The Mommy/Mammy issues in The Help

Posted on March 2, 2011

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“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.”  ———–Micki McElya in “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America”     

In The Help, Skeeter has a very demanding mother in Charlotte Phelan. Domestic worker Minny Jackson is a very demanding mom, especially with her daughters Kindra and Sugar. Minny even smacks Sugar in one scene, when the teen jokes about Celia Foote. Housewife Elizabeth Leefolt is also demanding of her daughter Mae Mobley, and in one scene Elizabeth needlessly spanks the child while Aibileen cringes.

Charlotte Phelan played by Allison Janey nags her daughter Skeeter played by Emma Stone

 

It’s as if Stockett is beating the reader over the head with how lousy these women are at being parents. But the one who’s right as rain is Saint Aibileen. And along with Skeeter’s old maid Constantine, all mothers pale in comparision to them.

Prior to Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit where she alleges the character of Aibileen Clark is based on her, according to Stockett’s early interviews Aibileen was based on Demerie, her grandparent’s maid. Stockett said this about the importance Demetrie played in her life:

“ ‘I didn’t always know where my mother was, I didn’t know where my father was, but I always knew where Demetrie was. I would go to my grand-parents’ six days a week. Demetrie was always there.’ ”

Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

Since Stockett was only a child and then a young teen when she knew Demetrie, she’ll never know if the long hours Demetrie worked for her grandparents were filled with contentment. All Stockett can honestly state is how loving Demetrie was to her. In another quote she says “You felt loved when you tasted Demetrie’s caramel cake.” (Pg 448)

Unfortunately, in adulthood Stockett didn’t question or delve into what the life of a black maid truly consisted of away from the job. She reached back into her memories and concocted what quite a few earlier writers from the south reduced black female domestics to. A Mammy.

If Kathryn Stockett had really thought about it, an Aibileen or even Constantine for a mother couldn’t possibly exist. Aibileen really has no life other than being the “perfect” Mammy. Aibileen and Constantine live to give love in the  book, yet expect nothing in return. Both women have lost their only child. Stockett has Constantine send hers away on the pretext that Lulabelle wouldn’t be accepted for her light skin.  Aibileen’s son is given a more permanent end. Neither woman’s significant other is around, because Stockett paints the males as being unreliable scoundrels who run off and leave both women after a child comes along. And what they also share is Stockett making them into asexual hermits, living only to put smiles on the faces of the little white kids they look after.

That’s not a life. At least not a happy one.

 

Both women are described as dark, though Stockett goes overboard in Skeeter’s observations on Constantine’s appearance. Though Constantine has a white father, here’s how she’s described:

Constantine’s the only woman I’ve ever had to look up to, to look her straight in the eye. (Pg 65, Skeeter describing Constantine’s height because Skeeter is five eleven and Constantine is taller than her)

I’ve never seen light eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were absolutely black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin on her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony .  . . (Skeeter’s description of Constantine, Pg 65)

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

 

Now here’s the book’s description of Aibileen:

Aibileen smiles at me from the sink, her gold tooth shining. She’s a little plump in the middle, but it is a friendly softness. And she’s much shorter than me, because who isn’t? Her skin is dark brown and shiny against her starchy white uniform. Her eyebrows are gray even though her hair is black. (Skeeter’s description of Aibileen Pg 78)

She’s got her hair smoothed back, a little roll of pencil curls around her neck. . . As usual, she looks plump and respectible, but for all her prim and proper, Aibileen can still tell a dirty joke that’ll make you tinkle in your parts (Minny’s description of Aibileen Pg 126)

OT: The bit tacked on the end contradicts Kathryn Stockett’s assertion that Aibileen is a ‘devoted servant of the lord’ in the author’s statement responding to Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit.

I thought I’d also throw Minny’s description in here, just to show how Stockett rubber stamped each character with the same general description. That being overweight, dark, and having a broad southern accent. Yes, these characters definitely fit the Mammy mold.        

 

 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. ( Aibileen’s description of MinnyPg 13)

The Mammy caricature in a Tom and Jerry cartoon

 

I need her to explain to her husband why a hundred-and sixty-five pound Negro woman has keys to his house (Minny speaking about herself Pg 49)

She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is darker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of patent shoes (Skeeter’s observation of Minny, Pg 164)

 

 

 

 

 

 There’s a pattern here, whether some readers want to admit it or not.

Stockett has created not one, not two, but three atypical characters. Stereotypes of black females that existed during segregation, and who inhabit the novel like a bad trip down memory lane.

Aibileen and Constantine are written as Mammies, not maids. The caricature that most aptly fits the bill is a Mammy because Aibileen and Minny are faithful servants to the children they raise. Minny, for all her bold talk winds up becoming a Mammy of sorts to  Celia Foote. Aibileen is paired with Mae Mobley and Constantine with Skeeter, and they’re at the beck and call of the children they look after almost 24/7. Tethered through love, devotion or obsession, for Aibileen and Constantine it’s all about the well being of their white charges. Some would say this was just a result of segregation. Or perhaps an author’s wish fulfillment for a Mammy, in line with historian and author Micki McElya’s quote ” . . .the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.”         

 Stockett claims she was able to see the absurdity of segregation. Then why couldn’t she see the unrealistic expectations she’d placed upon her black characters?

Mammy and child

 In the back of her novel, Kathryn Stockett reveals this: “My siblings deny it, but I was closer to Demetrie than the other kids were. . .” (Pg 448, in the section titled “Too Little, Too late”)

When I first read that statement by the author, I wondered why she’d even put such a thing in her book.  

“My mother was out of town a lot. Susan and Rob were tired of me hanging around, and I felt left over. Demetrie knew it and took my hand and told me I was fine.”

Stockett could have saved herself a lot less family division by just hiring a good therapist to talk things out. Because while the The Help’s most notible controversy concerns the racial depictions, the Mommy and Mammy issues in this book are just as apparent.

People aren’t possessions, and yet that’s the other thing that struck me as odd about this novel, the way the African American characters exist to bring the white children comfort. Like cooking and serving them food on their day off. Skeeter recalls on New Years Day how Constantine would come over even though it was her day off  just so the Phelan’s had their special good luck meal in this excerpt:

On New Years Day, I come downstairs to start on the black-eyed peas for good luck. Pascagoula set them out to soak last night, instructed me on how to put them in the pot and turn on the flame, put the ham hock in with them. It’s pretty much a two-step process, yet everyone seems nervous about me turning on the stove. I remember that Constantine always used to come by on January first and fix our good-luck peas for us, even though it was her day off. She’d make a whole pot but then deliver one single pea on a plate to everyone in the family and watch us to make sure we ate it. She could be superstitious like that. Then she’d wash the dishes and go back home. But Pascagoula doesn’t offer to come in on her holiday, and, assuming she’s with her own family I don’t ask her to. (Pg 375)

 

Andy Warhol "Mammy" 1981

 

Constantine goes above and beyond for the Phelans, though it’s not clear just why. Charlotte Phelan isn’t a “progressive” by any means. The term a progressive was someone whose  ideas about women, race and politics were much more lenient and liberal than most. And as Constantine finds out later in the story, Charlotte Phelan was not a woman to cross. Stockett uses food often in the book especially with the character of Minny. She’s the best cook in Hinds County, and not only does she attempt to teach Celia Foote how to find her way around the kitchen, the character lapses further into stereotype after a scene where she finally meets Johnny Foote and tells him “Can’t have no proper sandwich on no raw bread . . . and next week we gone do you a fried catfish.” (Pg 140)

 

 

Though Minny doesn’t call Celia her “special baby” she might as well have, because the character begins to treat Celia just like one of her kids, only better.

Minny never tells or even acts like she enjoys being around her children, and there’s no scene where she expresses her love. I only found one instance in the novel where she states she’s proud of her family.

Here’s a typical scene regarding Minny and her children:

Leroy looks at me through one eye because he knows something’s up. He knew it last night at supper and smelled it when he walked in at five o’clock this morning.

“What’ eating you? Ain’t got no trouble at work, do you?” he asks for the third time.

“Nothing eating me except five kids and a husband. Y’all driving me up a wall.”

The last thing I need him to know is that I’ve told off another white lady and lost another job. . .

“Mama, where you going?” yells Kindra. “I’m hungry.”

“I’m going to Aibileen’s. Mama need to be with somebody not pulling on her for five minutes. I pass Sugar on the front steps. “Sugar, go get Kindra some breakfast.”

“She already ate. Just a half hour ago.”

“Well, she hungry again.” (Pg 226)

End of excerpt.

 

Aibileen Clark first uses the term “my special baby” concerning the precocious two year old Mae Mobley Leefolt. The reader is told and shown why Mae is so special to Aibileen. But aren’t all kids? Why did Stockett choose to make a difference in who Constantine and Aibileen, and even Minny lavish their affection on? In the case of Aibileen and Constantine, these two characters are supposed to be the most loving in the entire novel, yet their love is exclusive. There are no scenes where Aibileen shares her time or attention with any African American child, least of all her good friend Minny’s children, who could sorely use affection from the way Minny orders them about and Leroy rages.

And please, no excuses like “well, she probably did but it’s just not in the book”

In Aibileen and Constantine, Stockett crafted asexual women who, after one failed love affair simply give up on any companionship.

Treelore died at 24 and Aibileen is about 53 when the novel begins. Do readers not grasp that this character has been alone since she was about 33, and probably even before then since her husband Clyde was unfaithful. Stockett alludes to Aibileen raising Treelore alone. So as her son was growing up, he had no male figure in his life and neither did his mom.  

Time to time, I think I might find myself another man, one from my church. Problem is, much as I love the Lord, church going man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain’t the kind that stays around when he done spending all you money. I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish Street, one they call Cocoa. I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind of business. (Pg 22)

 

Can you not see that as a reader, why I would find this whole scenario purposterous?

That’s a child’s wish fulfillment. And it’s another way Stockett doesn’t “see” her black characters as anything but caricatures.  So they’re good women simply because they put the white children first and foremost, even to their own sexuality?  Even to their own happiness or well being? Aibileen and Constantine are ALONE. They do not seek nor desire any affection for themselves from another adult because the author doesn’t feel they need it. Aside from the elderly Miss Walters, who Hilly schemes to place in a home, there’s not a white female character deprived of companionship. And I doubt if these had been white nannies if Stockett would have placed this same solitary existence upon them.

Mammy characters have to forgo love. Image from http://sequentialcrush.blogspot.com

 

Yet Stockett wishes readers to believe that since they get such “joy” out of their white charges, not much else is needed.

How in the heck is that a “pitch” perfect character? Or even “beautifully”  written? Did Stockett or her publisher not realize some women would read the novel and not buy the whole I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind of business. (Stockett’s excuse why Aibileen’s has no significant other in her life, Pg 22).

Now that’s some serious BS.

Aibileen, Constatine and also Minny occupy the time of the kids (I’m including Celia in this, since she’s an infatile bride) , as if the black characters are a toy of some sort.

But that’s the biggest stereotype of all. Even Stockett had to admit Demetrie, her grandparents maid had a life outside of taking care of her and her siblings. And for better or for worse, Demetrie stayed with the man called Clyde/Plunk until the day she died.

I don’t believe my dream of a “perfect” mother with include her total devotion. I’d like her to have a life.

It’s a child’s wish fulfillment to project onto adults that they be able to be there to coddle and guide them at every turn. That’s why for me, at the center of all Stockett’s African American characters is a void where growth and development should be.

1950s Tan magazine asking a question that's still relevant today in Publishing

And if she’s not careful, the movie will highlight even more that she’s filled the screen with stock characters. While readers who love the book will ooh and ahh over scenes from the novel, and try to see just how close the film comes to the written work, others who haven’t read the book will be seeing the characters for the first time.

And like a poster asked on Amazon, “Why is Hilly the way she is?”

I’m afraid that question will be asked of all the characters. Some viewers won’t have a frame of reference regarding the segregated time period. If the movie jumps right in with Aibileen’s broad narration, the director is liable to turn off quite a few people.

How we lived in our yesterdays and how we live now are two different time periods. I remember what my daughter said to me when I asked her why she couldn’t go past the first page of  The Help. Aside from it “sucked” she said she was tired of seeing books with “woe is me” countrified black characters.

"Oh Law!"

 

Segregation isn’t something many African Americans or whites for that matter want to revisit. But many who survived the Holocaust have memorials and testimonials that somehow aren’t a part of how African Americans recall segregation.

One difference is how long segregation lasted. Most historians say its the period after Reconstruction, when Jim Crow laws took effect.

But as Stockett paints her two most sympathetic black maids as Mammies, how she sees the white males in her book are just as caricatured. These are noble southern gentlemen. Hard working, stalwart husbands who only adhere to segregation because they’re forced to.  

Take Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth, who Stockett inserts into James Meredith’s historic attempts to integrate Ole Miss:

Governor Ross Barnett stands with his arms crossed, looking the tall Negro in the eye. Next to the governor is our Senator Whitworth, who’s son Hilly’s been trying to set me up with on a blind date. (Pg 83)

Now, Ross Barnett was a much beloved governor of Mississippi. He was also a supporter of segregation and a member of the State Sovereignty Commission. Barnett  was a driving force behind awarding money to the numerous Citizen’s Councils (formerly known as the White Citizen’s Council) of his state. Here’s a quote from Ross Barnett, summing up his thoughts on “race mixing”:

“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.”
                                                                             -Former Governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett

Yet Stockett would have readers believe that elected Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth, who’s standing on the side of the governor:

A) Wouldn’t have been a member of the Citizen’s Council.

B) Really didn’t agree with the Governor’s position on segregation, and was only going along to get along. In short it was simply peer pressure that has him doing the will of his constiuents, which is to champion segregation.

Here’s what Stuart, his son tells Skeeter on their date after she says:

“But your father, at the table. He said he thought Ross Barnett was wrong.”

“You know that’s not the way it works. It doesn’t matter what he believes. It’s what Mississippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Pg 273)

No Southern Gentleman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be continued . . .
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