You can’t handle the truth

Posted on July 24, 2010


Quick, how many humorous books on the Holocaust are there?

Or Slavery?

Anyone know of any funny books on 9/11 coming out?

Perhaps there are some books from fringe groups in the works, but offhand, I can’t think of any novels taking these historic events humorously.

Then why would the period of segregation be any different? As the ending of slavery did not amount to automatic equality for African Americans, segregation played a vital role in the transition from bound human being to one with hard fought rights of equality. And during the fight for equality, lives were lost, both white and black. Innocent African Americans died, either because they spoke out, or, like young Emmet Till, didn’t know their “place”. Court cases were fought and won, the desegregation of our nation’s schools began. Rosa Parks and others fought for the right to sit anywhere on a bus. And ultimately, the March on Washington forced the nation to see that blacks would not back down in the fight for equality, until finally, legislation was passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Wasn’t this a milestone, not only in the civil rights of African Americans, but for women and later, with the  inclusion of the physically challenged?

Then why is segregation unknown to many Americans? And how is it that the orchestration of this massive undertaking, which took years and the blood, sweat and sometimes lives of a number of committed individuals now reduced to “it was entertaining” “It made me laugh” or “I don’t know anything about segregation, that was before my time.”

The Holocaust was before my time, yet I know many things about it. World War I was before my time, yet schools across the country are required to teach it. Why is segregation, one of the greatest undertakings of a people’s civil rights reduced to just a footnote?

And  what is humorous about making a race cower and grin, and generally brainwashing them over a period of years into believing many were of no more importance than a pet? Or that bogus studies showed they were somehow lacking in intelligence and morals, simply because of the color of their skin?

In part, I’m talking about sections in the novel The Help, where characters relive segregation, only its played for laughs. Something Hattie McDaniel, Stephin Fetchit, Willie Best, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Mantan Moreland, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and others had no choice but to do if they wanted to work in Hollywood. They became the faces of African American’s willing to play roles white writers dreamed up for them during segregation. Roles that were meant to be inclusive, but also designed to tamp down any white guilt. See how they grin? Blacks are a happy lot. See how they laugh and joke, their station in life isn’t so bad. This happy go lucky, but ultimately contented image was often repeated, not just in films and television, but in comic books and even children’s cartoons:

 Now fast forward to today, where we have a novel that included “Throwback” characters from that tumultuous period. For some, the novel is quite entertaining as the author speaks in the “voices” of black women, women who have things like this to say about their own culture:

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

“And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver.” (Pg 218) Minny

“I told Shirley Boone her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Pg 217) Minny

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)

We don’t talk about me leaving Leroy. Plenty a black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We got the kids to think about. (Pg 311) Minny

The words in bold are my doing. But the dialogue was created by the author of the book, who happens to be white. Some dismiss negative comments on the book simply because they believe dissenters are crying wolf since the author is not African American. Or, some believe many passages were created with unknowing slights against the black culture. As one reviewer states:

Jesse Kornbluth, editor of Head in an article also listed on The Huffington Post:

“…With that, “Concerned” had my full attention, It wasn’t that she didn’t “like” the book for any simple black/white reason — in the writing, she saw what looked like a paradox. That is, a writer who greatly admires the African-American women who inspired the book created characters she unknowingly mocks.”

Well, I have my own doubts on the “unknowing” part, but Kornbluth, after mulling over what “Concerned” had to say came up with this:

1) The book was written for whites.
2) She took a huge chance writing “black” talk? Not really. Blacks were not likely readers.
3) She (kinda) got those white bitches right.
4) Her readers cared less about the blacks (except as victims to pity) than about women (kinda) like themselves.

So… nailed it — that is, for smart African-American readers like you.
BUT…..this book did a WORLD OF GOOD.
Because a lot of women who read it had to confront/overcome their own prejudices.

Now here’s where we differ. And as I promised a new commenter to the blog named Kew, I’d like to go further into why I believe Kornbluth is wrong. Because even the author didn’t fully commit to confronting her own prejudices.

The author, in a podcast with Frank Reiss of GPR said this:

“Well I think any writer’s goal is to better understand the human condition. So as I was writing it, I began to understand myself how important it is to try to understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes.”

But wrote passages like this:

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)

 Aibileen’s face is turning darker. She giggles again into her knuckles. Clearly she’s not getting this. Skeeter (PG 386)

And Skeeter’s supposed to be the liberal heroine in the book. A little bit of the author herself. Yet no where during the author’s press tours or interviews does she so much as mention how, though Skeeter is trying to find herself, she’s working out her own feelings of bigotry against the maids. Nope.

But more important, did Stockett not think that some women of color would read the book, and could possibly be offended by her depictions of them?

Probably not. Because usually when this happens, its the reader at fault, for “misinterpreting” what the writer was trying to say. Stockett felt guilt, but not so much that she couldn’t resist elevating one group while demeaning the other.

That’s probably why the women in Kew’s former book group could so readily identify with her. Skeeter feels guilty, but not too much. As Kew stated about her book group:

“Some of these stories included regret at what they didn’t do, but mostly what they didn’t know they should have done. And, there, I think is why the book is so utterly popular. These women lived as children and families in which very intimate but perverse relationships between white and black had been the norm.”

 Kew goes on to state:

“Each one of them felt they were Skeeter, and each one of them wanted to have done what Skeeter did – or more precisely wanted their mothers to do what Skeeter had done.

 To view the comment in its entirety, go here:

I know how utterly consuming guilt can be. If you’ve ever lost a child or had a loved one die by suicide, then you know almost every waking hour is filled with thoughts of what could I have done differently?

But for individuals who were probably children during segregation to wonder what they could have done back then, I have just one word. Nothing.

However, if you’re still wracked with guilt, and I mean the kind that keeps you up at night and tears fall when you least expect them, then sure, there’s something you can do now.

If you’re in a book club, strive to make the participants more diverse. Try to get a better perspective on the world or even your own circle of friends by being more inclusive. Age should be no barrier. You’re never too young or too old to enjoy a different perspective. Volunteer at a school. For a time I was a Vista volunteer and I can truly say it was a rewarding experience.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator to do positive things.

Though I’m still trying to understand how the novel became less about what African Americans experienced during segregation and about how badly some feel reading about it. And ironically, when individuals point out the contradictions in the book, some readers turn on the commenter, as if  having a different point of view is a problem in itself. A common refrain is “Well, if you don’t like the book, don’t read it.”

Has it come to this? That instead of even entertaining whether concerns about a novel may be valid, because the book is a “good read” to some, inaccuracies are not important, even if they’re pointed out by African Americans?

How is it that many readers, in praising the heroics of Skeeter, fail to note that she took another’s idea, and routinely placed many of the African Americans in the novel in danger, solely for a position in journalism?

Or perhaps the novel doesn’t make it clear that there were any real dangers faced by the protagonists. The novel is filled with passages that quickly diffuse any serious, life threatening situations. For example, Skeeter’s first meeting with Aibileen:

Skeeter placing toilets on Hilly’s lawn in retaliation:

Hilly threatening fire and brimstone regarding the book getting published and disseminated around Jackson:

But what responsibility do African Americans have? Those who neglected to pass down the history of our struggles, until their offspring feel no kinship with the sacrifices of their own people? Of readers who divorce themselves from the times, and also view the novel as just an entertaining read?

Even some African Americans don’t equate what they read with anything that should concern them.

While Minny sarcastically talks about no good men leaving their children and negatively about civil rights activities, here’s the truth:

Clean cut African American male college students staged sit-ins to protest segregated eating establishments, unlike the “no-account” males Stockett peppers the novel with:

While Stockett has both black maids cracking jokes on the African American male, this is what black men did to ensure the equality, even though The Help has a different intrepretation of  what African American men were up to.


And here’s what the author said about touring and talking about her novel:

“My greatest relief in this process is that Octavia Spencer, who is such an amazing actress and a comedian really, like wet yourself funny is coming on tour with me. So, while people will be listening to me read these rather dramatic white voices, they’ll get to listen to Octavia. It’ll be so fun to hear her just roll.”

Now look at the real, for all those laughing at the sections Stockett wants you laugh at,  while resurrecting dialogue and comic scenes recalling the past:

Don’t get it twisted folks. While The Help makes you feel “sorry” for those poor black people back then, the book is fiction. Yet because far too many don’t realize what they’re reading, or dis-associate themselves from the characters they’re reading about, they’re actually laughing at their own. The brave men and women of color (white and black) who risked their lives during segregation  don’t deserve this.



Black History Special: Students Mentored By Civil Rights Veterans Changed American History

by Robert Anthony Watts , February 11, 2010

Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, the four North Carolina A & T State University students who conducted the Feb. 1, 1960 sit-in at the counter of the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C. 

An excerpt:

SNCC, pronounced “snick,” emerged out of an April 1960 conference in Raleigh, N.C., organized by longtime NAACP field organizer Ella Baker. Baker at the time was the interim executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The goal of the conference was to harness the energy of the student sit-ins that had resulted in the arrest of thousands of young people.  Baker, in the words of her biographer Barbara Ransby, was a “radical democrat.” She was a critic of SCLC’s male ministers and what she viewed as their emphasis on a top-down leadership based on charisma.  She was 56 when the sit-ins broke out and despite being on SCLC’s payroll, she encouraged the students to form a group that was independent of all of the mainstream civil rights groups. 

Baker delivered a speech at the conference titled, “More Than a Hamburger,” in which she told the students that lunch-counter integration was one thing. Challenging voter disenfranchisement and workplace discrimination would require more work. (Lawson also spoke at the founding conference and he also encouraged the young people to chart their own course.)

It is no surprise that SNCC became the most decentralized, democratic, and independent of the major civil rights groups.  In its heyday, from 1961 to 1964, the young SNCC activists, some who quit college to join the movement, did what no civil rights group was willing to do. It set up quarters in Mississippi and mounted a grassroots campaign against the most brutal and entrenched regime of White supremacy in the nation.  SNCC’s Mississippi work remains one of the most underappreciated efforts in American social history.

If Kathryn Stockett believes Mississippi was as idyllic as she crafts it in The Help, then she didn’t do her research very well.

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