Contrary Viewpoints on the novel

“I was a child when all this occurred, but I do believe I had a bond with my family’s Help.”

It was the system of segregation at fault and those who sought to reinforce it. Experiences of genuine affection between domestics and employers are just as valid as real life tales of oppression and terror under segregation. But it should also be understood that African Americans had no choice regarding their behavior. A smile and humble demeanor were the keys to employment, staying alive and a phrase frequently heard in both the North and South, “being a credit to their race”.  Children are generally more accepting of an individual who treats them with kindness, regardless of race, and emotional bonds can indeed be formed.

Cicely Tyson as Constantine in film version of The Help

“The primarily gripe is about the black dialect, but that’s how African Americans  talked back then.”

While it’s true that many southern blacks spoke with a pronounced southern drawl, so did white southerners. It’s clear that there was a decision to strip the white characters of their regional dialect, resulting in accentuating the differences between the two groups vernacular and making the African American dialect more pronounced. The sentences uttered by the white characters read as though they inhabited the north instead of the South.

The author failed to take into account that many African Americans worked just as hard to limit their southern accent as some whites did, realizing early on that the way they spoke was crucial to how far they could go, especially in attempting to get more whites to join the fight for Civil Rights. In addition, education was stressed in not only white households but also black. This was a time period where more blacks were enrolled in traditionally black colleges and also attempting to integrate white grammar schools and universities.

What many readers may not be aware of is that Stockett is not the first author to portray black dialect as broad and hard to decipher, while white characters read without a distinct regional accent. Female authors such as Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind) Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life) and Edna Ferber (Showboat) used this same tactic, and faced similar controversy. Like The Help, these novels were deemed “beloved” so that the objections of some readers were all but ignored.

 

 

“The author was writing about a small section of her life. She couldn’t include everything.”

Stockett has a degree in creative writing and seems to have applied this when crafting the white characters. Notice how Hilly, Skeeter and even Elizabeth have different paths. Skeeter graduated from college and seeks a job as a writer. Hilly dropped out of college and got married, and was the socialite. Elizabeth had two children and became the harried homemaker. Even Celia was “different”, the outsider from Sugar Ditch who married the man Hilly was apparently in love with.

Compare these characters with Aibileen, Minny and also Constantine. All were maids. Except for attending church and going to work they don’t do anything more. Even under the oppressive system of segregation, African Americans still had lives. The author created three women who were almost the same person. In several early interviews the author admits that they were patterned after one woman, her grandparent’s maid Demetrie (Time magazine, NPR, UK interviews). So one black woman originally served as the voice and character prototype for not only three maids, but other black maids mentioned in the book. In later interviews the writer has expanded this to include an actress as the inspiration for the character of Minny. However, even when race is factored out, women are still individuals with separate needs, wants and ambitions. Whether Stockett even knew any African Americans before or during crafting the novel is also a concern. Authors aren’t required to befriend members of the racial group they plan on writing about, yet it seems Stockett did just that, only after the fact to help promote the novel.

In several interviews the author mentions befriending the actress she patterned the character of Minny after. This is the same actress who ultimately won the role of Minny and also publicly championed the novel. Per an audio interview Stockett referenced asking her own maid what she thought of the novel.  In many of Stockett’s interviews there seems to be a disconnect between what she was negatively taught about African Americans and what she ultimately used for the novel. Links to interviews with Kathryn Stockett can be found here: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/a-list-of-interviews-with-kathryn-stockett/

 

 

“The author was courageous for writing this book.”

 To some it may seem that writing a book in both a white and black voice is courageous. Yet African American writers of that time are still being ignored, when they actually lived through the system of segregation. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin  and  Richard Wright to name but a few give a more concise  and diverse look at the black experience during that shameful period in American History.

What Stockett risked by writing the The Help pales in comparison to those who actually went through it.

Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe received accolades for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Help, on closer inspection, has much in common with that novel. Only time will tell if those who’ve embraced the book and proclaimed it a classic will continue to do so once more scrutiny is placed on the novel and in particular, its characters. 

 

 

“I don’t know much about segregation, since I’m not from the south. At least this book is a starting point.”

Segregation wasn’t just African American history. It’s American History. Domestics provided cheap labor, practically ran households, worked from dusk to dawn while depending on segregated buses for transportation, and to this day are still not being given their due. Passage of the Civil Rights Law was a triumph, because it benefited not only African Americans but women and later on the physically challenged, marginalized groups that are considered minorities. The passage of the Law was a combined effort on the part of both blacks and whites.
Segregation was a time period no less important than Slavery, Apartheid or the Holocaust, and yet many Americans seem to know little about it. Blacks were forced to maintain a jovial demeanor in order to secure employment and sometimes to preserve their very lives. Coded language (speaking in a way that the whites couldn’t understand but blacks could) has been in use until this very day.
Particularly in the south, if an African American spoke too proper they were considered “uppity” and a threat. A mask of humble servility and a grin were sometimes the only weapons blacks had in order to get along with whites during segregation, and sadly, some still lost their lives because of the color of their skin. The Help is is a work of historical fiction through one writer’s eyes regarding the lives of white females in the south during the 1960s. It is not, in my opinion, and should not be considered a book about segregation or African Americans during that time period.  

 

 

 

“I thought the book was beautifully written and the characters seemed real to me. Minny was hilarious. I don’t understand the problems some are having with the novel.”

Many readers don’t even realize they’ve been influenced by previous incarnations of characters like Aibileen, Minny and Constantine. But to a number of African Americans, the nurturing, humorous, most times overweight domestic is a caricature that’s been used to represent them repeatedly. From Mammy in Gone With The Wind onward, variations of this character can be seen not only in movies but in older television sit-coms. Black females aren’t the only ones saddled with this stereotype. Jack Benny’s popular grumbling manservant was played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson

 

In the late 90’s a sit-com called the Secret Diary of Desmond Pfieffer was the subject of NAACP protests, as this black manservant’s misadventures were supposed to make the Civil War and also Abraham Lincoln’s bumbling administration hilarious.

Two fairly modern images come to mind, that of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, domestic prototypes with friendly, open grins with the designation of “Aunt” and “Uncle” to denote familiarity. These images are comfortable, almost revered ones and holdovers from segregation, when African Americans were expected to grin and bow.

 

 

 

 

Early version of Aunt Jemima

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Ben

 

What Kathryn Stockett didn’t do in The Help (or perhaps couldn’t do) was delve into why black domestics had to put on the mask of meekness and jocularity. Stockett was also writing from the perspective of someone born not prior to 1962, but much later (the author was born in 1969 and recalled events from the 1970s and 1980s). So she  may have  unknowingly fallen back on comfortable stereotypes to fill in the gaps. Had a maid with Minny’s temperament and smart mouth existed in the 60s south, she would have been soundly dealt with.

Minny represents the film and television version of a black domestic, one who made white audiences laugh and love their bossy antics.  To put it in perspective, enduring stereotypes individuals may more easily recognize are the jolly fat person, the dumb blonde, bratty teen, or hot blooded latino. Stockett resurrected the loyal, asexual domestic (Aibileen), the Mammy caricature (Minny), the tragic mulatto (Lulabelle) the brute (Leroy) and others for this novel.

 

 

 

“Why are some African Americans mad at Kathryn Stockett? The author should be praised and not vilified!”

The Help is a polarizing novel. Some non-minority readers, quick to give Stockett praise  for her depiction of black vernacular and cultural norms never looked at whether the author was accurate. Stockett seems to have been given the benefit of the doubt, much fanfare and accolades when other authors (especially African American debut authors) writing about the past don’t.  When some black readers (and white)  reviewed the novel, they believed there were inaccuracies and even offensive depictions of an already maligned race. So while just as many readers are overly enthusiatic in praising the author and the novel, there are those who feel there are very real problems with the book, problems that are being overlooked in order to crown the next great southern writer. To some, The Help is more closely aligned with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin than the novel which comes up as a comparision, the classic To Kill A Mockingbird.

Showboat, Pocket Books paperback edition 1940s

In addition, Stockett seems to have patterned the novel after earlier novels which feature a sympathetic, but ambitious white female protagonist paired with a stereotypically loyal black domestic. Those novels are Imitation of Life written by Fannie Hurst, Showboat written by Edna Ferber and Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. What these novels also have in common with The Help, are the broad dialects for the black characters and the negative portrayals of African American males. Numerous revisions were done on the character Joe from Showboat. The movie version Imitiation of Life left out Delilah’s bigamist husband altogether. The character of Leroy Jackson from The Help will have to either be re-written or left out, because the abusive character is so vile in contrast to Stockett’s adoration of southern white males. Many of those same males believed in segregation and that African Americans were inferior to whites, something Kathryn Stockett overlooked in the novel, since Hilly Holbrook was chosen to be the sole voice of a staunch segregationist.

 

 

 

“You don’t understand that’s how it was back then.”

The Help is a work of fiction, and to some extent, even the author doesn’t know what truly happened back then. While Stockett was quoted as relying on archival reference books and a few interviews, she winged it when dealing with the African American characters. Considering this was meant to be a “homage” to a sweet, faithful maid who’s now deceased, the characters as written are divisive and resurrect stereotypes to many readers.  It’s important to remember that there are two issues here. One is the research done on the time period when segregation and the civil rights movement collided. That isn’t what’s causing the uproar. It’s the second issue, the depiction of the African American and white characters.  Stockett was born in 1969 and was quoted as saying “Well, I can only talk about my experience. I grew up in the 1970s, but I don’t think a whole lot had changed from the ’60s. Oh, it had changed in the law books — but not in the kitchens of white homes.”  http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html

 

That is not only naïve, but inaccurate.  The author also revealed how little research was done on the African American culture in general, especially during that time period. Stockett was quoted as saying  “The voices of Aibileen and Minny came to me fairly easily once I got going. I’d listened to the cadences and dialect of black Southerners most of my life, and I just played them back in my head.”

http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/22/voices_past_remembered_new_book83144/

By relying almost solely on memory, Stockett brought in the speech patterns of the time she grew up in, which was 1969 onward. That’s probably the reason why Minny reads as if she’s Nell Carter from Gimme a Break or Tyler Perry’s Medea. Or worse yet, a resurrected bossy Mammy character from an old Hollywood film.  

Mammy mouthing off

Because if someone like Minny had mouthed off as much in the early 1960s south, she would not have survived there for long. Stockett was quoted as saying “Aibleen and Minny I had a ball with, Minny was pretty fun because you can let it all out, she’ll say anything or do anything. Aibleen was a little bit more difficult than Minny because she was more careful.” There’s a big difference between writing a minority, specifically an African American and actually being one. Stockett took liberties, which she now admits.  In addition, Stockett seems to have ignored the beauty present in the African American culture. Many of her descriptions of the black characters treat the culture as a whole as something she finds quite foreign. Though she may have meant well, the end result is a run away best seller dogged by controversy, which over time, may reveal it as merely a modern take on overused, highly stereotypical characters.

 

 

 

“I know some black people and that’s how they talk”

No, you know OF some black people. Those who have close associations and are friends with many, not just one or two African Americans would know that very statement is in itself offensive.

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