Good Grief! The Black Female as Everybody’s Super Duper Strong Mama

Posted on August 23, 2011

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What if The Help had simply been about a woman working through the grief of losing her only child?

A woman imprisoned by the constraints of segregation, expected to not only run another’s household, but to keep her emotions in check while all those around the maid depended on her for “Strength.” I wonder how different, and how more powerful of a statement The Help could have been.

Viola as Aibileen showing just what Kathryn Stockett thought it will take to make a black woman break down during segregation. Being separated from Miss Skeeter and Mae Mobley

Instead the tale becomes yet another let’s follow the travails of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

When really, Skeeter was the weakest protag in the novel.

Reading or watching on screen how Aibileen tries to hold it together and finally unravels, breaking down because she must come to terms with her son’s death would have been more fulfilling in my estimation than the whole “Aibileen loved Skeeter so, that she gave over her son’s idea. And look how much she loved Mae Mobley, she’s almost beside herself after getting fired.”

At the end of the novel Aibileen doesn’t have one thought of her deceased son, breaking down at leaving her special baby Mae Mobley. I suspect it’s the same with the movie.

This is a myth that just about all writers have, casting a older, heavy set black woman as the ultimate survivor.

True, its better than having her fall all apart or worse yet, scream out “I can’t function without a man!”

 

 

 

 But in recent years this matriarch has become as fearsome as a Hydra, and just as difficult to live up to.

I don’t doubt there are women out there of all races who are just fine with filling those shoes.

But the whole “let’s go over ‘Mama’s’ cause she’ll know what to do. She’ll cook and clean and wait on us hand and foot because our sorrow is so great, even though it was her husband or son who died” is bullshit on the highest order.

And it only serves to have those who don’t live up to their own responsibilities delegate them to someone they believe will.

So who does she go to for comfort? The easy answer is God, however even God never required a vow of celibacy for worship. No, this is man-made requirement. And it’s also something older black female characters are stuck with, and have been stuck with for years.

 

Still giving comfort. Back cover of 1959 version Imitation of Life DVD

I say all this because I was just recently reminded, once again of how devastatingly cruel death is.

I’d lost my very first child years ago, and couldn’t help but be thrown back to that time when death touched my family yet again.

I think not only of the loss my family now bears, but that the death of a child never eases with time.

Thoughts remain as to how far they could have gone but most of all, the others they leave behind, mourning and questioning the meaning of it all.

That’s how I know Kathryn Stockett’s crafting of Aibileen’s stunted period of grief was missing a few things.

I’ve covered the Mammy myth often enough in several posts on this blog. Now I’d like to explore why black women are thought of as different than other women. That somehow we don’t feel as deeply, don’t get as depressed, and don’t grieve as others do.

There again, this seems to come from a writer’s imagination. The black woman who pulls the family together and tells everyone that they need to be strong. You know the one I’m talking about. Comforting words become vague phrases, a puzzle that makes you want to scream out JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN! and it’s sad that these type of characters are still being churned out.

I decided to take another look at how Stockett handled Aibileen’s grief over the untimely death of her son. At first I was hopeful that Treelore’s death would be explored and more would be known about the fictional young male of great promise, much like Robert:

From the novel:

I lost my own boy, Treelore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty-four years old. The best part of a person’s life. It wasn’t enough time living in this world.

He had him a little apartment over on Foley Street. Seeing a real nice girl name Frances and I spec they was gone be married, but he was slow bout things like that. Not cause he looking for something better, just cause he the thinking kind. Wore big glasses and reading all the time. He even start writing his own book, bout being a colored man living and working in Mississippi. Law, that made me proud. But one night he working late at the Scanlon-Taylor mill, lugging two-by-fours to the truck, splinters slicing all the way through the glove. He too small for that kind a work, too skinny, but he needed the job. He was tired. It was raining. He slip off the loading dock, fell down on the drive. Tractor trailer didn’t see him and crushed his lungs fore he could move. By the time I found out, he was dead.

That was the day my whole world went black. Air look black, sun look black. I laid up in bed and stared at the black walls a my house. Minny came ever day to make sure I was still breathing, feed me food to keep me living. Took three months fore I even look out the window, see if the world still there. I was surprise to see the world didn’t stop just cause my boy did.

Five months after the funeral, I lifted myself up out a bed. I put on my white uniform and put my little gold cross back around my neck and I went to wait on Miss Leefolt cause she just have her baby girl. But it weren’t too long before I seen something in me had changed.

A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn’t feel so accepting anymore. (Pgs 2 and 3)

In The Help, the thing that should have set Aibileen and Minny apart from their earlier literary and screen predecessors were their backstories, what little there was. Aibileen’s only son was killed in a work accident. For the movie it was changed to a murder.

But unless the movie also changed his time of death to say, over ten years prior, instead of two years which is the way the book shares it, how Aibileen is able to function so cheerily without breaking down at least once in the book  is a mystery.

And it’s simply another example of how Stockett failed to see her black characters as people, but plot devices.

Grief over losing a child can’t be shut off and on like a faucet, especially when the child’s death is recent. And two years is still recent.

There are times in the novel where Aibileen reminisces and is on the verge, but Stockett fails to go there. Even when Medgar Evers is shot and killed, when this would trigger memories of the son that she’s lost, Stockett loses touch with her own character’s emotional frailty.

One of the most egregious and cringe worthy scenes is when Aibileen breaks down a second time when Skeeter leaves, and Stockett has the woman so happy that she’s crying in bed thinking about Skeeter in New York City.

 

From the novel:

That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her. Part a me wishes I could have a start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young. My life’s about done. (Pg 437)

 

While this may be a scene that encourages some readers to bond even further with Aibileen, after noting her devotion to Skeeter, I wondered what happened to the waterworks whenever the character had thoughts of her son. If Stockett was under the impression that the only things that would make a black woman break down are the love and happiness they feel at seeing a white character happy, then  . . .

I mean, don’t people ever see the RIP graffiti on buildings? Or the flower memorials? What do they think black people do when someone dies?

Hell, Stockett basically wrote and dedicated a whole book to her grandfather, that’s how much in grief she was. And yes, I know she claims it was inspired by Demetrie. But the book reads more to me like a love sonnet to southern males, because really, they make out the best.

All are closet liberals, most are handsome, and if ever there was a re-writing of history, an almost indifference to what really happened then I offer Stockett’s crafting of her white male characters as proof.

Solidarity for Segregation at Ole Miss

They reside in Jackson, Mississippi at a time when white males are either manning the lines to stop James Meredith from attending Ole Miss (Skeeter and Hilly attended Ole Miss, with Hilly dropping out to get married).  Or meeting freedom riders who poured into the city with verbal and physical threats. No, not all did this, but history shows Jackson, Missisippi had very few white liberals. Those who did speak up were soundly dealt with by the vocal, bigoted majority.

The book doesn’t say whether William Holbrook attended the school, but since Stockett decides to make them all faithful Ole Miss boosters and football fans, did not one reviewer even research just how prejudiced Ole Miss was during that time period?

 

 

But most of all, why does Stockett act as if it simply wasn’t that bad? Did she not understand just what it took to get James Meredith into the school, and what he went through while he was there?

Instead these are characters who somehow aren’t affected by the uprising around them, which is dividing both black and white. And that’s what readers and movie goers have to understand. This wasn’t about people merely watching events unfold in a whole ‘nother state. These characters were in the thick of it.

Yet somehow Aibileen and Minny were still able to get to work through all the chaos (all except the night of Medgar Evers death).

Ole Miss sign, you can't "miss" it

I hope when the movie premieres overseas that some of their reviewers at least mention the discord over the book and now the film. America’s real good at telling other nations how insensitive they are and how they should treat their minorities, but no one really holds us to the same standard.

From the novel:

She say “Aib-ee.” And then she laugh and laugh. She so tickled she talking and I got to say, it’s about time. Treelore didn’t say anything till he two either. By the time he in third grade, though , he get to talking better than the President a the United States, coming home using words like conjugation and parliamentary. He get in junior high and we play this game where I give him a real simple word and he got to come up with a fancy one like it. I say housecat, he say domesticized feline. I say mixer and he say motorized rotunda. One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress upm no matter how you try. 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)

 

 

 

 

 From the novel:

We walking home from the one o’clock service. Minny say, “Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety.”

“Say what?”

“Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, yp walking in a week. Isaiah fell off the cotton truck, on you prayer list that night, back to work the next day.”

Hearing this made me think about how I didn’t even get the chance to pray for Treelore. Maybe that’s why God took him so fast. He didn’t want to argue with me. (Pg 23)

 

 

The rules on how blacks were depicted in fiction were not made by African Americans. How we were expected to behave in real life mimicked how we were portrayed in film, television, ads, and books. Most, if not all were designed by whites in power during segregation. So it was with great interest and hope that I picked up The Help, believing the hype that the book truly captured not only the time period, but the interactions of blacks and whites and that the characters were “real.”

There were times in the novel where Stockett’s writing shines. But far too often I was pulled out of the book when her protags either said or did something demeaning to their own culture. Thankfully, when Aibileen thought about her son that wasn’t one of those times.

 

From the novel:

The sound a Minny’s voice scare me.

She always been a strong woman, always fighting. After Treelore died, she carry supper over to me ever night for three months straight. And ever day she say, “Nuh-uh, you ain’t leaving me on this sorry earth without you,” but I tell you, I sure was thinking about it. I already had the rope tied when Minny found it. The coil was Treelore’s, from back when he doing a science project with pulleys and rings. I don’t know if I’s gone use it, knowing it’s a sin against God, but I wasn’t in my right mind. Minny, though, she don’t ask no questions about it, just pull it out from under the bed, put it in the can, take it to the street. When she come back in, she brush her hands together like she cleaning things up as usual. She all business, that Minny. But now, she sound bad. I got a mind to check under her bed tonight.

 . . . What they do ever day for the white women they waiting on. That pain in Minny’s voice. Treelore dead in the ground. I look down at Baby Girl, who I know, deep down, I can’t keep from turning out like her mama. And all of it together roll on top a me. I close my eyes, say the Lord’s prayer to myself. But it don’t make me feel any better.

Law help me, but something’s gone have to be done.  (Pg 28)

 

 

From the novel, Aibileen speaking with Skeeter:

“My boy Treelore, he like to write.”

“I didn’t know you had a son.”

“He dead. Two years now.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I say and for a moment it’s just Preacher Green in the room, the soft pat of tomato skins against the sink.

“Made straight A’s on ever English test he take. Then later, when he grown, he pick himself up a typewriter and start working on a idea . . .” The pin -tucked shoulders on her uniform slump down. “Say he gone write himself a book.”

“What kind of idea?” I ask. “I mean, if you don’t mind telling . . . “

Aibileen says nothing for a while. Keeps peeling tomatoes around and around. “He read this book call Invisible Man.” When he done, he say he gone write down what it was like to be colored working for a white man in Mississippi.”

I look away, knowing this is where my mother would stop the conversation. This is where she’d smile and change the subject to the price of silver polish or white rice.

“I read Invisible Man, too, after he did,” Aibileen says. “I liked it alright.”

I nod, even though I’ve never read it. I hadn’t thought of Aibileen as a reader before.

“He wrote almost fifty pages,” she says. “I let his girl Frances keep hold of em.”

Aibileen stops peeling. I see her throat move then she swallows. “Please don’t tell nobody about that, ” she says, softer now, “him wanting to write aobut his white boss.” She bites her lip and it strikes me then that she’s still afraid for him. Even though he’s dead, the instinct to be afraid for her son is still there.

“It’s fine that you told me, Aibileen. I think it was  . . . a brave idea.” (Pg 85)

 

Minny in tears

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the novel:

On the ride home, I don’t see the big white houses passing outside the window. I don’t talk to my maid friends. I see Baby Girl getting spanked cause a me. I see her listening to Miss Leefolt call me dirty, diseased.

The bus speeds up along State Street. We pass over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and my jaw so tight I could break my teeth off.

I feel that bitter seed growing inside a me, the one planted after Treelore died. I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain’t a color, disease ain’t the Negro side a town. I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in ever white child’s life- when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites.  We turn on Farish and I stand up cause my stop be coming. I pray that wasn’t her moment. Pray I still got time. (Pg 96)

From the novel:

After I spent a year dreading it, November eighth finally come. I spec I sleep about two hours the night before. I wake up at dawn and put a pot a Community coffee on the stovetop. My back hurts when I bend over to get my stockings on. Fore I walk out the door, the phone ring.

“Just checking on you. You sleep?”

“I did alright.”

“I’m on bring you a caramel cake tonight. And I don’t want you to do nothing but set in your kitchen and eat the whole thing for supper.” I try to smile, but nothing come out. I tell Minny thank you.

Three years ago today, Treelore died. But by Miss Leefore’s book it’s still floor-cleaning day. Thanksgiving coming in two weeks and I got plenty to do to get ready. . .

About four o’clock Miss Skeeter come in the kitchen. Before she can even say hello, Miss Leefolt rush in behind her. . .

“You got a cleaning question?” I sigh. “Go ahead.”

“Not really, I just . . . I wanted to ask you. . . the other day. . . “

I take a plug a Pine Ola cream and start rubbing it into the silver, working the cloth around the rose design. the lip and the handle . . .

“Aibileen? Are you feeling alright?”

I stop, look up. Realize Miss Skeeter been talking to me the whole time.

“I’m sorry. I’s just . . . thinking about something.”

“You looked so sad.”

“Miss Skeeter.” I feel tears come up in my eyes, cause three years just ain’t long enough. A hundred years ain’t gone be long enough. “You mind if I help you with them questions tomorrow?”

Miss Skeeter start to say something, but then she stop herself. “Of course. I hope you feel better.”

I finish the silver set and the towels and tell Miss Leefolt I got to go home even though it’s a half a hour early and she gone short my pay. She open her mouth like she want to protest and I whisper my lie. I vomited, and she say go. Cause besides her own mother, there ain’t nothing  Miss Leefolt scared of more than Negro diseases. (Pg 99)

 

 

I can see why Laura Miller of Salon, among others would not understand why some don’t see Aibileen as an admirable character. If the book consisted of more scenes like this, it may have won converts of those who criticize it now and more awards.

But Aibileen’s dialogue alternates between a female Uncle Remus  “Put some pneumonia on that garbage” and down right insulting And  how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup a coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91) and there’s the now infamous roach color swatch test, where Aibileen has to once again mention how black she is, saying of the roach “He black. Blacker than me.”

Conditioned to believe African Americans were as presented on film and in books, as opposed to how we really are, which is just as diverse as any other racial group, we have the added burden of not being seen as a people who “feel” as deeply as others, as well as “think” as swiftly or intelligently as other cultures. Considering that these myths also originated by whites who wanted to keep the races separate, its a wonder those who still fall back on them don’t question it today.

Aibileen and Minny, and Constantine are model domestics based upon earlier prototypes.

There were two categories, the docile, quietly loyal maid and the vocal grumbler, providing both domestic duties and comedy. Constantine is a combination of the two, much like the character Ethel Waters portrayed in films like Pinky and Member of The Wedding.

Been there, done that. Ethel Waters gives comfort

Examples for the characters of Aibileen and Minny are Delilah from Imitation of Life and Mammy from Gone With The Wind.

From my research there are shared characteristics by all three fictional creations, that being heavy set, dark and saddled with a thick dialect.

What soured these characters in the novel for me, was how even though Aibileen had experienced the death of a child and realized how precious children are, she all but ignores her best friend Minny’s children.

Only once is there physical contact between Aibileen and Minny’s second youngest Benny, when he throws his arms around her to show off his missing tooth:

Benny come in and squeeze me round the middle. He grin and show me the tooth he missing, then run off. (Pg 396)

 

But a bit earlier in the same scene, and woven throughout the novel Aibileen makes some seriously unfunny cracks about her good friend (comparing her expression to a dog salivating over a biscuit, and inwardly laughing when Skeeter asks Minny if she ever  talks about civil rights at home with her husband).

Minny had that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come from from work. He push her around. (Pg 183)

So Aibileen smirks while thinking about Leroy putting a bruise on her  best friend, who she knows is getting her butt kicked almost on a daily basis:

As usual,  Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one (Aibileen, Pg 396)

Now look at how uber compassionate Aibileen turns judgmental at seven year old Kindra (who’s five when the novel begins)

“Kindra! Get your butt off that floor!” Minny holler. “Them beans better be hot when your daddy wakes up!”

Kindra-she seven now- she sass walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. “Why I got to do dinner?” It’s Sugar’s turn!”

“Cause Sugar at Miss Celia’s and you want to live to see third grade.”

I’m pretty sure most readers like Minny because she’s funny. Yet even as an abused woman Minny came across as a bully far too many times for my taste, and that includes the way she pushed around her own children. What sealed the deal was when she smacked Sugar for gossiping about Celia:

I looked up from my sink and saw Sugar headed straight for me with her hand up on her hip.

“Yeah Mama, she upchuck all over the floor. And everybody at the whole party see!” Then Sugar turned around, laughing with the others. She didn’t see the whap coming at her. Soapsuds flew through the air.

“You shut your mouth, Sugar.” I yanked her to the corner. “Don’t you never let me hear you talking bad about the lady who put food in your mouth, clothes on your back! You hear me?”

Sugar, she nodded and I went back to my dishes, but I heard her muttering, “You do it all the time.”

I whipped around and put my finger in her face. “I got a right to. I earn it every day working for that crazy fool.” (Pg 334)

Even though Aibileen is well aware of Minny’s own problems with anger, not once does Stockett have the older, supposedly wiser woman counseling Minny on this. After all, Aibileen is seventeen years older than Minny. Yet several times in the novel she simply follows Minny’s lead. So while Aibileen makes it her goal to instill love and self-esteem in Mae Mobley, she turns a blind eye to how Minny handles her youngest daughter.

A person who’s lost a child wouldn’t play favorites. All children gain importance. While Stockett has Aibileen voicing how “Pretty cute” Hilly’s children are, the maid is strangely silent on Minny’s children, offering to take them twice in the book, but never holding them in her lap or coddling them. Or instilling any positive words of encouragement.

When this point is brought up, a few commentors have claimed “Well, there probably were scenes like that but they were edited out.”

Maybe. But if they were, it only makes Aibileen look more like An Uncle Tom who parcels her affection out instead of being the big hearted heroine of the book.

 

 

From the novel:

“Kindra! turn that flame down fore you burn the house down!”

“We better go Minny,” I (Aibileen) say, cause this could go on all night. “We gone be late.”

” . . .Kindra, I don’t want to see so much as a bean setting in that sink when I get back. Clean up good now.” Minny give her a hug. “Benny, go tell Daddy he better get his fool self out a that bed.”

“Aww, Mama, why I-“

“Go on, be brave. Just don’t stand too close when he come to.”

We make it out the door and down the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for. (Pg 397)

To be continued . . .

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