotypical speech pattern (Lulabelle, Yule May and Gretchen are exempt, since they’re the black characters with more “white” characteristics. More on the divisions within the black characters can be found here). What’s usually overlooked is how the white characters are practically devoid a southern dialect or accent.  

For all of Kathryn Stockett’s proclaimations of pride and affection for her birth state of Mississippi, why don’t the employers in the novel speak like Steel Magnolias? The fact that the audio book and the movie have rectified this only makes what was done for the novel even more suspect.

Especially since stripping white characters of their “Y’all” or “Yaw” has been done before in fiction. But what I found surprising is that many white southerners are sensitive to being subjected to ridicule regarding their speech pattern.

And I wondered if this played some part in the decision to have the white characters (and three of the lighter complexioned black characters) of  The Help read more like the accepted norm.

Atlanta Magazine covered this very subject in their July 2006 issue:

Listen Up, Y'all graphic from Atlanta Magazine, July 2006

 “The Melodic Southern Accent is widely viewed as an albatross of shame. People will actually pay to have it “reduced” the way they might surgically downsize their jowls or Bowtox their crow’s feet.”

Link: Google Book Scan 

Fox News Anchor and Mississippi native Sheperd Smith knows all too well how many southerners are unfairly targeted because of the way they speak:

“Smith has a great deal of respect for his heritage, and his strong feelings led to his outrage last year when a competing news channel ridiculed a Georgia woman for her Southern accent. ‘I took personal offense to that. I felt like people all over the country should have been mad,’ he says. ‘It seems almost universally okay to make fun of a Southern accent. That we speak a little more slowly and use some different words is not a reason to crucify. It is inexcusable.’ “

Link: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/News+from+home%3A+Shepard+Smith’s+Mississippi+twang+is+now+heard+’round…-a098413244

 

This is how Kathryn Stockett responded when asked  by Katie Couric regarding the lack of regional flavor for her white characters: 

  

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

 “My grandmother spoke so properly, my stepmother speaks so properly, almost all of my friend’s parents spoke this beautiful,  just southern eloquence, and I…honestly, I just wrote it like I remembered it.”

“…but I have to say I think the African American language is lovely as well.”

“Really I was living in New York writing, channeling the voices of my childhood, of Demetrie and the black women that I had known. It felt pretty natural to me. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I didn’t get it all right.  I just played it back like a tape recorder. And it felt right.”

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjIowZrH4iM (no transcript available)

 

 

Months after this interview, Stockett again was asked why the black and white characters read so differently. Here’s what she stated:

Interview with Teresa Weaver of Atlanta Magazine

“Some critics have had trouble with the African American dialect in The Help. In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

‘I wouldn’t know how to write it differently. It’s funny when you’re surrounded by people who think something is normal, and then you go out and realize that everyone has their own version of normal. All I can say is, that’s how I remember it now in my mind. The dialect plays back like a tape recorder. My mother and stepmother speak very properly. I really enjoyed putting two very different voices on the page together. I don’t think I’d be capable of writing it any differently.’ “

http://www.atlantamagazine.com/channels/books/Story.aspx?id=1271657

 

Stockett elaborated a bit more on just what  “beautiful,  just southern eloquence” meant in another interview:

Interview with Pam Kelley of the Charlotte Observer

Stockett, who grew up in Mississippi, said she ‘wrote it like I remember hearing it.’ And she happened to grow up in a family, she said, that “spoke the King’s English.”

Link: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/03/10/1301920/the-help-author-addresses-criticism.html#ixzz18IhRiDM4

 

 

If Stockett’s family truly spoke the “King’s English” surely interviewers from Great Britain would have been able to discern for themselves:

Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph

Excerpt:

“She talks like a Southern belle, though it’s probably the English concept of a Southern belle; ‘Would y’all care for something to sip on?’ she asks. She serves tea and cake while telling me about when she attended ‘culinary school’, caressing the words in her high sing-song voice.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

AND

“Kathryn was lovely! So softly spoken with the cutest southern drawl.”

Link: http://boofsbookshelf.com/2010/06/11/interview-kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help/

  

 

 

The problem with Stockett’s “I really enjoyed putting two very different voices on the page” is that it contradicts her continued assertions that “dialect-gate” wasn’t deliberate, or that for whatever reason, she was unable to hear her own accent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least Atlanta Magazine revealed that colorful sayings are a southern tradition, though Stockett didn’t give any of the white characters vivid dialogue such as these:

“He could talk a bone away from a dog”

“That ol’ boy was born tired and raised lazy.”

“Was she mad? She was blowed up like a toad.”

“If you allow yourself to get burnt, you got to sit on the blister.”

 

 

USING ACCENTS TO RIDICULE

 

I found an excellent article online by Jeff Matthews, a faculty member of The University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

In the article, Matthews brings up how both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were ridculed for their regional accents. But Matthews has an excellent point by stating  “making fun of JFK’s accent was –well, good fun. Kennedy went to “Hahvad,” and no matter how you spell or pronounce it, it still comes out rich, elegant and enviable.”

However, the southern drawl of several presidents were mocked with these connotations:

 ” . . .Johnson, Carter and Bush share the accent of a stigmatized part of the United States, one branded as hopelessly resistant to progress (which, by definition, comes from the north) since well before the days of the US Civil War.”

Matthews also explains the collective sigh of relief many felt once Jimmy Carter left office  ” . . . it had nothing to do with his politics. Plain and simple, he was from Georgia and he sounded like it. His accent has been heard thousands of times in American films. It almost never comes out of the mouths of scientists or statesmen or honest judges. It belongs to the likes of Rod Steiger in The Heat of Night. Those who speak “Southern” are bigoted “good ol’ boys” and racist redneck cops who roar home from work in their pick-ups, stopping just long enough to pick up clean sheets for the Klan meeting tonight.”

Link: http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/articles/confed.html

 

It’s important to note that the black characters in The Help not only have a broad dialect, but are given things like this to say, (the correct term is malapropism used often by the creators of Amos ‘n Andy and a number of black comedians during segregation).

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

Minny uses “cadillac” instead of “cardiac” much like Aibileen using “pneumonia” for “ammonia” Stockett saddles the primary maids with a lack of understanding regarding which words should be used where. The old radio show Amos n’ Andy, which was penned and voiced by two white writers utilized this for their black characters.

The creators of the radio show portraying Amos and Andy

 

“Who taught you those things, Mae Mobley?” Mister Leefolt say and Baby Girl whip her head around with eyes like she seed a ghost. Aibileen watching Raleigh Leefolt speak to Mae Mobley (Pg 431)

The word “seed” is inserted instead of she’d “seen” again to show Aibileen’s non grasp of which word is appropriate.

My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?” Aibileen speaking to Minny (Pg 24)

In this instance, not only does Stockett ridicule how Aibileen speaks, but also that Aibileen doesn’t know that “black magic” is the opposite of prayer.

It’s also derogatory on Stockett’s part to have the insertion of “black magic” for two African Americans who profess to be Christians, since far too many whites believed that blacks always reverted back to “Black magic” a common negative stereotype during segregation.

“Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” Aibileen to Minny, (Pg 14)

 Aibileen repeats the phrase “mal-nutritious” which was first used by Hilly Holbrook. Unfortunately, though Stockett informs the reader later on in the novel that Aibileen loves to read, Aibileen is unaware that “malnurished” is the word Hilly should have used.

What’s also notable is how Stockett even has a hierarchy among the black characters. The big three which comprise of Constantine, Aibileen and Minny are all large in girth, dark and have a broad southern accent/dialect, while the lighter complexioned black females such as Lulabelle, Yule May and Gretchen don’t.

“They hate you. You know that, right? Every little thing about you. But you’re so dumb, you think you’re doing them a favor.” (Gretchen, speaking to Skeeter Pg )

Stockett even has Skeeter describe the violation she felt at being talked to by someone like Gretchen:

She was trim in her uniform dress. She wore lipstick, the same color pink me and my friends wore. She was young. She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person. I don’t know why, but that made it worse.

 

Yule May is described by Aibileen as having “good hair, with no naps”. Here’s an excerpt from Yule May’s confession letter:

Something she never wore and I felt she owed me for everything I’d been through working for her. Of course  now, neither of my boys will be going to college, The court fine is nearly as much as we had saved. (Excerpt from Yule May’s confession letter to Skeeter Pg )

Lulabelle has no scenes where she speaks directly. However her speech was good enough to fool Charlotte Phelan and members of the DAR group meeting over the Phelan house into thinking she was white:

 

“She looked white as anybody, and she knew it too. She knew exactly what she was doing and so I say, How do you do? and she laughs and says, Fine, so I say,  And what is your name? and she says, You mean you don’t know? I’m Lulabelle Bates. I’m grown now and I’ve moved back in with Mama. I got here yesterday morning. And then she goes over to help herself to another piece of cake.”

                                                 – Charlotte Phelan about Constantine’s daughter Lulabelle

Of note is how Yule May and also Gretchen are described as being trim. It’s important because Stockett equates slimness with being more accepted among the white characters, while the “good” black characters are overweight. Again, this is a stereotype of the obedient, language mangling Mammy of the old south. A holdover that will probably always remain is Aunt Jemima:

  

The "Happy" darkie myth of Aunt Jemima

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Aunt Jemima mangles the English language, just like Aibileen, Minny and Constantine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some images below are from the Gallery of Graphic Design via a 2008 Gawker Article by Hamilton Nolan

Link: http://gawker.com/#!397129/just-how-racist-was-aunt-jemima

 

 

Whoo-ee Aunt Jemima

 

 
 
 
 

Ladies and Aunt Jemima

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

Image from Gawker.com

 

 

 

Happy Days with Aunt Jemima

Aunt Jemima's in Town

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

Playing Aunt Jemima in the 1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s more than a pattern to single out African Americans and stick a countrified accent on us, no matter where we reside. It’s a tradition. So for the interviewer  who felt Stockett was “bold” to speak in the voice of a black woman, the many faces and years of Aunt Jemima’s advertising shows it was neither “Bold” or noteworthy. It’s something that’s been done countless times before.

Interview with Joni Evans of WOW.com

WOW: Oh, how interesting. How bold of you to write in the voice of a black woman.

KATHRYN: Oh, it’s not that bold if you think no one’s going to read it.

WOW: OK, so you’re writing this privately; you’re feeling this – your story – is only for yourself?

KATHRYN: Oh, yes.

http://www.wowowow.com/culture/the-help-todays-to-kill-a-mockingbird-with-author-kathryn-stockett/

 

Only it appears, at least in my mind that Stockett didn’t want her white characters subjected to the same kind of ridicule.

 

An excellent and indepth article on dialect, accents and language can be found at this University of North Carolina site: http://www.unc.edu/~gerfen/Ling30Sp2002/sociolinguistics.html

Excerpt from the article:

 

COMMON SOURCES OF MISUNDERSTANDING

1) DIALECT is NOT a negative term for linguists. . Often times, for example, we hear people refer to non-standard varieties of English as “dialects”, usually to say something bad about the non-standard variety (and thus about the people who speak it). This happened quite a bit during last year’s ebonics controversy. But, the term dialect refers to ANY variety of a language. Thus, by definition, we all speak a dialect of our native language.

2) DIALECT is NOT synonymous with accent. Accent is only a part of dialectal variation. Non-linguists often think accents define a dialect (or that accents alone identify people as non-native or foreign language speakers). Also, non-linguists tend to think that it’s always the “other” people that have “an accent”. So, what is “accent”?

3) ACCENT: This term refers to phonological variation, i.e. variation in pronunciation Thus, if we talk about a Southern Accent, we’re talking about a generalized property of English pronunciation in the Southern part of the US. But, Southern dialects have more than particular phonological properties. Accent is thus about pronunciation, while dialect is a broader term encompassing syntactic, morphological, and semantic properties as well.

A final note on accent. WE ALL HAVE ONE! There is no such thing as a person who speaks without an accent. This is not an exercise in political correctness, by the way. It is a fact.

In sum, a dialect is a particular variety of a language, and we all have a dialect. Accent refers to the phonology of a given dialect. Since we all have a dialect, we all have an accent.

 

TO BE CONTINUED  . . .

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