This is but a small taste of what “they” experienced under segregation

Posted on August 17, 2011

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This week a professional women’s historical organization, a number of instructors with PH. D’s and a few film reviewers went against the norm in criticizing The Help movie.

Almost immediately their opinions were dismissively disagreed with, information provided to bolster points were ignored,  and the ensuing back and forth between bloggers left no doubt that the fantasy image Hollywood created to depict African Americans, who are already poorly represented in all faucets of  tinseltown won out.

Viola as Aibileen and young actress as Mae Mobley

Like the protests that were raised when Amos n’ Andy was a popular, but offensive radio show and a mainstay in many American homes, the same excuses  are being regurgitated.

“That’s how they talk”

“It’s only fiction!”

They’re just mad because two white men wrote this hilarious radio show!”

In case you’re not sure who “They” represent, it’s African Americans. 

“We chose black characters because blackface comics could tell funnier stories than white comics”   –Freeman Gosden, of comic duo Amos n Andy

Click image for a large view:

Advertisement for radio show of Amos 'n Andy and Bob Hope

The creators of the radio show portraying Amos and Andy

Excerpt of a review of Melvin Patrick Ely’s book on the phenom of Amos n Andy:

“Forty million Americans indulged in a national obsession in 1930: they eagerly tuned in Amos ‘n’ Andy, the nightly radio serial in which a pair of white actors portrayed the adventures of two southern black men making a new life in a northern city. Fans insisted that the unfolding story of Amos, Andy, the Kingfish, Ruby, and their neighbors be piped into restaurants, movie theaters, and hotel lobbies: Amos ‘n’ Andy impressions and theme parties were the rage.

Meanwhile, African Americans argued passionately among themselves about the program. While one black newspaper gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures demanding that the show be banned, another chose Amos ‘n’ Andy’s white stars as guests of honor at a parade and picnic for the black children of Chicago.”

Link: http://mpelyx.people.wm.edu/amos_andy.html

Actual review for the Amos n Andy show:

The Pittsburgh Press Jul 28,1929 article on Amos n Andy

“Amos n Andy are inclined to give credit for their popularity to the fact that they try to live their characters. They go among negroes, learn their foibles. Their picturization of Southern negroes transplanted to the North has been said by students to be the most realistic ever accomplished. ” 

Compare that to what supporters of not just the movie of The Help, but the book are saying:

“That’s how they talk!”

“OMG it’s only fiction!”

They’re just mad because a white woman wrote the book and a white male wrote the screenplay!”

“. . . Stockett said she idolized her family’s housekeeper and tried to mimic her “chocolatey, rich” voice. “I would try to imitate the way she talked and, of course, my parents would get very upset that this little white girl was trying to talk like a black person,” Stocket said.

Interview with Stage Rush.com

http://www.stage-rush.com/2011/02/driving-miss-daisy-talkback-kathryn-stockett-the-help/

It’s frightening how these statements are almost, but not quite like what happened under segregation.

Back then, when African Americans wanted their concerns heard, when they dared to speak out against a ready made depiction of themselves that they didn’t recognize, “they” were all but silenced.

And yes, even African Americans are divided about whether The Help is a movie that portrays the domestics who deserved recognition positively. This dissention in the ranks is nothing new. Note what happened when Amos n’ Andy, arguably even more popular than The Help was broadcast decades ago. There were African Americans just fine with the depiction, though it’s important to point out that some supporters wound up changing their minds and condeming the show later on.

But it should also be noted that when an overwhelming amount of supporters for The Help are white, similar to the outpouring of love for the novel, then perhaps taking a second look to see if there’s any merit to the issues raised by the culture at the center of the debate couldn’t hurt. 

When Kathryn Stockett’s polarizing novel was released, there was an outpouring of confessions from individuals who suddenly remembered they had African American help. In many cases these employers not only spoke about their former maids, but SPOKE FOR THEM.

Mary Curtis of The Root.com interviewed Kathryn Stockett back in March of 2010, here’s what she noted:

” . . . Though Stockett came of age long after that time, her fiction is informed, she recounted in the book and in her talk, by her own relationship with the family’s maid and her confidante, Demetrie, “passed on to” her family by a relative, “which was the tradition of the time,” she said.

The majority of the women at the luncheon, many with impeccably styled white hair and tales of their own, could relate. During the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked: “Have you read this book? Tell me, is it true?” Another, also a Mississippi native, said that after reading the book, she thought, “I never treated my help like that,” before realizing she had never wondered how her help looked at her.

Others called The Help the “best book I ever read,” and said Stockett was “one of the great writers from Mississippi.” When asked why so many good writers come out of that state, she got a laugh with her answer: “There’s nothing else to do.”

And

“As I looked around the room, with women of color not even matching the number of fingers on one hand unless you counted “the help,” I also asked how honest that conversation–across race, class or region–could be even now. Is there still a divide? How can it be closed? From the murmurs that greeted my politely asked question, the prospect of a frank exchange of opinions looked none too good. . .

I wondered about a different book. What if Demetrie wrote her version of The Help? If it had been written by Demetrie, with her vision, in her voice (and with all the white characters speaking in a dialect), would her message of life in black and white been as warmly received by all the ladies in the room?

After Stockett’s talk, I spent time with a lovely luncheon guest who wanted to share her story. Sidney Lancaster grew up in the low country of South Carolina. The 75-year-old said she remembers seeing black children walking the long distance to school in the cold, fine rain, and thinking, ‘Why don’t they have a bus?’

When Lancaster read The Help, she said to herself, ‘I was never like those women.’ Then she remembered a promise to her maid of many years who retired with diabetes. Lancaster told her she would visit, but–in eight years–she never did. Prompted by that memory, she made the trip. Lancaster said she started to cry as she said: ‘Eunice, I could not have made it without you.’

Lancaster took a shot at answering my question. Her solution: ‘Don’t see color; see another person. Isn’t it possible to see–and respect–both? ‘ “

Read the entire article here:

Link: http://www.theroot.com/views/coping-help

Sometimes when in doubt, its best to go to the source.

In this case, its the author herself.

One of the fondest testimonials many love about the novel, is the theme of “We love them and they love us”

Yet notice what happened when Kathryn Stockett went in search of individuals who could authenticate her statement (items in bold are my doing).

D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?

K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.

That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.

Link: http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2011/feb/11/q-help-author-work-book-no-2/

Even the author herself wasn’t as sure of her own premise as she let on. Because in another audio interview, Stockett said:

“I think they were surprised that I was able, hopefully able to portray the love we felt for these woman and that you know, I assume that they felt for us . . .” (11:29 into the interview)

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/speakingvolumes/2009/05/26/interview-with-kathryn-stockett

Stockett had to keep what many considered the heart and soul of her novel. That African American maids and their employers were close. So close that they “loved” each other.

But note what an actual domestic had to say about the “one of the family” type of love:

“Well, they tell you that (you’re part of the family). But of course you have the feeling, because you know that if something goes wrong, something they didn’t like, how fast they would let you go . . . But you know, I don’t feel that way because you work with a family, sometime they would come in and say, ‘Let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee together.’ They would lay in bed and call you and you stand by the door and talk to them until you almost drop. They never ask you to sit down on the bed or anything. Not only her, they all like that you know . . . But there is just a feeling between you that you know you can cover up for years and years, but that feeling in both parties is there.” – quote from Jewell Prieleau,  interviewed by Dr. Bonnie Thorton Dill, scholar, author and professor of women’s studies.

And what of little courtesies that we take for granted these days? Read what another domestic had to say:

“. . . Another thing–it’s a small indignity, it may be, but an indignity just the same. No white person, not even the little children just learning to talk, no white person at the South ever thinks of addressing any negro man or woman as Mr., or Mrs., or Miss. The women are called, “Cook,” or “Nurse,” or “Mammy,” or “Mary Jane,” or “Lou,” or “Dilcey,” as the case might be, and the men are called “Bob,” or “Boy,” or “Old Man,” or “Uncle Bill,” or “Pate.” In many cases our white employers refer to us, and in our presence, too, as their “niggers.” No matter what they call us–no matter what we teach our children to call us–we must tamely submit, and answer when we are called; we must enter no protest; if we did object, we should be driven out without the least ceremony, and, in applying for work at other places, we should find it very hard to procure another situation. . .

In the distant future, it may be, centuries and centuries hence, a monument of brass or stone will be erected to the Old Black Mammies of the South, but what we need is present help, present sympathy, better wages, better hours, more protections, and a chance to breathe for once while alive as free women. If none others will help us, it would seem that the Southern white women themselves might do so in their own defense, because we are rearing their children–we feed them, we bathe them, we teach them to speak the English language, and in numberless instances we sleep with them–and it is inevitable that the lives of their children will in some measure be pure or impure according as they are affected by contact with their colored nurses.”

        © 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.

Link: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/negnurse/negnurse.html

While Kathryn Stockett has her alter ego, Skeeter Phelan record the maids stories, the author does nothing to challenge the offensive ideology of the times.  Stockett revealed her stance in this 2009 audio interview:

 “. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.”

3:42 into the a 10 minute Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

Though she was candid about growing up in her grandparents home while they practiced segregation long after it was legally outlawed, instead of carefully filtering out any remnants of  bias she may have been taught about blacks, the author appears to have embraced them.

As more time passes the furor will die down over The Help. And the novel,  which spawned a watered down, altered film version of the same name is placed under the scrutiny of coming generations, like Amos n Andy there will be those who remain fond of the work, and others who will have no use for it.

While the movie ultimately became the catalyst for discussion unlike when the book was released, much of the debate appeared to read like dirty laundry being aired, and the skeletons of racial discord that still linger.

America is the greatest country in the world. But there are still those who have, and those who have not.  And empathy isn’t something people are automatically born with. I’ve come to realize it can be learned, especially if a person is open enough to see things from the perspective of those who have suffered.

I couldn’t be prouder of both the men and women, whites and blacks who, even after over a century of struggle, never gave up hope. And those who were able press on to see the good fight won.

Let freedom ring.

This post is still being developed . . .

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