The Absence of Beauty in The Help

Posted on April 26, 2011

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In the absence of any perceived beauty for the black culture in The Help, what remains?
 

The diverse beauty of black culture

 

Contrary to the author’s public assertions that the book is a “homage” to the maid who raised her, the closest thing I found in the novel is admiration for a job well done. Even while offering a compliment of sorts on one character’s “talent”, Skeeter says this about Constantine’s singing voice:

If chocolate was a sound, it would’ve been Constantine’s voice singing. If singing was a color, it would have been the color of that chocolate. Skeeter, Pg 67

But there again, it’s for a job well done. The whole “singing like chocolate” put me in the mind of chocolate is dark, Constantine is dark, therefore Stockett believed the two should be put together.

Admiration is as far as it goes I’m afraid. A grudging respect for many of the African American characters by readers willing to share their enthusiasm for the book on internet sites, because at times the maids are jolly, devoted, nurturing, gifted at cooking . . .  in respect primarily, to the white characters.

 

But there are  missing parts in the novel. Like the sections where Skeeter, under Stockett’s direction takes a another look, one less judgmental at the culture that helped raise her. If , according to the book there’s comedy in being oppressed, hope in being shunned, where are the parts that so eloquently tell the reader there is beauty in being black? Where is  my Song of Songs , my Song of Solomon moment?

There isn’t one. Instead there’s a big, gaping hole in The Help. A void left untouched, a scared to “go there” moment  that lasts the entire length of the book, much like Skeeter states on Pg 245:

She sets my coffee down in front of me, She doesn’t hand it to me, Aibileen told me that’s not how it’s done, because then your hands might touch. (Skeeter observing Pascagoula serving her coffee, Pg 245)

 
If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, the novel makes it clear that it can only come in one color. And it’s not those deemed “black like asphalt” or “black as night.”
 

The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told,  you’ll never get hired The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter

Pascagoula holds the phone out to me. She is tiny as a child, not five feet tall, and black as night (Pg 59) – Skeeter

Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.  (Pg 62) Skeeter

 

Stockett does imply there is “beauty” in servitude. The three primary maids, Constantine, Aibileen and Minny so love the ones they’re paired with that in Constantine’s case, the maid sends her white looking daughter away.

Content to be a surrogate mother to Skeeter, Constantine lavishes her with pent up love and devotion. Staying celibate and at Skeeter’s beck and call, Constantine thereby secures her ascent to Mammy heaven.

Stockett creates a more permanent end for Aibileen’s only son Treelore. In Aibileen’s pain she turns to the children of her employers, ignoring not only the kids in her own community who may also need affection, but turning a blind eye to both Minny and Leroy’s hostile behavior toward their offspring. Stockett has Aibileen explain her decision to stay celibate with one paragraph, turning a woman who isn’t that old into an asexual hermit who only comes out to go to work or gossip in church.

Even Minny is enlisted to put her life and the life of the fetus she carries in jeopardy. Stockett has Minny, an abused woman who’d been violently assaulted that very morning, throw herself in the line of fire to defend the childlike bride Celia Foote.  

Yes, there’s a special place in Mammy heaven for these three characters, just like there are monuments in the south for black maids who go above and beyond domestic duty.

Mammy Monument in Fort Mill, South Carolina

 

Without protests from the African American community in the 1920s, a “Mammy Monument” surely would have  graced (or disgraced) Washington, DC.

Back then an organization called The United Daughters of the Southern Confederacy lobbied congress to pay tribute to the loyal female domestics of the South.

The form of this tribute would be a  National Mammy Monument, a constant reminder of the “beauty” of black servitude, originally designed to sit in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.

According to her book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 author and scholar Micki McElya states the Daughters claimed their “memories” of faithful slaves, especially mammies, gave them “specialized racial knowledge”  

More information on the push for a National Mammy Monument can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/the-affection-myth/ 

 

 

“If you’re white, you’re alright; if you’re brown, stick around; but if you’re black, get back . . .” 

 

There are different variations to the old saying above, such as:

If you’re black, get back,   if you’re brown, stick around,   if you’re yellow, you’re still mellow, if you’re white, you’re alright . . .

Depending on what region of the country you were in when this saying made the rounds, yellow and mellow were added or left out. What’s remained consistent though, is if “you’re black get back” and if you’re “white or light you’re alright.”

Sadly, I was reminded of this saying after reading The Help.  Especially since Kathryn Stockett reserved the terms  “pretty” or “cute”  solely for the white characters.

Hilly sat on the edge of the pool, saggy and post-pregnant fat, inexplicably confident in her black swimsuit. Her stomach was paunchy, but her legs, as always, were thin and pretty. (Skeeter, Pg 113)

Remember the term “thin and pretty” because Stockett makes it clear that being overweight is a negative. Yet most of the African Americans maids are called “short and big, with thick arms” (Aibileen describes Minny, Pg 13) or “stout and wide in the hips”  (Constantine, Pg 61) or have a midsection that’s “a little plump but it is a friendly softness” (Skeeter describes Aibileen, Pg 78). Sadly, these characters default into the standard image of a Mammy, which is large in girth, dark in complexion and unable to use standard English properly. Those considered hefty in the novel “waddle”, such as the Jackson Journal receptionist in the large tent dress (Skeeter describes the receptionist Pg 72)  or Aibileen, bone tired from a hard days work and unable to walk to the bustop.

Click image for a larger view:

The Help Movie Poster - Notice what popular role for black actresses has been revived

  Yet Skeeter, who describes herself as deathly pale with a bump on her nose and kinky, whitish blonde hair (Pg 56), plus long and leggy and mosquito thin (Skeeter, Pg 57) is called pretty by the handsome State Senator’s son Stuart Whitworth. And Stockett uses Aibileen to observe that Hilly’s little girl is “pretty cute”. Yet no black female in the novel is called attractive or pretty or even cute (Aibileen calls Robert, Louvenia’s grandson “A handsome boy” even though he’s a twenty-six year old man). No black child is considered cute, even Minny’s youngest child Kindra. Stockett again uses Aibileen to observe how Yule May’s has “good hair, smooth, no nap”  (Pg 208) meaning it’s straight, which obviously appeals to Aibileen. And Skeeter does admit that Yule May has a better figure than Hilly. But once again, it’s only because Yule May is described as a tall, thin maid.  Even Aibileen gets into the act of noting that Yule May is “tall and thin, She done kept her figure nice. She still wearing her white uniform and it fit trim on her waist.” (Aibileen, Pg 210)

Because I’ve had just about enough of Stockett’s narrow minded view of African Americans, I had to insert these scans from Ebony Magazine, showing just how diverse black lifestyle was back in the early 60s.  Recall that Aibileen stated she went to church with among others,  lawyers, doctors, a newspaper owner, yet none of these people were ever consulted or even seem to associate with the maids, as if there was segregation in Aibileen and Minny’s own house of worship.

A brief history on African Americans and advertising during the 60s can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/its-a-mad-mad-world/

Pepsi Ad from 1960's Ebony Magazine. Photo curtesy of Vieilles Annonces

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesse Owens for White Owl Cigars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty in the eye and at the hands of the author: 

 

The most important thing a father can do for his children is love their mother

                                                                                        – Theodore Hesburgh

While many readers and reviewers have played up the camaraderie between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny, far too many miss how Stockett demeans the African American male in the book. Stockett goes overboard in letting the reader know that black males are lacking in parenting skills and should be viewed as positively villainous in the fatherhood department. It is an ugly connotation matched only in vileness by the dialogue given to Aibileen and Minny when they muse about themselves and the community they live in. Of the men in the lives of the three primary maids, Aibileen never mentions her father. She does have harsh words for her ex, Clyde. Minny is justifiably torn between loving and fearing her husband Leroy. She only has bad things to say about her father.

The reader doesn’t know how Constantine feels about her ex, Connor, the man who left her to raise Lulabelle alone. However she has nothing but glowing words to say about her father. Of the males in the lives of the lead black maids, Constantine’s dad, though a beneficiary of segregation is yet another white male that Stockett decides should be viewed as a sympathetic character, because he cries and tells his child he’s sorry.

But sorry for what?

That he truly didn’t provide for her and her siblings? Or that his coupling with her mother produced yet another mixed race child (though you wouldn’t know it by the description of Constantine. Somehow genetics skip a generation and Lulabelle comes out light enough to pass for white, a rare feat indeed)

Constantine’s father brings up another white character with a “twist”. It’s a redemption  of sorts that’s selectively and most often applied to the white males of the novel (remember, these are males who practiced and benefited from segregation):

Skeeter’s father – “too honest a man to hide things” (Pg 82)

Daddy doesn’t even stop for church during harvest time, but on Sunday night, I catch him in the dusky hall, between his supper and sleep. “Daddy?” I ask. “Will you tell me what happened to Constantine?”

He is so dog-tired, he sighs before he answers.

“How could Mother fire her Daddy?”

“What? Darlin’, Constantine quit. You know your mother would never fire her.” He looks disappointed in me for asking such a thing. . He wanders down the hall to bed. He is too honest a man to hide things so I know he doesn’t have any more facts about it than I do. 

 

Stuart’s father – “It doesn’t matter what he believes. It’s what Mississippi believes”  (Pg 273)

Stockett gives Senator Stoolie Whitworth an out, by having him as a man who only practices segregation because he’s been elected to uphold the will of his constiuents:

“But your father, at the table. He said he thought Ross Barnett was wrong.”

“You know that’s not the way it works. It doesn’t matter what he believes. It’s what Missisippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Skeeter and Stuart, Pg 273)

 

Stuart – “He is a good man” (Pg 382)

After Skeeter tells her boyfriend Stuart Whitworth about her involvement with the maids and their novel, here’s what the author has Skeeter “telling” the reader:

“I didn’t. . . mean it like that,” he (Stuart) starts again. “What I mean is, things are fine around here. Why would you want to go stirring up trouble?”

I can tell, in his voice, he sincerely wants an answer from me. But how to explain it? He is a good man, Stuart. As much as I know what I’ve done is right. I still understand his confusion and doubt. (Pg 382)

 

 

Constantine’s dad – “Oh my daddy looooved me. Always said I was his favorite. He used to come over to the house ever Saturday afternoon and one time, he give me a set a ten hair ribbons, ten different colors. Brought ‘em over from Paris, made out a Japenese silk. I sat in his lap from the minute he got there until he had to leave and Mama’d play Bessie Smith on the Victrola he brung her and he and me’d sing. (Constantine tells Skeeter about her father, Pg  66)

“One time I was boo-hooing over hard feelings, I reckon I had a list a things to be upset about, being poor, cold baths, rotten tooth, I don’t know. But he held me by the head, hugged me to him for the longest time. When I looked up he was crying too and he . . .did that thing I do so you know I mean it. Press his thumb up in my hand and he say . . . he sorry.”

We sat there, staring at the puzzle pieces. Mother wouldn’t want me to know this, that Constantine’s father was white, that he’d apologized to her for the way things were.  (Pg 67)

There’s a pattern here. Most of the white males are deemed father material, even Raleigh Leefolt. But note who Stockett decides aren’t.

That’s right, the black males of the novel.

 

 

Happy Father’s Day

 

Here’s Minny’s take on her father:

I was about to quit school and start my first real job. Mama wanted me to stay on and go to ninth grade- she’d always wanted to be a school teacher instead of working in Miss Woodra’s house. But with my sister’s heart problem and my no-good drunk daddy, it was up to me and Mama. I already knew about housework. After school, I did most of the cooking and the cleaning. But if I was going off to work in somebody else’s house, who’d be looking after ours? (Minny, Pg 38)

And here’s her opinion of her husband:

I’m standing in Miss Celia’s kitchen thinking about, what with Kindra and her mouth, Benny and his asthma, my husband Leroy coming home drunk two times last week. He knows that’s the one thing I can’t stand after nursing my drunk daddy for ten years, me and Mama working ourselves to death so that he had a full bottle. (Minny, Pg 51)

Mama always told me the real alcoholics, like my daddy, drink the homemade stuff because it’s stronger. Now I know she’s (Celia) as much a fool as my daddy was, and as Leroy is when he gets on the Old Crow, only she doesn’t chase me with the frying pan. (Minny, Pg 222)

Now Minny talks about Leroy:

. . . This ain’t nobody’s business, just do your work, but I haven’t had a minute’s sleep. Leroy screamed at me all night, threw the sugar bowl upside my head, threw my clothes out on the porch. I mean, when he’s drinking the Thunderbird, it’s one thing, but . . . oh. The shame is so heavy I think it might pull me to the floor. Leroy, he wasn’t on the Thunderbird this time. This time he beat me stone-cold sober. (Pg 304)

There’s no special “twist” for Leroy. He’s the boogie man of the novel. The black “Brute” character inserted into Stockett’s book during a time period when far too many white males held down African Americans. Stockett focuses on Leroy “holding down” his wife and his children. In the end, the white males come off smelling like roses, while the black male is again demonized in literature.

Aibileen on her husband Clyde:

We start calling his 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)

You know what? After reviewing the mess Stockett wrote, I say HOW DARE YOU KATHRYN STOCKETT. HOW DARE YOU pass judgment on black males, and pretend as if those white males who profited and oppressed during segregation should remain heroes in your eyes and in your novel. I’ll be damned if I’ll allow this insult to pass without challenging your terribly misguided  “interpretation” of how black males behave compared to white. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, The Help is nothing but a book of insults, full of slurs and demeaning stereotypes about African Americans, both male and female and even children, case in point the caricature of the bratty, mouthy and pouty black child Kindra.

Weaned on the “differences” between whites and African Americans from childhood, you couldn’t tell which ones were nothing but falsehoods that should never have taken root in your heart, or the pages of your novel.

Shame on you.

I’ll cover how Stockett makes a difference in the white and black children in an upcoming post. Right about now, after re-reading the how Stockett “beautifully” played favorites with the males, I need to back away from the keyboard.  Seriously.

Additional posts which explore the males of The Help:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-help-useless-to-african-americans/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/few-good-men-of-the-help/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/challenging-stockett-on-segregation/

To be continued . . .

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