Abilene Cooper Finally Speaks! What she has to say about the novel

Posted on September 7, 2011

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There’s an article on a UK site called The Daily Mail where Abilene Cooper talks about her pain over seeing her image used in Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel.

Ablene Cooper's photo from the UK Daily Mail

Here’s an excerpt:

” . . .When Abilene Cooper picked up her copy, however, her reaction was rather different. Instead of sympathy for the characters of The Help, there was anger and devastation.

As she turned the pages she came to believe that the story at the heart of the book – an unlikely friendship between a white girl and a black maid – was her own. Her life, she believes, has been stolen, without acknowledgment or payment.

Certainly the name is hers, although in the book the heroine is spelt Aibileen. The city, Jackson, Mississippi, is correct, and like the characters in The Help, she has spent much of her life working in white households.

Intriguingly, these include the household of Kathryn Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law, where she has been a maid and nanny for 12 years.

Abilene says: ‘When I started to read the book, I said, ‘‘This is the closest thing to my life I ever seen. It’s gotta be me.’’

‘Kathryn spelt my name wrong, but they pronounce it exactly the same way in the book and the film. I introduced myself to Kathryn when I first met her at her brother’s house that way: ‘‘Aib-e-leen”.

Kathryn has Aibileen teaching the white folks’ baby girl to call her ‘‘Aib-ee”. That’s what I taught Kathryn’s niece and nephew to call me because they couldn’t manage Abilene.

‘I just cried and cried after I read the first few pages. In the book, Aibileen has taken her job five months after her son is killed in an accident. My son, Willie, had leukaemia and died when he was 18, in July 1998, three months before I went to work for the Stocketts.

‘I felt the emotions in my heart all over again. Kathryn copied parts of my life and used them without even asking me.’

In the book, Aibileen is a deeply religious woman who sports a gold tooth and a gold cross, as does the real-life Abilene.

Both women cope with the stifling heat of the Mississippi summer by wearing wigs when their own hair goes limp in the humid air.

Both devote a lifetime to bringing up the babies of ‘white folks’: the fictional Aibileen has raised 17 children while Abilene estimates her total to be 18 or 19 . . .”

Read more:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html

 

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve noted on this blog the different interviews where Kathryn Stockett admits using people she knew and barely knew when looking for inspiration to craft her novel. And all along Stockett has been adamant that Demetrie McLorn was Aibileen.

But no matter how much the author protests, Demetrie wasn’t the physical embodiment of Aibileen Clark. As the character looks more like  Abilene Cooper. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Parts of Demetrie were used to craft the character’s personality, while the physicality of the fictional Aibileen drew from Ms. Cooper.

 

Here’s a picture of Demetrie, who’s not a dark complexioned woman:

Photo of Demetrie, Stockett's grandparents maid.

More importantly, for Demetrie to instill self confidence in Stockett by telling her “You are beautiful” and then for Stockett to decide the character who she states represents Demetrie in the novel, which is Aibileen should then loathe her own skin color is at the heart of the controversy. It’s possible Stockett had no inkling that having Aibileen whining about her skin color was offensive. But this is a major part of the reason Aibileen isn’t an admirable character imo. While many readers (especially white readers) simply love the character because she commits an admirable act, being admirable is another matter.

Aibileen, as written in the book is one part Mammy and one part Uncle Tom. In addition to being uncomfortable in her own brown skin, she grins and fawns over the white characters like Mae Mobley and Heather (Hilly’s daughter), while ignoring the abuse Minny’s children suffer on a daily basis.

 

 

 

The scenes where Aibileen describes Yule May’s hair (“Yule May easy to spot from the behind. She got good hair, straight, no naps” Aibileen, Pg 208 ) and talks about how Heather is “pretty cute” yet turns judgmental over Kindra (“She sass walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air” Aibileen, Pg 396) are in stark contrast to how Stockett frames this scene with Aibileen lovingly telling Mae Mobley that she’s pretty:

Today when I ask her what she learn, Mae  Mobley just say, “Nothing,” and stick her lip out.

“How you like your teacher?” I ask her.

“She’s pretty,” she say.

“Good,” I say. “You pretty too.”(Aibileen, Pg 392)

 

This scene leads to an understated and well handled conversation on Aibileen’s skin color and clearing up misconceptions about the intelligence of her race. Thankfully Stockett wisely doesn’t have Aibileen doing any self-loathing here. Yet Stockett can’t help but chip away at any good will her writing has built up with scenes of Aibileen whining about how black she is. For example when she finally reveals why Constantine left, telling Skeeter this about Connor, Constantine’s absentee lover “. . . the father was black as me.” (Aibileen, Pg 358)

 

Aibileen thinks nothing of sizing up her skin color to that of a roach, which was not only uncalled for and demeaning, but highly offensive.

Stockett repeats Aibileen bringing up how dark she is, saying this about herself in comparison to the insect “He black, blacker than me” (Pg 189, Aibileen)

Also note how Stockett inserted an old joke used during segregation about what should be avoided in order not to “turn colored”

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91, Aibileen)

 

This isn’t the fault of the character, but the woman who wrote her. And it makes me wonder just what Kathryn Stockett thought of African Americans while crafting not only Aibileen, but Minny and Constantine. Was the reader supposed to pity Aibileen, not simply because she was a black woman experiencing segregation, but that she’d been born black?
This is a prime example why author’s shouldn’t simply believe they “know” a culture because they listen in on conversations or have a friend of a friend who’s friendly with an African American. And it’s especially important if, during your childhood any racial group was spoken of in a negative way.

Stockett was forthright in admitting her grandparents practiced segregation during her formative years in the back of her novel and on her website. But the author was lax in filtering out what she wrongly believed were either amusing anecdotes or negative slurs that she’d either heard or had been taught about African Americans. What’s worse is that her own publishing company didn’t catch them. While the movie attempted to alter what was offensive about the maids from the novel, they still stuck to many of the very stereotypes that have dogged the black culture for years. Stereotypes that Hollywood continues to embrace.

 

Minny’s “love” of fried chicken should never have been played up to the point where it became cringe worthy dialogue critics can point to.

“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” (Minny’s movie dialogue)

Stockett and Tate Taylor didn’t do their homework regarding the way African Americans were mockingly paired with chicken during segregation. While they may have felt it was high time we all laugh about it, this wasn’t their call to make.

 

Especially when they both appear disconnected from the subject matter, with quotes like this:

Kathryn Stockett reportedly used this quip “I just made this sh*t up!” at a recent event.  Read the full story here

 

Screenwriter and Director Tate Taylor has been really putting his foot in his mouth. From requesting the menstrual cycles of his female stars so he could keep track of them, to his “You’ll be craving fried chicken” statement about the film and now claiming that witnessing actress Viola Davis do a scene where she’s asked to hurry up in an outhouse is worse than seeing a lynching. Read all about it here

 Click image for larger view:

She had a name. It was Laura Nelson

Aside from the foot in mouth afflicting the principals behind the film (the questionable quotes aren’t limited to just Stockett or Taylor) the movie unfortunately carries over some of the mistakes in depiction from the novel.

Aibileen is alone in the movie, much like she is in the book. Constantine is alone in the movie, much like she is in the book. The question is why. If Demetrie McLorn was truly the inspiration, then Stockett was well aware that Mrs. McLorn stayed with her abusive husband until the day she died.

Kathyrn Stockett deems the African American male as wanting, thus she pairs her primary maid with Clyde, whom Aibileen trains her young son to call “Crisco.” There’s the very sordid Cocoa Cootchie Clyde deal, where Stockett has two supposedly devout Christians (Aibileen and Minny) cackling over Aibileen’s ability to call down a venereal disease via God and “Black magic” (Pg 23)

Constantine’s significant other is Connor, and he’s long gone when the novel begins. Yet Constantine is also alone, seeking no other companionship, much like Aibileen. There is no “widowhood” for either woman, no spouse who died in the war. No, Stockett decides the black males of her mind’s creation should positively flee from fatherhood, as they appear to be the heavies in her book, and not segregation.

And so Aibileen and Constantine are abandoned to raise their children alone.

And while Minny’s husband is alive, he’s a vile brute similar to the caricatures in Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, which was the basis for the controversial movie The Birth of a Nation directed by D. W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith was a southerner, born in Kentucky. Griffith’s film has scenes of black men going overboard in stereotypical behavior, even as they hold political office. In a scene from the film below, black legistrators drink from hidden bottles, take off their shoes and put their feet up. The man standing is eating a piece of chicken (yes, that’s how far back the demeaning insult of blacks and chicken goes back, much like connecting us to watermelons).

The Birth of a Nation scene showing black legislator eating a piece of fried chicken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that Viola Davis was able to infuse a bit of herself into the role, and to collaborate with Tate Taylor on how the character should be portrayed. However, as great an actress as she is, much of Aibileen’s actions still revert to a caricature of black lifestyle, as the actress is hampered by Stockett’s limited vision of southern black women.

The character isn’t paired with anyone, unlike Skeeter because there’s simply not enough time (or inclination on the part of the screenwriter). Giving Aibileen a backstory, or any story befitting a a well rounded character was not to be. Instead moviegoers are treated to children, kitchen, church, a standard black lifestyle in films churned out by Hollywood, whether written by a white screenwriter or African American.

Whether or not Abilene Cooper’s tale is true, one thing will remain a bone of contention with The Help.

How the author depicted her characters, especially the black protagonists.

Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel now joins other books which purported to empathize with African Americans, yet revel in stereotype just the same.

 

to be continued . . .

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