There were quite a few passages in The Help that not only made me cringe, but made me angry.
When Kathryn Stockett describes the African American characters, whether through the eyes of the sympathetic Skeeter, or the maids Aibileen and Minny, their observations are at times offensive, while just as many of their comments are at times just plain stupid. I also noted a few time line alterations and an apparent error one character states when talking about Medgar Evers. I’m checking to see if it was corrected in the paperback copy. Hopefully it was.
Here’s my list, with excerpts and the pages where they can be found:
They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to me. Afraid they’ll be beaten like Louvenia’s grandson, or, hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers. (Pg 277) – Skeeter
Medgar Evers was shot in the back. Two characters, including Minny note this:
“KKK shot him. Front a his house. A hour ago.” (Pg 194) – Minny
Unless there was an earlier incident that didn’t get recorded, Skeeter’s statement is wrong and is a mis-print (nobody caught it, unless the spin will be that the character of Skeeter really had no idea how Medgar Evers died. Unfortunately, Kathryn Stockett has
two three audio interviews where she also states Medgar Evers was bludgeoned to death. You can hear the interviews here and here and here, because there are now THREE of them on the internet. And there’s no telling if there’s more. Excerpts of her reciting Evers “bludgeoning” can be found on this post, with the same links and a short video of Evers.
Pascagoula is described as tiny as a child, not five feet tall, and black as night (Pg 59) - Skeeter
That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)
Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums (Pg 65) - Skeeter
The foreman drags a red cloth across his black forehead, his lips, his neck. (Pg 239) Skeeter
While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter
The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told, you’ll never get hired The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter
I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. – Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)
It’s important to note that Stockett has gone on record stating the real life maid of her grandparents inspired not just Aibileen, but most of the maids in the novel. Below is an actual photo of Demterie. Now, read what the author says about her:
“Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’s talk to us all day.” (pg 447, Too Little, Too Late Kathryn Stockett in her own words)
Demetrie’s not “dark skinned”. And I don’t have a photo of Ablene Cooper, the woman who’s filed suit against Stockett for mis-appropriating her image. But it’s been confirmed that she has a gold tooth, like Aibileen. And Demetrie certainly has more than a “friendly softness” in the middle.
But it’s important that readers understand that the description Stockett gives of all the maids borders on offensive. Someone being dark brown is not “blacker by ten shades” or “black like asphalt” or the other useless and frankly made up drivel Stockett wrote.
Unfortunately, instead of vetting the author, the book was published with an overwhelming amount of “sayings” about African Americans that had no place in the book, or coming out of the black characters mouths and the heroine Skeeter’s negatively skewed thought process.
This is what may have been Stockett’s inspiration her limited view of the skin tones of the black characters:
Which resulted in this scene not only in the book, but in the movie:
Now, the woman below is named Lillian Rodgers Parks. She worked as a seamstress and a maid for the the White House from 1929 until 1960.
It didn’t matter during segregation how light (or dark) an African American was. If you were identified as a “Colored” or a “Negro” then you were relegated to domestic positions, even if you had a college degree. Those who refused to follow a caste systems based on race were called “uppity” and usually left the south because the word was the North provided better opportunities.
Aibileen’s face is turning darker. She giggles again into her knuckles. Clearly she’s not getting this. Skeeter (PG 386)
Okay, many writers will say “a dark expression came over his/her face” but this is really getting ridiculous. If Aibileen is blushing then that could have sufficed.
“What you noticed first about Constantine, besides her tallness were her eyes. They were light brown, strikingly honey-colored against her dark skin. I’ve never seen light eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin on her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony. The palms of her hands were orange-tan and that made me wonder if the soles of her feet were too, but I never saw her barefooted.” (Pg 65) – Skeeter
Since when is brown the new black? If the shades of brown were endless, then brown would be tan, beige, taupe…not ebony and not black
So I get it, because its been beaten to the ground in The Help. The black characters appear to be actually “black” in color to the author. Oh, and the majority of them are large. Sort of like:
Comments that are just plain stupid:
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 think about how surprised Constantine must’ve been to hold a white baby and know it was hers - Skeeter (Pg 358)
Uh What? When I read this line I thought it was a joke.
“An orphanage? You mean…she gave her baby away?” As much as Constantine loved me, I can only imagine how much she must’ve loved her own child. Skeeter (Pg 358)
After a tender moment between Aibileen and Minny (where Aibileen tells Minny’s she’s a beautiful person) the author describes Minny’s reaction: She roll her eyes and stick her tongue out like I handed her a plate a dog biscuits. (Pg 430)
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 )
“Martin Luther King dear. He just announced a march on D.C. and invited every Negro in America to join him. Every white person, for that matter. This many Negro and white people haven’t worked together since Gone With the Wind.” (Pg 159) - Elaine Stein, Skeeter’s editor for her book on the Help.
And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen
“Just pour some pneumonia in that garbage”…I jot it down, amending it to ammonia (Pg 84) – Skeeter correcting what Aibileen has told her
Naked pervert throws a brick through Miss Celia’s window. Celia has already called the police;
Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first (Pg 306). - Minny
“You stand back, Miss Celia.” I say and my voice is shaking. I go get Mister Johnny’s hunting knife, still in the shealth, from the bear. But the blade’s so short, he’ll have to be awful close for me to cut him, so I get the broom too. (Pg 306)- Minny
Why does Minny feel she has to get him first? Why accost him at all, since HE’S STILL OUTSIDE at this point. Here the author flirts with two well known stereotypes about African Americans that were rampant during segregation. That blacks had a propensity towards violence (note that Minny, not Celia is the first to confront) and that blacks favored the use of a knife.
So what happens to Minny, the same woman Aibileen stated could pick up a bus? Because of her size she runs out of breath while on the attack, looses the knife, and is bashed in the head by the pervert. Nothing to worry about though. Miss Celia comes to her rescue.
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.
Now, how is that possible? Is being white-trash a physical transformation, can one switch it off and on? THIS is offensive. And perhaps Stockett didn’t realize, in an interview with the UK site telegraph, she mentioned that Celia was a red-neck. Being white trash and being a red neck are two different labels.
Here’s her quote:
‘I had a lot of fun writing Miss Celia,’ Stockett says. ‘I wanted to create a character who’s so poor that they’re beyond prejudice. But in terms of dialogue? Hers was the hardest to capture. When you really get down into deep, thick redneck accents, you kinda have to take out all your teeth before you can really pull it off. But I do love those accents,’ she sighs.
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
“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
“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)
“You gone accuse me of a philosophizing.”
“Go ahead,” I say. “I ain’t afraid of no philosophy.” (Pg 311, Minny and Aibileen discuss Celia not seeing the “lines” between black and white)
Aibileen can say “philosophy” “congealed salad” “parliamentary” “conjugation”"motorized rotunda” and “domesticized feline” yet can’t stop using “pneumonia” for “ammonia”. Yeah righhhhtttt.
Skeeter trying to get Aibileen to help her with the book “Help”
I just stare at her . Is she crazy? “Did you hear about the colored boy this morning? One they beat with a tire iron for accidently using the white bathroom?
And here’s how Skeeter answers “I know things are unstable but this is-” (Pg 103) – Skeeter talking to Aibileen
Are memories raced based? Because this is what a character says:
I am in the old Jackson kitchen with the maids, hot and sticky in their white uniforms. I feel the gentle bodies of white babies breathing against me. I feel what Constantine felt when Mother brought me home from the hospital and handed me over to her. I let their colored memories draw me out of my own miserable life (Pg 276) – Skeeter
Over 100 years old and still going strong (at cleaning):
Faye Belle, palsied and gray skinned, cannot remember her own age. . . She remembers hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house (Pg 257) Skeeter
Yankees? As in the Civil War? What has this turned into, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman?
And then it goes on to say when she’s feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over to the home of the grandson of her now deceased employer (who was the little girl hiding in the trunk from the Yankees with her) and cleans up his kitchen.
How is that even remotely possible, when the woman would have had to be over 100 years of age? How did an editor not catch this?
Ironically, Cicely Tyson has been cast as Constantine and also starred in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Body types of the many of the African American characters-
Constantine wasn’t just tall, she was stout, she was also wide in the hips and her knees gave her trouble all the time (Pg 61)- Skeeter
I sit across from Callie…she is wide and heavy and parts of her hang over the chair (Pg 259) – Skeeter
Aibileen smiles, nods. Bertina waddles off to her pew (Pg 127) – Minny
As usual, she looks plump (Aibileen) and respectible (Pg 126) – Minny
Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed. her thick arms crossed…Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. (Pg 13)- Aibileen
Odds against this happening:
Aibileen explaining how Constantine (whose father was white, yet she came out ebony) had a child by a black man (described as dark) and her child came out so light she could pass for white:
“We was all surprised Constantine would go and… get herself in a family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” Pg 358
“Constantine’s man Connor, he was colored. But since Constantine had her daddy’s blood in her, baby came out high yellow. It…happens.” (pg 86)
High yellow and light enough to pass for white are two different skin tones.
Examples of African Americans who can pass for white:
Calling someone “high yellow” was and still is an offensive term (as in fighting words). I won’t post any examples.
“A course. Can’t have no proper sandwich on no raw bread. And this afternoon I’ll make one a Minny’s famous caramel cakes. And next week we gone do you a fried catfish…” Minny speaking to Mr. Johnny (Pg 140)
Besides her furiousness at white people, Minny likes to talk about food. “Let’s see, I put the green beans in first, then I go on and get the pork chops going cause , mmm-mmm, I like my chops hot out the pan, you know.” (Pg 166)
I couldn’t help but think of the scene from the comedy Tropic Thunder after re-reading this part. Robert Downey Jr (who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar by the way, for his role as an Australian actor turned African American soldier) gets so into his role as Lincoln Osirus that he looks at the foliage near Cambodia and talks about frying up some collard greens, etc.
All I’ve ever wanted to be was a maid:
“Did you…ever have dreams of being something else?”
“No,” she says. “No ma’m I didn’t.” Aibileen’s reply to Skeeter (Pg 144)
How the African American male is viewed:
Clyde Clark – Aibileen’s husband, has runoff with another woman in the novel. Aibileen’s description of him: We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greatest no-count you ever known. (Pg 5)
Minny’s father, no first name given. Minny describes him like this: my no-good drunk daddy (Pg 38)
Leroy Jackson- Minny’s husband. Aibileen first makes reference of how most view Leroy. So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool (Pg 26). Leroy’s the main black male protag and he’s drunk most of the time as well as abusive to his wife (and his children). No redeeming qualities, no reason given why Minny has married him and has five children with him and a sixth on the way. His reason for hitting Minny? Well he gives his answer on page 413:
“Why? Why are you hitting me?”
He leaned down and looked me right in the face
“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” Leroy’s answer to Minny’s question (Pg 413)
Robert – Louvenia’s grandson. Was a friend of Aibileen’s deceased son. A younger male, makes the mistake of using a whites only bathroom (did not see a sign designating it as such) is beaten so badly he’s now blind. Is the only African American character, male or female, described as attractive in the novel. Aibileen calls him a handsome “boy”.
Maybe Stockett was unaware, but calling a black male a “boy” is offensive. Robert is supposed to be as old as Treelore. Since Treelore was 24 when he died, Robert would have been at least 26 during this exchange. Even though Stockett has a black character do it, most African Americans are aware of the designations of “Auntie” and “Uncle” and “boy,” which were used to avoid giving a racial group thought unequal the respectful titles of Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.
How the white male is viewed:
Even though segregation benefited both the white male and white female, its 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.
So Stockett has made most of the African American males into unlikeable characters, while the men who practiced segregation come off quite likeable, with only minor faults. They’re portrayed as moral, upstanding citizens, faithful and respectful to their wives. Save for Hilly’s diva like actions and the black males mistreating their women throughout the novel, life in Jackson Mississippi would be almost bearable for African American females. However, note how this “utopia” Stockett has created is even challenged by one of her own characters;
“What’s gone happen if…this thing gets printed and people find out who were are? shy Winnie asks. “What you think they do to us?”
“We won’t know till the time comes, Winnie.” Aibileen says softly. “A white lady do things different than a white man”
“Naw.” Winnie shakes her head. “I reckon not. Fact, a white lady might do worse.” (Pg 256)
Was this even necessary?
“You see that?” Farina said to me. “That pink lady you work for, drunk as an Injun on payday.” (Pg 333)
Just plain wrong and disgusting, and no payback for the horrors of segregation:
The Terrible Awful thing – Minny’s pie laced with her own feces. It’s a chocolate custard pie.
“Then I go home. I mix up that chocolate custard pie. I puts sugar in it and Baker’s chocolate and the real vanilla my cousin bring me from Mexico.”
“Miss Hilly say, Mama can have some if she wants. Just a little piece though. What did you put in here, Minny, that makes it taste so good?”
“I say ‘ That good vanilla from Mexico’ and then I go head. I tell her what else I put in that pie for her.” Minny revealing the Terrible Awful secret to Miss Celia (Pg 339)
To be continued…