The Help is a novel that focuses on the unequal treatment of African Americans during segregation. But many readers miss how the writer, perhaps unknowingly, gave unequal treatment to the characters.
Here’s a brief rundown:
The children in the novel:
Mae Mobley, as well as her brother Ross (called Lil’ Man in the novel), Hilly’s children and most of the employer’s children are well behaved and their descriptions are complimentary.
Aibileen’s observation about Hilly and her children:
Heather, Miss Hilly’s girl, she pretty cute. Heather got dark, shiny curls all over her head and some little freckles, and she real talkative. One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss Will on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her momma too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it make me think about Treeloree, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)
But Minny’s children, in particular Kindra are described as “mouthy.” Somewhere along the way, any affection the African American characters might have for their children (save for Aibileen’s memories of her deceased son Treelore) or frankly, for each other was lost.
“Why are you so mean to me? I hate you.” - five year old Kindra (Pg 51)
Minny also laments that her youngest daughter is just like her, which isn’t a compliment. There’s also no section in the novel where Minny expresses love for her children. On the contrary, there’s a scene where Minny smacks her own child for joking about Celia, a woman Minny has verbally maligned on many occasions.
Minny attacks her own child in defense of Celia’s honor:
I looked up from my sink and saw Sugar headed straight for me with her hand on her hip. “Yeah Mama, she upchuck all over the floor. And everybody at the whole party see!” Then Sugar turned around laughing with all 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.” (Page 334)
And while Aibileen, the black “saint” in the book truly loves Mae Mobley and all the children she’s raised over the years, she hardly interacts with the children on her own street, or even the children of her best friend Minny, though she knows they’ve watched the constant abuse of their mother. The book only references one time where Aibileen has offered to house Minny’s children.
A History of Violence
Though segregation was a period of great violence against blacks and whites who fought for voting rights and equality of the African American race, note whose head Stockett goes into in order to inflict violence?
That’s right, a primary African American character. White women come in second, but that only because one is disciplining her child, and the other is defending Minny. There is mention of violence against Robert by two whites who chase him down and beat him into blindness for using a white bathroom, and Medgar Evers’ murder earns a page or two. What’s expounded on is Minny’s attack on a naked pervert and also her assault on her own child for laughing at Miss Celia (per the example in bold above in the exchange between Minny and her daughter, Sugar). Minny also mentions giving Leroy a “knuckle sandwich” so at some point Stockett has her fighting back, but to no avail.
Celia Foote commits violence (as the only white-trash in Jackson, Mississippi) in order to save Minny, who foolishly takes a knife (that’s right, A KNIFE, a known stereotype about African Americans during segregation. And a broom to confront a naked pervert outside of Celia’s residence.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Elizabeth spanking Mae Mobley for using Aibileen’s “colored” bathroom, and Mae Mobley punching Aibileen, but since the saintly Aibileen is so glad the child hit her instead of her mother, I chose to leave it out. Here it is though:
“You okay Baby Girl?” I whisper. My ear smarting from her little fist. I’m so glad she hit me instead a her mama cause I don’t known what that woman would do to her. (Pg 19)
None of the white males who are protags commit any violence, or even imply it, though white males (those who believed in following segregation to the letter) were the main perpetrators of atrocities against African Americans during segregation.
In the case of the males in the novel it’s the main African American protag named Leroy Jackson, who happens to be Minny’s husband that commits acts of violence against his own wife, in full view of his children. The author of The Help seems to have skillfully masked who the real victims and who the villains were during segregation.
Aibileen is on the verge of tears many times in the novel when she thinks about the death of her only son Treelore. Here was a male of great promise and intelligence. He’s been dead two years when the novel begins, and the third year anniversary of his death is a time of great sorrow for her.
Yet, when do tears truly fall?
When the author has Aibileen “thinking” about Miss Skeeter’s new life in NYC.
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. (Pg 437)
The Mis-Education of Yule May Crookle
Yule May is Hilly’s maid. She’s also one of only two African American females not described as stout, (Pascagoula is the other). And yes, Stockett named her Yule May Crookle. How very witty of her.
Stockett has her black characters making an observation in terms only someone white would. Yule May’s hair is good, not napped like other folks, so Aibileen observes. She’s also been to college. Jackson University in fact, and hopes to send her twin sons to Tougaloo college (a private institution, though its not known if Stockett realized this when picking the school). She’s also one of the only black characters who appears to be written as articulate, as if only having a college education will bless someone with the gift of being well spoken.
“I’m sorry, but Henry and the boys are waiting on me,” she says. “But may I call you? And talk in private?” Yule May (Pg 211)
Yule May sounds no different in speech than Celia Foote, who is described as “white trash.” Or college graduate Skeeter, or Elizabeth (who apparently didn’t go to college), or Hilly.
Point being, college or no, even African Americans can LEARN to speak articulately, and many did without higher education, just like Elizabeth Leefolt apparently did, and Celia Foote.
Yet Yule May, a woman seemingly intelligent and hard working, steals from Hilly and is sent to prison. This absurd turn of events in the novel is made even more ludicrous when a) the item she takes has no real value (but of course, how would she know this, even having a bit of college education). And b) After she’s sentenced to prison, the church (and other black churches) take up a collection, which will enable both sons to now attend college. If only she’d used her own college education for good instead of evil. Perhaps she should have gone to the church FIRST for the money. Or Stockett could have thought up a better reason for having the woman steal in the first place. Or how about this? She doesn’t steal. One of her sons has to wait to attend college, or decides to attend a public university or community college. But, then, who will go to jail? See, its imperative that a black person be incarcerated.
It would stand to reason then, why Yule May hadn’t approached her church or friends first for assistance. Instead, Stockett has her asking Hilly of all people for a loan. And what does Yule May do when she doesn’t get a loan? Why she steals of course.
I don’t know if Kathryn Stockett even realized she was imbuing her African American characters with many of the stereotypes that consistently have dogged the race from the beginning.
That we steal (Yule May).
That we are quick to anger and cause a physical conflict (Leroy), and use a knife (Minny).
That our men father children only to abandon them (Aibileen’s husband Clyde and Constantine’s lover Connor) That we’re lazy (Kindra, and to some extent Leroy)
While I don’t believe much of what I’ve listed as issues with the novel was intentional on the author’s part, it unfortunately underscores why a non-minority author has to research the culture they write about, and not merely “isn’t it our job as writers to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes?” which is the stock reply the author gave when interviewed by The Root’s Mary C. Curtis. Link: http://www.theroot.com/views/coping-help
If imaging what its like to be an African American means to pin most of the black characters with undesireable traits I mentioned above, as well as cringe worthy speech, then I hope Stockett does a little less “imagining” and puts more work into researching and respecting the races she writes about.
Being Silly is a far cry from appearing Stupid.
Stockett did much more than “imagine” herself as a black woman. In “blackface” she made judgment calls on a whole culture, while instilling her own with desirable traits throughout the novel.
Elizabeth Leefolt appears silly:
“I did not raise you to use the colored bathroom!…this is dirty out here Mae Mobley. You’ll catch diseases! No no no!” (Pg 95) Elizabeth spanking toddler Mae Mobley.
Celia is silly and at times appears stupid: “Look how pretty it is…like white cake frosting.” ( Pg 43) Celia, amazed at the beauty of Crisco.
Charlotte Phelan appears bigoted and silly: “You cannot leave a Negro and Nigra together unchaperoned…it’s not their fault, they just can’t help it” Charlotte speaking to Skeeter (Page 70)
However, the African American characters either speak or do something “stupid” many more times than their white counterparts.
Constantine appears less than bright: When Skeeter is mocked about her height, Constantine tries to comfort her:
“How tall is you?” Constantine responds.
“Five-eleven.” Skeeter bemoans. “I’m already taller than the boys’ basketball coach.”
“Well, I’m five-thirteen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.” (Pg 63) Skeeter and Constantine
“I was in attic, looking down at the farm,” I tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.”
“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) – Constantine’s reply to Skeeter
Minny appears bigoted and lacking:
She’s got no goo on her face, her hair’s not sprayed, her nightgown’s like an old prairie dress. She takes a deep breath through her nose and I see it.
I see the white-trash girl she was ten years ago. She was strong. She didn’t take no shit from nobody. (Pg 309) Minny looking at Celia who’s just saved her from the naked pervert.
“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48) The word is “cardiac”
Aibileen appears sweet but slow: I look out the window at the colored hospital go by, the fruit stand. “I think I heard Miss Hilly say something about that’ bout her mama getting skinny.” I say this careful as I can. “Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” (Pg 14) Aibileen speaking to Minny
Aibileen’s face is turning darker. She giggles again into her knuckles. Clearly she’s not getting this. Skeeter (PG 386)
Skeeter should talk. Look at the idiotic statement Stockett has her thinking: I think about how surprised Constantine must’ve been to hold a white baby and know it was hers – Skeeter (Pg 358)
Leroy appears downright stupid: Minny’s husband comments on her pregnancy (this zinger comes after having five other children) “You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month.” Leroy (Pg 406 )
Honey, I’m Home!
The white males in the help are generally respectful of their wives, none more so than Johnny Foote, who even defends his wife’s honor when she’s being ogled by several of his friends during the charity benefit. He’s patient, kind, articulate, even while dealing with Minny, who he surprises one day in his home. Even though his wife Celia has not told him about Minny’s employ as their maid, he does not get mad.
In fact, none of the white leads get “mad” at the African Americans in this book. Even when Raleigh warns Aibileen about talking to Skeeter, he gives her a stern warning, and that’s it.
Unfortunately, the African American males in the book don’t fare as well. Even though segregation benefited both the white male and white female, it’s the white males who appear more tolerant in The Help.
Carlton Phelan- Skeeter’s father. A hard worker, quiet, loving, does not appear to agree with his wife’s views on segregation. I’ve dubbed him Atticus Finch Lite (Atticus Finch was the staunch liberal and heroic dad/attorney in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird). ”I’ve got twenty-five Negroes working my fields and if anyone so much as laid a hand on them, or any of their families…” Daddy’s gaze is steady. Then he drops his eyes. “I’m ashamed sometimes, Senator. Ashamed of what goes on in Mississippi.”(Pg 268)
Stuart Whitworth – conflicted, still nursing a broken heart from a previous love. After a disastrous first date with Skeeter, comes back three months later to apologize. They resume dating and eventually fall in love. Skeeter keeps secret her involvment in the manuscript of the maid’s stories, When Stuart does find out, he immediately takes back his engagement ring.
Johnny Foote – Celia’s husband. Patient, loving, has no problem with Minny as the maid. Only wants to see his wife happy, though she embarasses him with her style of dress and inability to hold her liquor. Johnny was Hilly’s great love, and she resents Celia for marrying him.
Raleigh Leefolt – Elizabeth’s husband and Aibileen’s employer. Generally civil to Aibileen, though he warns he not to get involved with Skeeter. “I don’t want you talking to that woman anymore, not for cleaning tips. not to say hello, you hear?…I hear about you two talking and you’ll be in a heap of trouble. You understand?” (Pg 291-292)
State Senator “Stooley” Whitworth- Stuart’s father. Both Mr. Phelan and Senator Whitworth are written as “nice” segregationists, if there ever was such a thing. He’s also another character who can’t hold his liquor, but unlike Leroy, Minny’s husband, he’s harmless. On Page 268, he seems ready to reveal his true feelings about the Governor and segregation in general, which may be liberal.
Carlton Phelan Jr. – Skeeter’s brother. He’s studying to be a lawyer, seems to be a loving son and is described as tall and handsome.
What’s in a Name
While many of the white characters get traditional, respectful names like Carlton, Stuart, Francine, Eugenia, Elizabeth, Mae, etc. Okay, there’s “Stooley” “Hilly” and “Skeeter” though I suspect like “Skeeter”, Stoolie and Hilly are nicknames.
The more colorful designations are reserved for the African American characters. This is something Hollywood and early television enjoyed bestowing on black characters, which were supposed to be part of why they were so humorous. Recall “Buckwheat”, “Farina” “Mammy” and “Prissy.
Now behold the names of African American characters in The Help:
Plaintain Fedelia, FARINA (that’s right, Farina, as in the same name of the Farina in the picture to the left), Pascagoula, Jameso, Goldella, Jessup, Yule May, Mule, Sugar, Snuff, Treelore and shy Winny. Oh, and the standard names for black folk “Leroy” and “Clyde.” I believe Kindra and Shinelle may be a bit too modern in a novel about the 60s though.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist inserting another screenshot of Sunflower. There’s excerpts on You Tube of Sunflower’s deleted scene from “Fantasia”
To be continued…