In order to answer that question, it’s important to note and understand what those dogmas regarding the black culture were, and how these offensive doctrines were spread.
In addition, where these theories originated and the reasons for a philosophy that purported to show the differences between African Americans and whites will also be examined in this post.
But first, a look at what stood out in Kathryn Stockett’s novel as repeated, contemptuous misconceptions about the black culture that were spread during segregation:
1) The black male as either a no-account, or absentee father, prone to drink in excess as in the case of Leroy Jackson, Minny’s abusive husband, the brute character which played upon the “violence” aspect of African American males.
2) Blacks carrying diseases, specifically venereal disease. Pg 23-24 highlights the case of a black woman named Cocoa, who contracts a “cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster” according to Minny, and who doesn’t get it successfully treated for three months. This was also in line with the theory that African Americans were of low morals.
3) In addition to the belief that blacks were corrupt morally, the notion that we also were of inferior intelligence still exists today. Stockett uses several conversations between Minny and Aibileen, and Aibileen and Skeeter to highlight how sharp Skeeter is and how slow witted Aibileen appears to be. Leroy is also used in an attempt to add humor to how stupid he sounds.
4) Blacks as thieves. Stockett creates the character of Yule May Crookle, who lives down to her last name. Though Yule May has several years of college, she inexplicably steals a ring from Hilly Holbrook of all people and lands in jail.
5) The darker hued African Americans as targets, labeling their skin color as “black” as a negative slur and their manner of speech as thicker in dialect than lighter African Americans. Stockett separates the black females into shades of light and dark, with Aibileen, Constantine and Minny as the default image of the larger, darker and broadly accented Aunt Jemima’s of the novel. Not so for the closer to white characters of Gretchen, Lulabelle and Yule May. Each of the lighter characters has something about them which identifies them as not totally “Black”
Gretchen and Yule May are described as “trim” while the darker maids (all except for Pascagoula) are heavy set. Yule May, per Aibileen has “good hair, no naps”. And Gretchen wears pink lipstick, a shade someone darker probably wouldn’t, so its safe to assume Gretchen is light.
So where possibly, did Kathryn Stockett get the very system of beliefs that demean her African American characters?
Well, first off it’s usually handed down. Taught. And talked about. A lot. If Stockett really thought about it, she’d recall how her grandparents and others talked to Demetrie, the maid the author says worked for her family for over thirty years. My guess is at times it wasn’t nice, especially when they were displeased with her. And negative theories about African Americans were the soure of conversation whether maids were around, or they weren’t. That much Stockett got right in her novel. What she neglected to filter out were the disgusting tales spread about African Americans that weren’t humorous, but insulting and demeaning. Unfortunately she included them in the novel, probably not realizing they weren’t funny at all, but often used slurs against blacks, from the way we look to our behavior. Even more amazing is that Stockett puts these slurs in the mouths of the black maids, as if African Americans agreed with these depictions. Aibileen’s self loathing about her skin color takes it to a new low. Examples include her comment about Connor, Constantine’s lover where she states he was “black as me”. Also there’s the infamous roach swatch test, where the character compares how black she is to a roach.
I doubt if Demetrie, the woman Stockett admits gave her nothing but affection would think so little of herself to talk this way. Yet Stockett claims Demetrie was the inspiration for the character of Aibileen.
“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 Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him, But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day.” – Too Little, Too Late Pg 447 of the novel, The Help
And while Stockett states in an audio interview with Nate Berkus that Demetrie was reticent to talk about anything ”tricky”, that didn’t stop the author from filling the character of Aibileen’s head and mouth with self loathing dialogue.
Nate Berkus for Oprah Radio asks Stockett:
What do you think Demetrie would’ve said about Michelle Obama being first lady if she was still alive?
“I have thought about that so many times. I think it would be a conversation, I think it would be stunning. I mean I think she would be very reticent at first because she was never an outspoken person about anything tricky”
You know why she can’t really answer that question? Because Stockett only knew Demeterie when she was a child, not woman to woman. So to be asked that kind of question is foolish in my mind. If Berkus wanted to know what Demetrie’s view would have been, he should have invited some of the woman’s relatives onto the show. What’s with the whole “Let’s talk about black people and how they feel without asking any black people themselves” trend this book has spawned? And note I said black people as in plural, not singular.
The movie appears to be following the same pattern. Never mind what African Americans have to say, as long as the targeted audience (white, female) buys a ticket. Not caring what black people have to say about how they’re depicted, especially when up against a non-minority observation that’s taken as the gospel truth, was the same mindset practiced during segregation.
Excerpt from NY Times article on the passing of former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett :
“White supremacy was virtually Mr. Barnett’s sole campaign theme. Touring rural Mississippi, he would tell farmers that God had made the black man different in order to punish him.
Remember that wording of blacks being “different” because it’s one of main principles of Jim Crow laws, those invisible doctrines that ruled everyday life under segregation, especially in the south. Kathryn Stockett also mentions how blacks and whites are “different” in particular how we speak:
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.’ “
I’m not sure why interviewers and reviewers dealing with Stockett only bring up the dialect issue. There’s far more offense in the novel than how the blacks carry a thick dialect/accent. But this is nothing new.
Other authors used this same tired technique to show what they believed were the “difference” between black and white speech. Edna Ferber did it in Showboat. Fannie Hurst used it in Imitation of Life, and Margaret Mitchell certainly piled on the unreadable dialect with Mammy and the other slaves in Gone with the Wind while Scarlett, Rhett, Melonie and Ashley spoke almost standard english.
But by focusing solely on the dialect, it appears that either these interviewers didn’t recognize the segregationist dogma and offensive theories that were used against African Americans, or they were hesitant to approach the subject.
Either way, its a shame.
In time, these reviewers and interviewers may regret not speaking out when the opportunity presented itself.
There would have been no harm in asking why, if the book was to be a homage to Demetrie, there are demeaning insults against the woman’s culture. By this time Stockett is well aware of how her book is being viewed by critics. Especially the five negative misconceptions I mentioned at the top of this post.
Taking them one at a time, here’s what papers in the 1960s had to say about the “Negro’s Qualifications” to live among whites.
During segregation, the media played a big part in furthering stereotypical ideas and theories about African Americans. Many regular citizens also did their part to spread negative assumptions about the black culture, as if saying it enough times made it true. Unfortunately, though Kathryn Stockett may not have realized it at the time she worked on her novel, much of what she’d been taught about African Americans came from this very ideology and seeped into her writing.
Thoughts on African Americans or “Negroes” from an actual resident of Mississippi:
WIMS stands for Wednesdays in Mississippi. This organization sought the participation of upper class women of both races during the early 60s. The book is called Mississippi Women: Their Histories , Their Lives by Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swan, Marjorie Julian Spruill and Brenda M Eagles. The publisher is University of Georgia Press. Below is a scan from the novel, with what actual residents believed:“These included rumors that the Freedom Summer volunteers were all Communists adn sex-crazed miscegenists . . . and that all blacks carried venereal diseases.”
Click the image for a larger view:
Scans from the Clarion-Ledger, a Pro-segregation newspaper during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s:
Tracing the Hatred and skewed Judgement on the Morals and Manners of blacks:
“How Our Negroes Live,” Valley Spirit, 30 Mar. 1859: 4.
“Come, reader, let me take you by the collar and drag you into this abode of crime and wretchedness of destitute and degraded humanity
. . . you may see by the light of that dim lamp, twenty human beings–fourteen women and six children–from a babe a week old to the urchin just entering its teens. Observe their actions and listen to their conversation.
What disgusting obscenity! What horrid implications! Their licentious and blasphemous orgies would put to the blush the imps of pandemonium.
Drinking whisky and inhaling tobacco smoke you would hardly suppose would keep soul and body together; yet you perceive no indications here that would lead you to suppose they subsist on anything else.
. . . Here huddled promiscuously together, on beds–no, not on beds; there is an idea of ease and comfort attached to a bed, that would never enter your mind on looking at these heaps of filthy rags–are men, women and children; arms, heads and legs, in a state of nudity, protrude through the tattered covering in wild confusion. Poverty, drunkenness, sickness and crime, are here in all their most miserable and appalling aspects”
On the color of darker African Americans:
“In Augusta, local newspapers mocked and defamed Blacks on a regular basis. The Vindicator published one example of a White mockery of Blacks. The first sentence of the article stated,
“We overheard a few days ago, the following interesting and important conversation between two ‘culled pussons’ of a complexion somewhere between that of an ace of spades and the outside of a black kettle.”
“Revival of Know Nothingism,” The Vindicator 26 Mar. 1859: 1.
From the Cornell essay:
“This sarcastic statement about the skin color of two African Americans exhibits the fact that the natural color of a Black man’s skin was something to be ridiculed before and during the Civil War years. This article automatically labeled dark skin as something horrible. Then the article went on to mock their concerns and their language and attempted attemped to attach the dark skin trait to ignorance. . .
“Now, I am sure that I have no more sympathy than any other philanthropist for that unfortunate class of beings, whom God in his Providence has made black, and whom man in his improvidence has made free; but I am sure, too, that if the majority of them are degenerated, degraded creatures, without the least knowledge of virtue or the least awakening of morality, there are some who deserve the approbation and encouragement of every friend of civilization, who are far better in their personal character and mode of life than the majority of the lower white class, and whom to drive from friends that they love and a country to which they are attached, would be in opposition to every feeling of our better nature.”
”For the Vindicator: What Should Be the Policy of the South towards Free Negroes?” The Vindicator, 3 Feb. 1860: 1.
So what connects the black characters in The Help to this distain for black skin?
Recall what Stockett has her protag Skeeter as well as Aibileen stating about African American maids and in Aibileen’s case, her own skin:
Pascagoula is described as tiny as a child, not five feet tall, and black as night (Pg 59) - Skeeter
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)
Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums (Pg 65) - Skeeter
The foreman drags a red cloth across his black forehead, his lips, his neck. (Pg 239) Skeeter
While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter
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
When Stockett took on the” voice” of a black female (or several voices which sounded the same to me) reviewers, much like the one I’m quoting on here were eager to give her a pat on the back, as if what she’d done was something exciting and new. Except it wasn’t. There have been contemporaries of Stockett who spoke in “Blackface” and who also received accolades for writing what many in tha African American community deemed offensive, I mentioned earlier:
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.
Many reviewers were quick to laud the novel and ignore criticism. The issue has never been whether Stockett had the “right” as a white author to speak in the voice of a black character. This has been done before, from Little Black Sambo to the Three Golliwogs in children’s literature and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as the Clansman by Thomas Dixon. William Styron won a Pulitzer prize for the dramatically lyrical, conflicted inner dialogue given to Nat Turner, in the controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Unfortunately, what many of these novels share with Stockett’s is the repeated use of offensive statements on the skin color of the black characters (by the black protags), which is usually “Black as night, black as asphalt” and thick, stereotypical dialect. Read closely and there’s a good measure of self loathing that was supposed to be funny also included.
This post is still in development, however please feel free to read what I have researched and compiled so far
The Historical Basis of Bigotry
“From the 19th to the mid-20th century the doctrine of white supremacy was largely taken for granted by political leaders and social scientists in Europe and the United States. For example, in the four-volume Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853–55; Essay on the Inequality of Human Races) the French writer and diplomatist Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau, wrote about the superiority of the white race, maintaining that Aryans (Germanic peoples) represented the highest level of human development. According to 19th-century British writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Charles Kingsley, Thomas Carlyle, and others, it was the duty of Europeans—the “white-man’s burden”—to bring civilization to nonwhite peoples through beneficent imperialism. Several attempts were made to give white supremacy a scientific footing, as various institutes and renowned scientists published findings asserting the biological superiority of whites. These ideas were bolstered in the early 20th century by the new science of intelligence testing, which purported to show major differences in intelligence between the races. In these tests northern Europeans always scored higher than Africans.”
From the The History of “Don’t ask, don’t tell in the military
“ . . .One month before President Truman’s Executive Order, a Gallup poll showed that 63% of American adults endorsed the separation of Blacks and Whites in the military; only 26% supported integration. A 1949 survey of white Army personnel revealed that 32% completely opposed racial integration in any form, and 61% opposed integration if it meant that Whites and Blacks would share sleeping quarters and mess halls. However, 68% of white soldiers were willing to have Blacks and Whites work together, provided they didn’t share barracks or mess facilities.
As the 1993 RAND report noted,
“Many white Americans (especially Southerners) responded with visceral revulsion to the idea of close physical contact with blacks. Many also perceived racial integration as a profound affront to their sense of social order. Blacks, for their part, often harbored deep mistrust of whites and great sensitivity to any language or actions that might be construed as racial discrimination” (National Defense Research Institute, 1993, p. 160).”
Liberal blacks and whites under siege in Mississippi:
This site is excellent in chronicling the rise of the White Citizen’s Council in Mississippi and should be a must read:
State of Siege, National Radio Works
As the son of an Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, Duncan Gray, Jr. was a young minister in the Mississippi Delta. Per the NRW article:
”Gray wrote a pamphlet urging support for the Brown ruling. The Episcopal Church distributed the pamphlet nationwide. Speaking at Mississippi State College during Religious Emphasis Week, Gray sparked a controversy by declaring that, “segregation is incompatible with the Christian faith.” When a reporter picked up the story, Gray was personally condemned by the Mississippi state legislature. The Jackson Daily News and other newspapers called him a communist. Local police began following Gray when he traveled into black neighborhoods, where he would visit civil rights activists like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers. In an interview, Gray was quick to say that in spite of all the threats he faced from white segregationists he was often buoyed by quiet encouragement from other whites. “A lot of folks would have never supported integration,” he says, “but they knew it was right.” A prominent white physician and member of Gray’s church, Jack Russell, was one of them. “The police told Jack he had to get rid of his preacher,” Gray recalls. “Jack cussed them out and said it was none of their business. He told them to stop following me. They didn’t, but I’ll never forget that support.”
Such support encouraged Gray during the long years he struggled as a quiet force for desegregation. Nevertheless, the attack on Mississippi moderates led to the silence or departure of many reasoned people. The McCarthy era hastened this process, as Ed King explains:
The national hysteria of the McCarthy period, a fear of reds, and then by extension fear of anyone who was different, came into the South with a vengeance. And the right-wing people were able to organize around it. The good white moderates did almost nothing. They were willing to accept the change [and integrate], but they offered no leadership. And they were quickly silenced. They were afraid, once the criticism of communism came in, to step forward. And they were just displaced.
“Black people who stood up to segregationists always faced violence. Many were forced to flee Mississippi. Now, the few white moderates of the state either clammed up or also became refugees.”
What of the White Citizen’s Council?
According to Professor Hodding Carter III, here’s the true purpose of the White Citizen’s Council, now renamed The Citizen’s Council and omitted from The Help, even though their Jackson chapter was quite active. So active in fact, that the man who murdered Medgar Evers was a member:
“They were formed in the Delta, which is where our paper was. They were formed for one reason only: To oppose any form of integration. They were formed immediately after the desegregation decision of 1954.
And let me just read one little phrase from their organizing pamphlet: The Citizen’s Council is the Souths answer to the mongrelizers(ph). We will not be integrated. We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage of 60 centuries.
That was the point. And at every point they had a chance, they used pressure of every sort except overt violence to put down any dissent from total white supremacy.”
To be continued . . .