So, what was the 60s south really like, but more importantly, what were African Americans and their white employers like during that time period?
In this blog post, I thought I’d seek out real southerners who resided in Mississippi during the time Kathryn Stockett’s characters are based.
I found a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who could have been an inspiring mentor for Skeeter named Hazel Brannon Smith, a woman whose family upbringing and education almost mirrors Stockett’s main character. Yet Smith took it a step further. She refused to back down, publishing her views in a study of contrasts. Ultimately, Brannon Smith wound up somewhere in the middle with her beliefs on segregation and integration.
And there’s Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who enrolled at Tougaloo college, becoming the first white student at the all black institution. Joan is also pictured in the famous 1963 Woolworth Lunch counter sit in photo which occurred in Jackson, Mississippi.
And I definitely have to mention to Mrs. Mary Parkman Peabody the 72 year mother of the then Governor of Massachusetts. Mrs. Peabody was arrested for being in the company of an integrated group that had attempted to eat at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. While she’s not from Mississippi, her 2 days in jail attracted world wide attention to the civil rights movement in America.
I also focus on African American females like Anne Moody, Fannie Lou Hamer and Hellen Jean O’Neal-McCray, women born in Mississippi and who came to Jackson in order to effect change. A group of women who shared the same culture but highlight the diversity in the black community. Along with Hazel Brannon Smith, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and others, these women came together for a singular cause.But a fair and balanced image of African Americans during the 60s wasn’t the goal of the novel The Help.
Not when it was much easier to create characters who were images of girth and mirth that many, like Stockett truly believe represent most black women.
What some readers of The Help fail to note or acknowledge, is that the stereotypes they readily accept about African Americans, from our speech to our physical form, were originally created by whites to promote laughter and derision.
Images at once familiar and comforting to many, but were reviled as a source of embarassment and oppression for African Americans. That the author of The Help decided to resurrect them is part of the reason many readers, like myself cannot heap accolades on the book.
These stereotypes, from Buckwheat to Aunt Jemima, to Mammy and Prissy in Gone With The Wind, and now Aibileen, Minny, and Constantine from The Help, are the creation of yet another author who chose to use the struggle of a people merely as a backdrop for a tale that can have only one heroine, or chosen one. And that’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.
As per the author’s own words to interviewer Motoko Rich of the NYTimes:
“She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. ‘I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,’ she said. ‘So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.’ ”
Kathryn Stockett did that, and more. And I need to add, that all her characters are being shown from a white perspective. That’s why her black characters come across as stereotypes. Stockett would have readers believe that during 1962, African American domestics were actually resigned to working for employers who saw them less as people and more as beasts of burden. That the groundswell of voices crying out for equality had not taken hold upon the domestics who resided in Jackson, Mississippi. When in truth, the city was a major hotspot for right’s activists being carried in by bus and car from other states, which included residents of Jackson and those throughout the state of Mississippi.
Quotes from Ross Barnett, the Governor of Mississippi who’s mentioned in The Help
”God was the original segregationist. He made the white man white and the black man black, and he did not intend for them to mix.’
“There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide.”
The civil rights movement embraced diverse individuals, from young and old, to the college educated and those who toiled the farmland. And this diversity existed not just among whites, but among African Americans as well. One such Mississippian was Hellen O’Neal McCray, a black college student who helped mobilize activists just before the time period Kathryn Stockett used for The Help. Note the date on McCray’s mugshot. 1961
O’Neal-McCray was attending college during this period, just one of many African Americans who sought and were accepted for higher education, contrary to what readers believe during that time period. Not only was the south a wealth of colleges founded by African Americans with enrollment predominately African American, since the Civil War, but inroads were being made to integrate an icon of the south, that being Ole Miss.
Professor Hellen O’Neal-McCray today:
The story of Hellen Jean O’Neal-McCray, now a professor can be found here:
Just days before the nation’s most historic election came to a close; Prof. Hellen Jean O’Neal-McCray reveled in thoughts of “the most exciting days of my life.” That’s when the 19-year-old college sophomore turned civil rights activist and Freedom Rider knew that she had to crisscross her native Mississippi, possibly risk her life, walk picket lines, and be jailed to ensure that Blacks had the right to vote.
Today the 65-year old Wilberforce English and literature professor says that those lean, angry, and sometimes frightening years were worth the struggle. . .
O’Neal-McCray never dreamed then as she marched through southern segregated streets of Macomb, MS and Shreveport, LA, of ever “seeing an African-American run for president and win his parties nomination.
“This election is the end product of what we worked for,” adds O’Neal-McCray who, while a student at Jackson State University, was a voter registration field worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After graduation in 1963, she fanned out across Mississippi to become teacher at a SNCC Freedom School where she taught literacy skills to Blacks who needed to know how to read before they were allowed to vote. A third-grade reading level was the standard for most whites in the early 1960s said O’Neal-McCray.
In 1961, O’Neal-McCray met Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) organizers, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette and they encouraged her to get involved in the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. As a student, O’Neal-McCray helped Diane Nash when the Freedom Rides came to Jackson. She and Charles Cox became co-chairs of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, working with Paul Brooks, Thomas Gaither, Marion Barry, Levaughn Brown, Richard Haley and Jesse Harris. They organized a demonstration at the Southern Governor’s Conference at the Heidelberg Hotel, enraging segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. O’Neal-McCray was arrested (the first of many times) for “disturbing the peace and tranquility of the State of Mississippi.” Defended by William Kuntsler, O’Neal-McCray was sentenced to six months, but only served ten days. Soon, her civil rights activity found its home with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She served as a SNCC staff member before graduating from Jackson State in 1963. O’Neal-McCray, knew and worked with SNCC’s Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Casey Hayden, Annelle Ponder and Fannie Lou Hamer. She taught in a SNCC Freedom School in Mccomb, Mississippi.
Another resident of Mississippi was Fannie Lou Hamer, a tireless activist for civil rights. “Mrs. Hamer’s passion for her people and her interest and understanding of how powerful the political process was in America led her and others to create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the Credential Committee in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1964 to be seated rather than the regular Democrats who they exclaimed were “illegally elected” based on discriminatory practices against blacks statewide. “We Will Not Accept The Compromise”, stated Mrs. Hamer. She had consulted with Bob Moses and Mrs. Unita Blackwell and others prior. Mr. Lawrence Guyot (Chairman MFDP) was in jail and couldn’t make the trip. President Johnson interrupted the nationally televised convention in order to keep Fannie Lou and her views from spreading like wildfire. All of the major networks later ran her speech in its entirety and the whole country was spellbound to hear such convictions coming from a Southerner who felt she had nothing left to fear but fear itself. Excerpt from http://www.fannielouhamer.info/
While real African American females were getting their college degrees (even in the South) and seeking employment in areas outside of the domestic area, Hollywood continued to churn out images not only on film but on television that showed the opposite. It’s no wonder then, that many readers fell for Stockett’s version of the south and also the characterization of the black domestics. In the photo below, college student Anne Moody is on the end, with her head down (but not out). This sit-in featured a diverse group of students, from white to Native American to African American in the pursuit of equality. I’d hoped to refute the notion that African Amercans somehow were less educated during the 50s and 60s, and therefore Kathryn Stockett’s characters were indicative of all black southerners. It didn’t take long to find examples and information, so I wondered just how much “research” Stockett did in preparation for her novel. Especially since there’s an interview with Stockett saying this: “The voices of Aibileen and Minny came to me fairly easily once I got going,” she says. “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.kathrynstockett.com/book/qa/Had Stockett truly done her research, she would have known about a woman who grew up in the south and whose childhood resembled the character of Minny.
As a nine year old, Anne Moody began cleaning homes in order to suppliment her family’s meager wages. Anne earned A’s and B’s in school, where she was awarded an athletic scholarship. She attended community college for a time and then transferred to Tougaloo college (yes, the very one mentioned in The Help). Anne Moody wrote about her life in the novel Coming of Age in Mississippi “Moody’s famous autobiography is a classic work on growing up poor and Black in the rural South. Her searing account of life before the Civil Rights Movement is as moving as The Color Purple and as important as And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “A history of our time . . . (and) a reminder that we cannot now relax”.–Senator Edward Kennedy. http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Age-Mississippi-Anne-Moody/dp/0440314887
Moody’s biographical novel is not for the faint of heart, or those interested in being “entertained” by characters to make them laugh. It’s a portrait of the south as she lived it, and many of the pages bristle with her anger at the horrors of segregation. Though she was the only person in her family who felt the passionate call to duty, Anne was outspoken in her desire for equality.
I’ve only mentioned a few brave women from the south, there were many more, with various levels of education. History shows that not only white college graduates populated the southern states, but African Americans realized education was a means to show whites they were their equal. Blacks strived for an education under the penalty body assault and verbal threats.
So while Kathryn Stockett chose to overlook these facts in order to spin her tale, history cannot be refuted. And at the very least, even in fiction, the historic struggle of a people did not deserve to be manipulated for an author’s own end. I’m certain if an author decided to move the time line of events regarding 9/11 or the Holocaust, the outcry would be deafening. And if American citizens were depicted as stereotypes, say as the “ugly American”, one of arrogance and entitlement, again an outcry would be heard.
Yet it seems that once owned always owned. Because Stockett has crafted a novel that does just that, appropriating American and black history, distorting it just as many of her forefathers did. The result is that numerous readers dote on her words as if they’re the gospel truth. The characters Stockett uses to portray the female domestics are not only offensive at times in their speech, but caricatures of another era. The dialect isn’t the only thing wrong with the black characters. What they say is also at issue. It’s also telling that the author decided her white male characters needed to be liberal leaning, when archive photos show many southern males were anything but. The photo of Anne Moody, being dosed with condiments and food tells a far different story. In addition, here are photos taken from old film footage showing just how some southern males dealt with African Americans:
And while some readers are just fine with the delineation along racial lines of dialect in The Help, history also shows us that this was not the case in the 1960s as well as today. The southern dialect was prevalent for white as well as black, no matter if the individual was a college graduate.
Those from the south took pride in their heritage, their way of life and their speech.
Wait, is that the 36th President of the United States saying “Y’all made me some?”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a show I used to love to watch called Hee Haw.
And entertainers I recall named Tennesee Ernie Ford and Minnie Pearl http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=gEc1YGcuDIQ&feature=related
A woman I mentioned earlier, who could have been a model of further character growth for Skeeter from The Help was Hazel Brannon Smith. An excerpt on an article about Brannon Smith states this:
“. . . her comfortable and Christian upbringing taught her values of respect and fairness in dealings with others, and a belief in law and order. Like her parents, she unquestioningly accepted racial segregation, enforced by state law across the South, as part of the natural order.”
So how did this eventual Pulitzer Prizer winner remain steadfast in her editorial duties, condeming the tactics behind segregation, causing her to be branded an integrationist?
You can view her story here:
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. A native of Virginia, who enrolled in Tougaloo college, here’s a famous quote from this civil rights pioneer:
“Now if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white schools, what were they going to do if a white student went to a black school?”Just nineteen when she joined the fight for civil rights, Joan was a member of the SNCC and is shown in the Woolworth sit-in photo next to Anne Moody. She now teaches Civil Rights History to elementary school students in Arlington, Virginia. You can read more about her here: http://www.sisters-shoulders.org/heroines2.html
I thought I’d also post the links that contrast the 60s with today. Morgan Freeman has an excellent documentary regarding two proms that were held, one for whites, one for blacks.
I think not only does this documentary show, unlike Stockett’s novel, that BOTHAfrican Americans and whites speak with a southern accent, but that the kids seem to be a lot more inclusive than their parents.
Theatrical Trailer for Prom Night in Mississippi
Now we come to the hard part:
Americans don’t like to be thought of as the bad guys. But for a number of years, from the beginning of slavery, through reconstruction, to segregation, some were. This is a short list on the true toll of segregationist idealogy:
Undocumented and unsolved murders
Continuous verbal and physical harassment
Bogus studies and mindsets that portrayed African Americans as inferior and animalistic
Advertising images that distorted, demeaned and exaggerated racial features and speech
Denial of services
Denial of equal education
Denial of promotions
Last hired, first fired mindset
Rank based on skin color (light before dark)
Denial of due process
Separate eating facilities
Separate rest rooms
Relegated to menial jobs with poor pay, long hours and no benefits
Denial of military service and rank
Denial of housing
Denial and unequal medical services
Denial of scholarships and limitation on choice of colleges to attend
Treated as property by some, and not as people
Primary victims of red-lining and buying goods and services at higher cost
No law enforcement or judicial recourse far too often for all of the above
This list doesn’t include the on-going systemic favoritism that still exists, where the media coverage of a missing child or female is measured by the color of their skin. There’s also the continued disparity of medical, law enforcement, and judicial services for not only African Americans, but those of other ethnicities.
The list also doesn’t include the talented artists, entertainers, actors, athletes, and those in other professions who were denied outlets for their skill through the years. No, the south was not the only area that lived by Jim Crow laws. They just seemed to revel in it.
And though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, even Kathryn Stockett unwittingly admitted her grandmother still practiced her own form of segregation, not allowing the author to sit at the same table to eat with the help, and this was during the 1970s and 1980s:
But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her lunch break. Grandmother would say, ‘Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,’ and I would stand in the doorway itching to get back with her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating.”
There’s nothing wrong with portraying the “affection” between white employers and the black domestics who worked for them. But too often, it was one sided. Stockett viewed the real life inspiration for the novel through the eyes of a child. She never knew the woman Demetrie was. Something tells me if Demetrie were still alive, she’d tell a far different tale.
To be continued…