Shocker! The character of Aibileen is a female Uncle Tom

Posted on March 1, 2011

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Oh look, I’ve just created my own highly inflammatory title. Because to label someone a “Tom” is the height of disrespect (since this is a  fictional character, perhaps I’ll get away with it). Sort of like the “Magic Negro” moniker.  Before some of you readers get all huffy and vow never to return, just hear me out.

On the book jacket of The Help, Aibileen is described as a “wise, regal woman raising her 17th white child.”

No she’s not. Aibileen, as written is a female Uncle Tom, and very comfy being one. And for most of the novel Aibileen is cringing. She cringes when Hilly berates her. She cringes when Skeeter berates her. So where in the novel is Aibileen bringing the “regal?”

Here’s Skeeter of all people making Aibileen cringe:

I clench my hands, I close my eyes. “I don’t have anyone I can ask, Aibileen,” I say, my voice rising. I’ve spent the last four hours posing over this very fact. “I mean, who is there? Pascagoula? If I talk to her, Mama will find out. I’m not the one who knows the other maids.”

Aibileen’s eyes drop from mine so fast I want to cry. Damn it, Skeeter. Any barrier that had eroded between us these past few months, I’ve just built back up in a matter of seconds. “I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I’m sorry I raised my voice.”

“No, no it’s alright. That was my job, to get the others.”

“. . .but how many? how many have you asked?”

Aibileen picks up her notebook, flips through a few pages. Her lips move, counting silently.

“Thirty-one,” Aibileen says.

She swallows hard, nods rapidly to make me understand how much she means it.

“Please, don’t give up on me. Let me stay on the project with you.”

I close my eyes. I need a break from seeing her worried face. How could I have raised my voice to her?

 “Aibileen, it’s alright.  We’re . . . together on this.” (Pg 161)

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life

 

Aibileen is too much of a doormat for my taste, though many would consider her “sweet”. This scene is a bit too similar to Delilah from Imitation of Life, where she gives Bea her family recipe for free, and then refuses to take a percentage of the profits just because she wants to continue to take care of Bea and Jessie FOR NO WAGES. Readers should recall that Aibileen gave Skeeter permission to use her deceased son’s idea which resulted in the maids stories. Yet Aibileen doesn’t ask that Treelore receive any acknowledgement. And Skeeter’s been getting the answers for the Miss Myrna housekeeping column from Aibileen.  Aibileen’s “goodness” borders on caricature. Just like Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Though the book states Aibileen and Minny attended a church that had lawyers, doctors and other professions as parishoners, the characters have no interaction and seek no legal advice before or after the book is published. Readers should note that African American authors were already being published by this time, from the likes of Ralph Ellison (whose novel Invisible Man was mentioned in the book) Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to name but a few.

Organizations like SNCC, CORE and the NAACP were also in and around Jackson, so for the maids not to seek additional guidance or counsel is but another example of how these characters exist in a bubble outside of their community, based upon the author’s whim.

 

And If she’s so “wise” then why doesn’t she know the difference between pneumonia and ammonia? Huh, huh?

Okay, okay, I get that Aibileen’s mis-use of words endears her to a great many readers. In the spirit of oh. . . Kingfish from Amos and Andy:

The creators of the radio show portraying Amos and Andy

But Stockett seems to want to have it both ways. Either Aibileen can write well enough not to have Skeeter change her wording,  or she’s truly in need of correction for each sentence she submits. Which is what Skeeter supposedly does whenever Aibileen gives her the answers for the Miss Myrna column.

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 

Skeeter transcribes what Aibileen gives her into standard English. That’s the implication in the novel. Stockett even has Skeeter imply that Aibileen’s not too swift:

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

And no, you don’t have to speak the King’s English or have a college degree to be intelligent. But Stockett makes it clear in the book that neither Aibileen, Minny nor Constantine are very bright.

When some readers laud this character, many of the things they point out concerns how nurturing and loving Aibileen is when dealing with Mae Mobley. How patient and devoted she is with Skeeter. How humble she is around Hilly. If you just look at how the character behaves around the whites in the novel, I can see how many readers would think her behavior is “admirable”.

It’s when Aibileen is by herself or in her own community that her true Tommish nature is revealed.

And it brings up a question many don’t want to answer. If she’s so “admirable” why does she behave one way around whites and another around blacks?

There’s no “nurturing” going on with her best friend’s children. Even though Kindra’s not much older than Mae Mobley (Kindra’s five when the novel begins), Stockett gives the reader no scenes where Aibileen interacts with Kindra.

Even though Elizabeth Leefolt can say Mae Mobley is bad, Aibileen firmly believes differently.

Miss Leefolt starts screaming for Mae, “Mae Mobley? Mae Mobley Leefolt!”

Elizabeth has just noticed her child has gone missing from the kitchen. “I told you to eat in your high chair, Mae Mobley. How I ended up with you when all my friends have angels I just do not know…”

And at two years of age, Mae wrinkles her brow and tells Aibileen “Mae Mo bad.”

Aibileen thinks, the way she say it, like it’s a fact, make my insides hurt.

“Mae Mobley, I got a notion to try something.” Aibileen tells her.

“You a smart girl?”

Mae just looks at her.

So Aibileen frames it in the form of a statement next. “You a smart girl.”

And Mae repeats “Mae Mo smart.”

Aibileen next says, “You a kind little girl?”

Mae stares at her again.  So Aibileen says “You a kind girl.”

Mae nods and repeats it.

After while, Mae Mobley come over and press her cheek up to mine and just hold it there, like she know I be hurting. I hold her tight, whisper, “You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley. You hear me?” And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me.

 

But all through the novel Aibileen’s good friend Minny has been negatively labeling  her own daughter Kindra.  Somehow Kindra’s not worthy of the same level of coddling and instilling of self worth that Aibileen’s “special baby” Mae Mobley is. Guess when you’re an “admirable” character, you get to pick and choose who’s “special” and who’s not. Oh Law.

And Stockett even has Aibileen admiring Hilly’s children, with no scenes where the character even remotely does the same with the kids on her street or even Minny’s children. It’s important to remember also, that Minny’s children not only witness her abuse at the hands of their dad, but they also feel his wrath. Here’s the scene where Aibileen “admires” Hilly’s kids:

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)

So I have to ask, where’s the comparable scene of Skeeter perhaps thinking a child on Aibileen’s street is “pretty cute” or even Aibileen mentioning that Minny’s kids are “pretty cute” and that they love their mother?    

 

Cicely Tyson as Constantine in film version of The Help, coddling a young Skeeter

 

 You won’t find any. There’s no coddling or nurturing for these kids. But you will find scenes of Kindra mouthing off to Minny. From page 51 of the novel:

“Mama, fix me something to eat. I’m hungry.”  That’s what my youngest girl, Kindra, who’s five said to me last night. With a hand on her hip and her foot stuck out.

I have five kids and I take pride that I taught them yes ma’am and please before they could even say cookie.

All excerpt one.

“You ain’t having nothing till supper,” I told her.

“Why you so mean to me? I hate you,” she yelled and ran out the door.

I set my eyes on the ceiling because that’s a shock I will never get used to, even from her. The day your child says she hates you, and every child will go through the phase, it kicks like a foot in the stomach.

But Kindra, Lord. It’s not just a phase I’m seeing. That girl is turning out just like me.

End of Excerpt.

It’s not funny how Kathryn Stockett makes a difference in these two children. But then, all Minny’s kids are treated rather shabby in the novel. Minny hauls off and smacks her eldest daughter Sugar, when the girl gossips and laughs about Celia Foote, even though that’s something Minny’s done during the whole story.  By smacking her child and showing her own “Tommish” side, Minny can gain the admiration of readers who may not have liked her acting  and talking so brash. 

Poor  Kindra’s “character” is apparently set. Therefore she gains no sympathy or coddling from ” dear old Auntie Aibileen” (no, the kids don’t call her that. They’re not “special” enough I suppose).

As the resident Tom of the novel, Aibileen can admire other characters, like those who possess “good hair”

Here’s an excerpt where Aibileen describes why it’s easy to spot Yule May because:

Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. . . (Pg 208)

 Uh, yeah. I think readers really needed to know that. Moving right along. . .

So what exactly is an Uncle Tom?   

Image from Ferris State University http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/tom/more/levee.htm

 

The short answer is: “a Black whose behaviour towards Whites is regarded as obsequious and servile.”

The long answer comes from a site I highly recommend:  The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University. I refer to this site  for images and information on the Jim Crow era:

http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/tom/

Uncle Tom:

“Despite being a model slave — hard working, loyal, non-rebellious, and often contented — Tom is sold, cursed, slapped, kicked, flogged, worked like a horse, then beaten to death. He never lifts a hand to hit his masters nor to stop a blow. Tom does not complain, rebel, or run away. This partially explains why the names “Uncle Tom” and “Tom” have become terms of disgust for African Americans. Tom’s devotion to his master is superseded only by his devotion to his religious faith.”

    Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.
    Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. (New York: Continuum, 1994), pp.5-6.

From the novel:

“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 know what that woman would do to her. (Aibileen, Pg 19)

 

It’s not just Kindra that Aibileen appears to ignore. Look what happens when Aibileen is faced with Leroy, who she knows could put a serious hurting on Benny and Minny. It’s also telling how Stockett crafts the African American children, unlike the white employer’s children.  Aibileen is the observer and narrator:

“Kindra! Get your butt off that floor!” Minny holler. “Them beans better be hot when your daddy wakes up!”

Kindra – she seven now – she sass-walk her way to the store with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. “Why I got to do dinner? It’s  Sugar’s turn!”

“Cause Sugar at Miss Celia’s and you want to live to see third grade.”

Benny come in and squeeze me aroune the middle. He grin and show me the tooth he got missing, then run off.

“Kindra, turn that flame down fore you burn the house down!”

“We better go, Minny,” I say, cause this could go on all night. “We gone be late. . . “

“Kindra, I  don’t want to see so much as a bean setting in the sink when I get back. Clean up good now.” Minny give her a hug. “Benny, go tell Daddy he better get his fool self out a that bed.”

“Aww, Mama, why I – “

“”Go on, be brave. Just don’t stand too close when he come to.”

We make it out the door and down the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for. (Pg 397)

“I walk faster” as in, I better get away from this tense scenario, especially since this isn’t any of my business and I don’t want to get involved. I’ll just continue to joke about putting Leroy in my “prayer book” Tee-hee-hee. Law.

 Look, I have no idea what Kathryn Stockett was trying to say in this scene. It’s just it’s a mess. Especially when Saint Aibileen thinks this about her good friend’s home:

As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Pg 396)

Kindra, at the tender age of seven is being trained to be a domestic. But because she objects, something is wrong with her.  Because she doesn’t just mouth off. No, just look at how Stockett describes her. Sort of like Sunflower, the deleted hoof shining fawn from Disney’s animated classic Fantasia:         

 

Sunflower, like Kindra has attitude

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also note how Minny tells Benny to “be brave” even though Leroy terrifies her. And Aibileen? All she can think to do is tell Minny to hurry up, then she scurries down the street like the sorry character she is. Admirable? This is admirable? REALLY?

But readers of the same mindset like Stockett, that is,  that this is “normal” for black people, that making our young kids cook dinner, while we go to church to . . . that reminds me. What were Aibileen and Minny hurrying to church for?

Why the book of course! See, all that was because Stockett needed the black church to honor Aibileen and Minny, two sorry excuses for women characters.

Stockett has a number of scenes where Aibileen wants to throw herself in the line of fire for Mae Mobley. Aibileen obsessively frets and prays for Mae Mobley, like here: 

I got my prayer book out so I can write some things down. I concentrate on Mae Mobley, try to keep my mind off Miss Hilly. Show me how to teach Baby Girl to be kind, to love herself; to love others, while I got time with her. . . (Pg 192)

But this is par for the course with the character of Aibileen. Even when Aibileen sees one of the seventeen kids she’s raised who’s now an adult:

 . . . 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)

But wait, there’s more. Aibileen is in full Tom mode when she cries tears of joy for Skeeter:

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)

I know what Skeeter got out this whole deal. A new job and a means of escaping Jackson. But what exactly did Aibileen gain? She doesn’t even have the sense to ask that her son get an acknowledgement in the book, since compiling the maids stories came from his idea. Even using Treelore’s initials could have been a way to pay honor to him. But then, Aibileen’s only going to be considered a “good negro” if she doesn’t ask for anything.

Because during segregation and coming from Stockett’s perspective, all of the above determined which blacks were considered “good” and which were considered “Bad” or “uppity” or trouble makers who didn’t know their place.

What’s interesting is that Aibileen is determined to instill daily positive affirmations to Mae Mobley, when she doesn’t even feel that good or confident about her own self.

When Aibileen describes Minny for the reader, here’s what she says:

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.  Old lady like me luck to have her as a friend. (Pg 13)- Aibileen

She also shows her judgemental side with Constantine. Note the “We was all surprised”:

“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

And there lies the major issue with this character. Stockett created a black woman who she views as being intelligent, regal  and an author, but when I read the character, Aibileen is anything but.

“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)

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)

Because Stockett injects things like this regarding Aibileen’s supposed “intelligence” and as the reader, while I might consider her sweet, the woman is one step behind in picking up on things:

“Beg a pardon, he say, “but where. . .” He stand there a minute, look down at his feet. “Where might I go make water?”

He look up and I look at him and for a minute we just be looking.

 . . .this fella, he a old man. Got heavy wrinkled hands. Seventy years a worry done put so many lines in his face, he like a roadmap.

 “I spec you gone have to go in the bushes. back a the house. “ I hear myself say, but I wish it weren’t me. “Dog’s back there, but he won’t bother you.” (Pg 20)

That’s right. Because having a black man expose himself in an all white neighborhood is the “intelligent” thing to do. YEESH.

 

And I can’t forget how Saint Aibileen decides to bark orders at another character in defense of Skeeter.  I think Gretchen is my new favorite character. Here’s where Aibileen makes her stand against Gretchen Pg 258:

Skeeter notes:

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.”

 “You know the nicest thing a white woman’s ever done for me? Given me the heel on her bread. The colored women coming in here, they’re just playing a big trick on you. They’ll never tell you the truth, lady.”

“You don’t have any idea what the other women have told me,” Skeeter tells her, surprised by how dense her anger felt, and how easily it sprang up.

“Say it, lady, say the word you think every time one of us comes in the door. Nigger.”

That’s when Aibileen intercedes, telling Gretchen to go home.

Gretchen blasts her with “And you know what, Aibileen? You are just as dumb as she is.”

Aibileen then points to the door and hisses, “You get out a my house.”

Gretchen leaves, but through the screen door, she slaps Skeeter with a look so angry it gives her chills.

Saint Aibileen apologizes on Gretchen’s behalf. And Skeeter thinks I want to ask her how much of what Gretchen said is true. But I can’t. I can’t look Aibileen in the face.

 I’m not finished with this post.  More will be added later . . .

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