Color Struck: Lulabelle’s place in The Help

Posted on January 30, 2011

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“She looked white as anybody, and she knew it too. She knew exactly what she was doing and so I say, How do you do? and she laughs and says, Fine, so I say,  And what is your name? and she says, You mean you don’t know? I’m Lulabelle Bates. I’m grown now and I’ve moved back in with Mama. I got here yesterday morning. And then she goes over to help herself to another piece of cake.”

                                                                            – Charlotte Phelan about Constantine’s daughter Lulabelle

 

 

 

 

If Lulabelle “looked as white as anybody” then she wasn’t high yellow, which is how she’s described in other sections of the novel The Help. The book flip flops on Lulabelle’s appearance, when all Stockett had to do was research it, or ask someone.  Instead the novel contains various descriptions of a black character who has the ability to pass for white. Items in bold are my doing:

“Constantine’s man, Connor, he was colored. But since Constantine had her daddy’s blood in her, her baby come out a high yellow. It . . .happens.” (Aibileen, Pg 86)

“Remember I told you Constantine had a daughter. Well, Lulabelle was her name. Law, she come out pale as snow. Grew hair the color a hay. Not curly like yours. Straight it was.” (Aibileen speaking to Skeeter, Pg 357)

” . . . Her sister . . . she just couldn’t handle it (watching Lulabelle). Being Negro with white skin . . .in Mississippi, it’s like you don’t belong to nobody. But it just wasn’t hard on the girl. It was hard on Constantine. She . . folks would look at her. White folks would stop her, ask her all suspicious what she doing toting round a white child. Policeman used to stop her on State Street, told her she need to get her uniform on. Even colored folks . . .they treat her different, distrustful, like she done something wrong. It was hard for her to find somebody to watch Lulabelle while she at work. Constantine got to where she didn’t want to bring Lula . . .out much.” (Aibileen, Pg 358)

 

 

Being “high yellow” and someone light enough to pass for white are two different things. But Hollywood and some authors have been intrigued with the “tragic mulatto” character, the black who could pass for white for far too many years.

Show boat, featuring Ava Gardner as Julie

Julie from Showboat was light enough to pass for white, having straight hair and features that enabled her to blend in easily. She was played on screen by Ava Gardner though Lena Horne also wanted, but was denied the role.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the film Imitation of Life, Peola was light enough to pass for white. Originally portrayed by African American actress Fredi Washington in the 1934 version of the movie, Washington was a black woman who actually could have passed for white, but chose not to.

In the 1959 remake Peola was renamed Sarah Jane and played by Susan Kohner, an actress of Hispanic (one parent was Mexican) and white descent. The 1959 version is considered the more popular. Juanita Moore’s maid character named Annie’s famous line was:
“How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?” Annie, Imitation of Life 1959 version

black actress Fredi Washington

1959 version of Imitiation of Life, featuring Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Someone considered “high yellow” wouldn’t be able to pass for white, though their light skin would visible proof of their mixed heritage.

Either way, both labels still meant the individual wasn’t white, and were soundly reminded of it by blacks and whites.

According to the Webster-Meridan Dictionary, the term MISCEGENATION was first used in 1863.

Definition of MISCEGENATION: A mixture of races; especially : marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race.

Miscegenation seems to be a big thorn (that’s an understatement) not only in previous years but in present day regarding  some black and whites unions. Historically, far too many times blacks didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Band of Angels, where Yvonne De Carlo portrayed the mulatto character. Sidney Poitier was also featured as a slave.

Later on there was denial on the part of many whites who secretly practiced but publicly disapproved of “Race mixing” that the coupling could be based on real feelings. While marriage might have been out of the question, especially during segregation, black/white liasions still happened.

 

The offspring of these pairings in fiction were often portrayed as tragic characters trapped between looking white but officially thought of as black.

 

Some novels that explore the dilemma these characters faced are Edna Ferber’s Showboat, Fannie Hurst’s Imitiation of Life, Cid Rickett Sumner’s Pinky, Joe David Brown’s Kings Go Forth, Alex Haley’s Queen, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, to name a few.

Kings Go Forth poster with Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood

 
 
 
 
Tagline for a few of these movies:
 
FRANK SINATRA – TONY CURTIS – NATALIE WOOD In The Most Challenging Love Story Of Our TimeKings Go Forth, where Natalie Wood’s character reveals she’d bi-racial.

Queen starring Halle Berry

How far would you go to escape the past?The Human Stain, where the main protag has passed for white.

Wentworth Miller played the young Coleman Silk in The Human Stain

The love story of a girl who passed for white!  – Pinky 
 

In The Help, that character is Lulabelle.

Lulabelle is the daughter of Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid/nanny Constantine, and a man named Connor.

All that’s known about Connor is that he leaves Constantine shortly after the child is born (a recurring taint in this book about black males) and what Aibileen says: “He was black as me.” (Pg 358)

Stockett has Aibileen mentioning how “black” she is several times in the book, and not in a complimentary way.

It’s highly improbable that two dark African Americans (Constantine, though bi-racial is described as dark also. She’s brown with shades of ebony according to Skeeter) would have a white looking child. However even when one parent is white and the other of another race, the child rarely comes out looking white, or being able to “pass” as white.

 

Some famous offspring of black/white pairings:

President Barrack Obama

Singer Mariah Carey

Actor/screenwriter Wentworth Miller

Oscar winner Halle Berry

Actress Rashida Jones

Tennis Pro James Blake

Actress Jennifer Beals

Actor/producer Vin Diesel

Actress Thandie Newton

Singer Alicia Keys

 

 

In The Help, Lulabelle’s parentage is based on two dark complexioned African Americans. That’s stretching it, considering Constantine is bi-racial, but Stockett doesn’t reveal if Connor, Lulabell’s father is also bi-racial.

That omission is enough to have some readers believe a side story of misdirection that Carlton Phelan is Lulabelle’s father.

Either way Lulabelle was Constantine’s daughter, and considered too light for her to keep. She’s sent away at age four to an orphanage in Chicago. And when she returns, she’s the mad and tragic mulatto, daring to pass herself off as white during one of Charlotte Phelan’s DAR meetings. Somehow this type of character just can’t catch a break.

Desired for their attractiveness (which was usually attributed to their white ancestry) intelligence (which was usually attributed to their white ancestry) but also disliked by those who believed looking too white was an unfair advantage, the tragic mulatto has been a popular character, especially in older novels. Now resurrected by Kathryn Stockett, the mis-information in The Help makes it appear as if  looking white was a liability in the black community.

The reason this character caused drama in fiction and in real life, was that blacks were ranked during slavery based on skin color and features. The closer to white a slave looked, the more money they fetched on the auction block. They also got the plum jobs. No working in the cotton fields for them.

Females who were light enough also shared the plantation owner’s bed (this wasn’t really a perk). Males who were light enough were put in more jobs of responsibility and over other slaves. Today, while some resentment still exists, most reasonable adults realize the fault lies not with the individual’s skin color, but how some react to it.

Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner, which later became the movie "Pinky"

back copy of the book Quality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being “COLORSTRUCK”

I can recall my parents mentioning the term “color struck”

It’s when someone can’t see anything but  what color a person is. For African Americans who may be dark brown, back during segregation it meant getting passed over for jobs for someone lighter.

We weren’t viewed equally by each other, though we fought for equality. But it’s  also part of the sad legacy that’s at the root of the problems with African Americans and the South. Unlike today, where most unions are between consenting adults, sexual liasions back in the day were based upon power, control and denial. Unwanted sexual contact, even by someone “owned” by another, was still rape.

No matter if the victim isn’t considered one’s equal, it was still rape. Only it wasn’t seen that way by the authorities after slavery and during segregation. Not when white employers decided a black woman, or even a poor white female should become their sexual conquest.

But Miss Skeeter just keep on asking me quesitons. I could tell she don’t understand why a colored woman can’t raise no white-skin baby in Mississippi. Be a hard, lonely life, not belonging here nor there. (Pg 97)

Light complexioned African Americans weren’t an anomaly. What Stockett failed to research was how many black white unions produced African Americans who could pass for white and eventually did, and those who either chose not to, or had some type of defining characteristic (like hair that wasn’t straight) which identified them as black.

 

 

Light complexioned woman with husband

 

 

In The Help, Stockett not only makes a leap concerning how odd it was to see a light complexioned African American, but also that somehow, that individual would not have a southern accent/dialect. I cover that in the next section.

  

NOT THAT MUCH SEPARATES US

That’s the statement Skeeter uses in the novel, and Stockett repeats in the book’s acknowledgements. Unfortunately, the author does everything to show blacks and whites are truly different. Stockett uses a tactic that many of her writing contemporaries have used when crafting a book with black and white characters. She delineates them via their language and supposed cultural norms.

But she also took it a step further. I’ve put together examples of how the author lumped characters considered “Dark” with most of them being heavy set, coddling, cooking, maid/nanny characters with ebonic sounding dialogue.

That group includes Minny, Aibileen, and Constantine, the big three of the novel who represent the maids. The only one who deviates is the horribly named Pascagoula, who’s black as night per Skeeter, but petite.

I spot Minny in the back center seat. Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. (Pg 13)

See, I need to explain to her husband why a hundred-and-sixty-pound Negro woman has keys to his house. (Minny, Pg 49)

Constantine wasn’t just tall, she was stout. She was also wide at the hips. (Pg 61)

Aibileen’s smiles at me from the sink, her gold tooth shining. She’s a little plump in the middle, but it is a friendly softness. . .her skin is dark brown and shiny against her starchy white uniform. (Pg 78)

 

 

 

Stockett tries to cover herself by using this:

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)

That statement doesn’t reasonably explain why most of the “under-educated”  maids are dark and overweight in the book. And Stockett contradicts herself with the white characters. Note how she describes Hilly coming undone in the book, because of all things, her weight:

Hilly’s smile is a fat child’s at the Seale-Lily Ice Cream window. The button on her red coat bulges. (Pg 175)

Half her blouse is untucked, her fat stretching the buttons, and I can see (Hilly) has gained more weight. (Pg 420)

Hilly sat on the edge of the pool, saggy and post pregnant fat, inexplicably confident in her black swimsuit. Her stomach was paunchy, but her legs, as always, were thin and pretty. (Skeeter, Pg 113)

 

 

So being heavy isn’t an asset for the white community, but it is when it comes to having good help?

Take a look at the description of the big three  who unnerve several white characters because they appear “uppity”

Yule May. Miss Hilly’s maid, setting in front a me. Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. I hear she educated, went through most a college. Course we got plenty a smart people in our church with they college degrees. Doctors, lawyers, Mr. Cross who own The Southern Times, the colored newspaper that come out ever week. But Yule May, she probably the  most educated maid we got in our parish.  

Hilly’s tall, thin maid, Yule May, is folding dough around tiny sausages. Another colored girl, younger, washes dishes at the sink.(Pg 87)

Yule May nod at me, smile polite. She about forty and tall and thin. She done kept her figure nice. She still wearing her uniform and it fit trim on her waist. She always wear earrings, tiny gold hoops. (Pg 210)

 

 

And Yule May’s dialogue is also similar to Celia, Elizabeth and all the other white characters:

“I know about the stories you’re working on. With that friend of Miss Hilly’s.” (Pg 210)

And this is part of Yule May’s written confession from the novel:

I suppose you look at this as a confession letter. I stole from that woman. An ugly ruby ring, hoping it would cover the rest of the tuition.  Something she never wore and I felt she owed me for everything I’d been through working for her. Of course  now, neither of my boys will be going to college, The court fine is nearly as much as we had saved.

Guess there’s no need for Skeeter to edit Yule May’s letter like she’s done to Aibileen’s.

 

 

 

Next up is Yule May’s cousin Gretchen. Of this character, Skeeter notes on page 258:

She was trim in her uniform dress. She wore lipstick, the same color pink me and my friends wore. She was young. She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person. I don’t know why, but that made it worse.

“All the colored women you’re interviewed, they’re been real nice, haven’t they?” Gretchen says to Skeeter.

“Yes,” Skeeter answers. “Very nice.”

Gretchen looks Skeeter straight in the eye and tells her. “They hate you. You know that, right? Every little thing about you. But you’re so dumb, you think you’re doing them a favor.”

 

 

Finally here’s Lulabelle, the most “uppity” one of them all from page 362:

“She looked white as anybody, and she knew it too. She knew exactly what she was doing and so I say, How do you do? and she laughs and says, Fine, so I say,  And what is your name? and she says, You mean you don’t know? I’m Lulabelle Bates. I’m grown now and I’ve moved back in with Mama. I got here yesterday morning. And then she goes over to help herself to another piece of cake.”

 

 

 

What then, is the purpose of Lulabelle, or the tragic mulatto character in the novel?

There wasn’t any real purpose. It was just something else thrown into the motley crew of stereotypical black characters. As I’ve listed previously on this site, the “tragic mulatto” is a mainstay of fiction. This character, along with the black “brute” (Leroy, the abusive husband), Uncle Tomish, docile and blindly loyal maid (Aibileen), grumpy, grumbling cook with the comic quips (Minny), and Constantine, the much older “earth mother” who guides her white charges with her comforting, warm bosom and positive affirmations.

Aibileen is part “earth mother” also, especially the way she dotes on Mae Mobley and ignores Minny’s children. This is a serious red flag when it comes to noting the  “Tomish” nature of Aibileen. While many readers adore Aibileen, they fail to note the double standard the author has added to the character.

So, what about Lulabelle?

Well, notice that Skeeter’s going to visit Constantine’s grave. It would make more sense, especially if she really thought of Constantine like a second mother for her to visit Lulabelle (how I loathe that name. That one and Treelore and Pascagoula). I think Lulabelle (now called Rachel in the movie) wouldn’t mind having a nice long chat with Skeeter.

Actress La Chanze plays Rachel Jefferson, Constantine's daughter in the movie of The Help

Especially since who knows  best how loving Constantine was? It was Skeeter, who benefited from Constantine’s attentions while the woman pined for her own daughter, according to the novel.

In the hands of a skilled screenwriter their meeting could be powerful. But I don’t think the idea is to upstage Skeeter in the movie.

It is interesting that only the black characters with a bit more white in them decide to challenge the status quo. That being Lulabelle, Yule May and Gretchen. While the characters of Aibileen, Minny and Constantine, the overweight darker characters are the domestics who go along with barely an objection.

And it’s also interesting that Stockett has these same characters acting fairly ignorant about the importance of the civil rights movement. But then, throughout the novel the civil rights movement is only a side issue. And that’s truly a pity.

 

 

 

 

 
To Be Continued . . .

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