In this post I hope to explore the propaganda and psychology behind the African American female characters of the novel, some of which has made its way into the movie.
Take a look at the poster for The Help. While Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are at least allowed to wear makeup, they’re too made up and air brushed in the poster.
Especially once you see how they really appear in the movie:
Now, contrast the movie poster for The Help with other posters from Hollywood showing black women as domestics:
I’d touched on the problems the movie version of Stockett’s novel would have, especially with Stockett’s insistence to harken back to how old Hollywood, under segregation had most of the on screen maids older, plumper and darker. Here’s a link to my previous post Cast the First Stone from 201o:
The movie version of The Help has also fallen into this trap.
It’s important for readers to understand that Demetrie, the woman Stockett still claims the character of Aibileen is based on was married, and stayed married until she died. Yet instead of Kathryn Stockett making either Aibileen or Constantine a widow, once these two women are left by their significant others they become celibate. A wish fulfilling chaste black Mammy under Stockett’s direction. To accomplish this, Stockett has both Constantine and Aibileen being dumped by the men they’re paired with, thus sprouting another negative ideology common during segregation, which was the “no account”, absentee African American male. Stockett, like other writers before her, seems to believe and love the Mammy myth. This is the notion that black women were so devoted to their white employers but especially their children, that they can exist quite happily on serving them 24/7 without the need for an outside life, especially one that includes a companion.
Mammy from Gone with The Wind was an example of this. Delilah and Annie from both versions of Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life are other examples. (novel and both film versions)
Here’s how Kathryn Stockett has Aibileen explaining why a relatively healthy, thirty-three year old woman would decide to swear off all men, somehow finding fulfillment in raising white children instead:
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-account hussy up on Farish Street, one they call Cocoa. I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind of business. (Aibileen, Pg 22)
And no, that “when he done spending all you money” isn’t a typo on my part. That’s how it reads in the novel.
If you ever want to see someone who loves this novel become speechless, ask them how they can readily believe that Stockett, who admits she was raised in a pro-segregation household during the 70s and 80s (the author’s interviews where she admits this are several paragraphs below) could somehow put aside all she’s been spoon fed from infancy about African Americans.
And then ask them, especially if they are a female, if it even sounds plausible that a young woman (recall that Aibileen decided to swear off men at thirty-three) with no known problems would simply state that because she finds the wrong kind of man attractive, then its best to swear off all men.
Yet this is the reasoning Stockett uses to explain why her main black character should live alone.
And this is one of the passages that had me throwing the book across the room, because it was simply the Mammy Myth revisited. Perhaps it was easier to believe they’d (Constantine and Aibileen) rather be alone than tied to some of the males Stockett created in her book.
But there’s the other problem. Because Stockett herself created this fiction, there’s no justification, in my mind, why most black males are “no-account” while most black females are large, dark and better off without the black male. That’s the true message from Stockett’s pairing of her black characters.
And understand, Kathryn Stockett is a writer who stated she was a “liberal” in one interview.
Stockett is now in her forties, so I wonder how long she’d say she could remain unmarried or without a steady companion using the flimsy excuse she gave her own character? And how she could possibly believe she hadn’t turned Aibileen and Constantine into Mammies by doing this?
But what’s worse, is all the readers who didn’t bother to give Stockett’s absurd, one paragraph premise regarding why a black woman would cease to seek companionship a second thought. Not her agent, not her publisher who helped edit the pages, and not all those who lined up to produce the movie.
And I say again, had Aibileen or Constantine been white, Stockett would not have handled their backstories this way.
The black woman as Mammy is such a popular myth with some writers (and readers) I’d venture to say that it will remain unchanged in the movie. And it will probably be a source of the biggest outcry from the public.
Because Kathryn Stockett never questioned where this myth originated, which was with her own race and geographical region, that of the south. The propaganda that African Americans were quite content and even “happy” to serve white employers, to the detriment of their own well being has been promoted for years.
So where did the “affection” terminology and ideology originate?
An excerpt from Encyclopedia Virginia may hold a clue:
“Following the war, white Southerners told stories of the happy slave, the “Mammy” or “Uncle Tom” who appeared as part of the family. “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition,” according to the 1908 edition of the textbook History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill. The 1964 edition of Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman P. Poole was not much different. “A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes,” the authors wrote. Such statements are not supported by modern scholarship, which suggests that many slaves were desperate to escape their often harsh conditions both before and during the war, when they became refugees. In fact, escaped slaves helped to precipitate national political crises such as the one surrounding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The image of African Americans who had been happy under slavery but were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of freedom became widespread and could be found in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page and Margaret Mitchell, whose novel Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The image also proved particularly useful to white supremacists. In the 1880s and 1890s, white Southerners, decrying “Yankee aggression” and black “betrayal,” embarked on an effort to reverse the policies of Reconstruction (1865–1877). They sought to remove black office holders, disenfranchise African American men, forestall black economic advancement, and institute state-sanctioned segregation.”
For an actual account and steadfast belief on the “affection” between slaves and their masters, this online documentation makes for fascinating reading. In it, a woman recalls her early life prior to the Civil War:
Old Plantation Days; Being Recollections of Southern Life Before the Civil War:
De Saussure, N. B. (Nancy Bostick), 1837-1915
“The South as I knew it has disappeared; the New South has risen from its ashes, filled with the energetic spirit of a new age. You can only know the New South, but there is a generation, now passing away, which holds in loving memory the South as it used to be . . .
My father and mother inherited most of their negroes, and there was an attachment existing between master and mistress and their slaves which one who had never borne such a relation could never understand.
”Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has set the standard in the North, and it seems useless for those who owned and loved the negroes to say there was any other method used in their management than that of strictest severity; but let me tell you that in one of my rare visits South to my own people, the old-time darkies, our former slaves, walked twenty miles to see “Miss Nancy” and her little daughter, and the latter, your dear mother, would often be surprised, when taken impulsively in their big black arms, and hugged and kissed and cried over “for ol’ times’ sake.”
When I would inquire into their welfare and present condition I heard but one refrain, “I’d never known what it was to suffer till freedom came, and we lost our master.” Yes, Dorothy dear, a lot of children unprepared to enjoy the Emancipation Proclamation were suddenly confronted with life’s problems.
I have beside me a letter from a friend, now in South Africa. She says in part: ‘ I am sure you, too, would have thought much on the many problems presented by this black people. It is perfectly appalling when one thinks that they are really human beings! Human beings without any humanity, and not the slightest suggestion that there is any vital spark on which to begin work, for apparently they have no affection for anybody or anything, and it is an insult to a good dog to compare them to animals.’
Such, my dear child, is the African in his native country at the present day, the twentieth century, and such was the imported African before he was Christianized and humanized by the people of the South. In order to show you that I am not prejudiced in favor of the Southerners’ treatment of their slaves I will insert a letter from Dr. Edward Lathrop, whose daughter was an old schoolmate of mine at Miss Bonney’s in Philadelphia . . .
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
Not only was the “happy” slave propaganda promoted, but also relegating black females into domestic positions. In 1911 there were plans for a Black Mammy Memorial Institute in Athens, GA, which was slated as a monument and domestic school.
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, who is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s studies at Emory University focused on this “School for black domestics” as well as the National Mammy monument that was slated to be built in our nations capital during the 1920s. Wallace-Sanders received her PhD from BostonUniversityand is the author of Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory and the editor of Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture .
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders has a number of archival photos of African American maids with their employers at the turn of the century here: http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/southern-memory-southern-monuments-and-subversive-black-mammy
More on the National Mammy monument and the domestic school for African Americans can be found in my post titled The Affection Myth:
Yet even Stockett admits it was a shock to find out that Demetrie had another life besides cooking and cleaning:
Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph
“Stockett would beg her grandparents to be allowed to go to Demetrie’s house but they always said no. Finally, just one time, they agreed. ‘I was probably seven. I got to look around for five minutes. It was a strange feeling to realise that Demetrie had another life; it was my first awakening that she was a person with an identity outside the Stockett family.”
It’s my contention that Stockett, for whatever reason refused to acknowledge not just Demetrie’s outside life, but that any black woman would have a happy life outside of working for their white employers. That’s why the novel reads as if the only time Aibileen, Minny and Constantine are content is when they’re on their jobs. For Stockett crafts women who pick men that either abuse or abandon them, thus making it seem as though black women are “children” in a sense, who need the “Skeeters” of the world to guide them.
Along with the building of a better Mammy by having her chaste and downright dumb in the novel, there’s also how she must look:
I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. – Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)
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
There’s a reason why most Mammy images default into the large, very dark and English speaking challenged variety. It’s to “De-sex” the African American female, so that they are acceptable to the white female. Building the perfect Mammy was also to make them:
a) Unappealing to the white male of the household, thus no competition for the white female of the household she serves (unfortunately, as we now know, for those men who may have a power complex it’s the conquest thats the lure. Thus some white males were not put off by their own professed bigotry when accosting black maids. Even today, male employers going after the women that are hired to watch their children cause scandals. Some high profile examples are Jude Law, and more recently Arnold Schwarzenegger)
Even the one time segregationist, U. S. Senator Strom Thurmond had a relationship with a black domestic, which produced a child (items in bold are my doing):
Strom Thurmond’s family confirms paternity claim
An attorney for the family of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina confirmed Monday that in 1925, when he was 22, Thurmond fathered a child with a black teenage housekeeper.
Thurmond, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died in June at age 100. His daughter’s story was published Sunday by The Washington Post.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired school teacher in Los Angeles, California, revealed her relationship to the former segregationist after decades of silence.
Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on the ticket of the States Rights Party, the “Dixiecrats,” a breakaway faction of Southern Democrats who believed strongly in racial segregation and were opposed to the Democratic Party’s civil rights program.
He received 1 million votes and carried four Deep South states; Democrat Harry Truman won the election.
Thurmond joined the Republican Party in the 1960s and ultimately turned away from his segregationist past.
The article goes on to include the ages of Thurmond and the maid in question. He was 22. She was just 16 when Strom’s daughter was delivered, which meant she may have been 15 when the child was conceived.
I also found this 2010 article from the Urban Christian Monitor, a reprint of an article by Pam Kelley of the Charlotte Observer (items in bold are my doing):
‘The Help’ Stirs Memories and Debate About Life in Segregated South
It was a great article, with even more real life testimonies than I’ve listed here. Because the ones I was most interested in are from the black women who recall their time as maids. Young black women who were either college bound or in college. What it shows is that Kathryn Stockett’s need to reach back into the past to the default image of the older, slow of mind black woman as a domestic, or Mammy, while a much younger white woman is then the one who orders her about conflicts with some actual accounts.
While it’s true that The Help is fiction, too often some readers cite the novel was being completely factual. Many wrongly assume Stockett based much of the novel on her own recollections of the 60s. However, the author was born in 1969. Stockett readily admits in several interviews that the hierarchy of her home rested with her pro-segregationist grandmother:
Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph
”Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shanghai in a family of missionaries (‘Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’), returning to Mississippi when war broke out. ‘She came back to settle down and start a family with a very strict idea of how things should be between people of colour, coming from Shanghai, where there was no middle class. And of course that is exactly how Mississippi did things, so she fitted right in.’ “
In Her Own Words by Kathryn Stockett, from her website
“Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Plunk, she’d talk to us all day.
And God, how I loved to talk to Demetrie. I’d sit in my grandmother’s kitchen with her, where I went after school, listening to her stories and watching her mix up cakes and fry chicken. Her cooking was outstanding. It was something people discussed at length, after they ate at my grandmother’s table. You felt loved when you tasted Demetrie’s caramel cake.
But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her lunch break. Grandmother would say, ‘Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,’ and I would stand in the doorway itching to get back with her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating.”
Stockett also says this at the novel’s end:
I didn’t pity Demetrie though. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house, cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own, and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. If anyone asked her how many children she had, she would hold up her fingers and say three. She meant us: my sister, Susan, my brother, Rob, and me. (Pg 448)
Stockett was never Demetrie’s “employer”. Her grandparents originally hired and paid Demetrie. So confusing an antiquated system whereby the woman was handed down from one generation to the next, yet paid practically nothing is akin to slave labor in my mind.
And just look at how Stockett now lays blame on Demetrie, when pressed about her depiction of the maids in the novel (items in bold are my doing):
Interview by Lonnae O’Neal Parker for the Washington Post.com
“ ‘People say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she would try to represent black women that way.’ Demetrie didn’t go past sixth grade. She lived in a shack. I wasn’t trying to represent a whole race or people,’ she says.”
” ‘I have a Hispanic housekeeper now, and I don’t speak Spanish, so there’s not a whole lot of intimacy there. I have a nanny from Georgia, and she’s white and she brings her daughter.’ They are great friends and work well together, but neither relationship exists in the same fraught cocoon as those ‘help’ relationships in the Old South.’ “
But with the level of work and committment Stockett’s family expected out of Demetrie, how is it that Demetrie “lived in a shack”? Perhaps if her “Christian” employers had been a bit more generous with her pay, she would’ve had better accomodations.
This Life: Kathryn Stockett on her childhood in the Deep South
“I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1969, in a time and place where no one was saying, ‘Look how far we’ve come,’ because we hadn’t come very far, to say the least. Although Jackson’s population was half white and half black, I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbour or even a black person in my school. Even in the 1970s we were staunchly separated. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper.
Demetrie came to wait on my grandmother in 1955 and stayed for 32 years. It was common, in Mississippi, to have a black domestic cleaning the kitchen, cooking the meals, looking after the white children. And growing up, I adored Demetrie as much as my own mother. In some ways, she was better than our mother, who was always busy (I am one of five). Demetrie played games with us all day and never got cross. She knew to rock us on our stomachs when we ached. She knew she needed to go to the doctor with me every time I had an injection. None of us would sit still for an injection without Demetrie there.
But her role was more complicated than that of a maid. Demetrie understood, to the letter, what she was and was not allowed to do as a black person working for a white family in Mississippi. Rule number one: she wore a white uniform to work, every day. That white uniform was her ‘pass’ to get into white places with us – the grocery store, the state fair, the movies. Even though this was the 70s and the segregation laws had changed, the ‘rules’ had not.
When our family took holidays on the coast, Demetrie was paid to come along. She’d stand out on the sweltering hot beach in her white uniform and stockings, watching us swim. We’d stay in our cousin’s tiny one-bathroom house and Demetrie had a special cot she slept on and a toilet outside. But there was only one bathtub, so Demetrie bathed in her clothes.
Not because anyone had told her to, but because that was her answer to a tricky situation. Not to mention, she knew we’d come looking for her and a closed door meant nothing to us children. We didn’t respect her privacy. We were always fighting for her time, her games, her lap. . . “
Read the full article here:
Stockett has stated twice in public interviews regarding the rules concerning African American behavior (once in an audio interview with Nate Berkus and now the “In her own words” article). And yet she ignored it in order to concoct scenes where the African American maids go back and forth to work without any hassle, and where life around Jackson, Mississippi is almost idyllic and comedic as Mayberry. It’s important to remember in the part of her interview that I’ve excerpted below, she’s discussing the 70s and 80s:
”But her role was more complicated than that of a maid. Demetrie understood, to the letter, what she was and was not allowed to do as a black person working for a white family in Mississippi. Rule number one: she wore a white uniform to work, every day. That white uniform was her ‘pass’ to get into white places with us – the grocery store, the state fair, the movies. Even though this was the 70s and the segregation laws had changed, the ‘rules’ had not.”
So you can imagine just how restrictive and violent the 60s were when African Americans, along with sympathetic whites and news agencies from all over the world focused on the south, including Jackson. But you don’t have to imagine. PBS produced a wonderful series called “Eyes on the Prize” which has video and audio archives that deal with the Civil Rights struggle during the 50s and the 60s. If Kathryn Stockett had taken the time to watch some of these documentaries, she would have understood much more than her novel sadly shows. What’s even worse is how many people chose to believe Stockett’s skewed account without questioning it.
For example, when Stockett wrote the scene where Minny loudly jokes and talks about her white employer Miss Walters on a bus (Pg 13), Stockett is clearly going against what she knows to be the attitude of the times, that being blacks could be seen but were not to be heard:
Oprah Radio host Nate Berkus (no transcript available)
“Yes absolutely. And you learned, I think as an African American in Mississippi to be very careful with your words and then one of my favorite scenes from the book is when all the maids were on the bus and they get to talk about all their white employers and they get to make fun of them as openly as they can.”
Again, Stockett forgets how segregated and bigoted the time period was. The bus drivers in Jackson were still all white. That was one of the reasons for the civil rights movement, equal opportunity in all things, even jobs. Yet Stockett decides that an abused woman like Minny must continue to play the loud mouth maid in order to provide comedy. And contrary to how blacks were forced to behave when in public (like on buses) Stockett crafts a scene where Minny somehow has the whole bus laughing at her brash gossip about her white employer. In truth, Minny would have been told to leave the bus or thrown off, with the possibility she could have spent the night in jail for her outburst.
But what’s even more amazing and “Mammyish” is how Stockett believes a woman who’s been abused for over fifteen years would be so jovial as to want to give a comedy routine. Going against all known medical data on women who’ve been terrorized by domestic violence, Stockett has Minny doing double duty. Minny not only must crack jokes, but she must also protect Celia Foote by picking up a knife and confronting a naked pervert, thereby ignoring her own safety and the safety of the child she’s (Minny) carrying.
And in order to complete Minny’s ascent to Mammyhood, Stockett has the woman disparaging those in her church who are active in the rights movement. So the one maid who was supposed to have a backbone succumbs to Stockett changing her into:
a) An abuser of her own children, as Minny smacks her daughter Sugar for gossiping about Celia Foote. This is another example where the author forgets that Minny is an abused wife.
b) So in love with serving Celia, that Minny orders the woman to lock the door while she goes out to confront a naked white male who’s jacking off OUTSIDE. Yes, Stockett throws in the “noble savage” myth, where minorities were supposed to be so in love with their white associates that they’d be more than willing to give up their own lives. This was a hit in the movie Gunga Din, but in today’s literature it’s just an Uncle Tom move.
The moral of the story for those willing to lay down their lives in defense of someone white, was that minorities, when pressed had just as much integrity or character as whites. This was to win over those who still thought that African Americans were so unlike whites, that we had no deep moral convictions.
The message was clear. That only by having the black character turn against their own (like Minny and Aibileen telling demeaning jokes about their own community and loved ones) would they be seen as “good negroes”. Or the proper term was a “credit to their race”. Yet Stockett tries so hard to show how much Aibileen, Constantine and Minny love their white charges, that she forgets to have these supposed “compassionate” and “admirable” women do the same with those in their own community.
Aibileen falls further into Mammyhood by teaching her son Treelore to call his father “Crisco”. While Minny makes the uncalled for statement about plenty of black males leaving their families like trash. Aibileen makes several offensive comments on her skin tone, at one point deciding that a cockroach is indeed blacker than she is.
And this is the same person hoping to instill Mae Mobley with positive affirmations.
Note to Stockett:
It’s best when one wants to instill confidence in another, if they weren’t such a doormat and had some confidence themselves.
Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend. (Pg 13)
Aibilee’s only fifty-three years old. She’d not one hundred and fifty three. Yet throughout the novel she’s moaning about her age.
Perhaps Faye Belle, the hundred plus year old maid that lived during the Civil War and still feels the need to clean her ex-employer’s son’s kitchen should have an empowerment talk with Ol’ Aibileen (I’m being sarcastic here).
“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.” ———–Micki McElya in “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America”
Additional posts that explore the “Mammy” issues with the maids in the novel:
This post is still in development . . .