Why “The Help” is useless to African Americans

Posted on March 7, 2011

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From now on, please spare me from self described “liberal” writers who produce works of fiction that insult not only my culture but my intelligence.

Dough boys, infantrymen during WWI. And don't you dare call them "no-account"

After reading and then examining Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, I’d like any more budding authors wishing to show that we’re “sisters” in solidarity to just let it go. Enough with the fake “we’re all the same” crap, when your writing says otherwise. Take the novel The Help for instance.

Stockett's 1960s vision of the Southern male and female. Plastic lovers

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
Kathryn Stockett has a bone to pick with the black male but decides white males don’t deserve the same type of scrutiny.  And no, I’m not okay with it.  Because a blatant double standard means we’re sure not “united in the cause” whatever worthwhile cause women are supposed to stick together on.  Don’t play favorites with your own culture and think  somehow  readers won’t spot it.

the kick seen 'round the world. Newspaper editor L. Alex Wilson is attacked. Notice the brick in the left hand of man kicking him

A group of white segregationists attack a group of blacks as they began to swim at the St. Augustine Beach, Fla., June 25, 1964.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

See the video behind the attack on L. Alex Wilson. Push slider to 7:58 minutes into reel

 

 

See more photos during segregation here:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/wall-of-shame-and-courage/

 

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

I’ve got a post up regarding what “plenty of black men” were doing in Mississippi during segregation right here. In short, they were either leaving the south, marching with other civil rights protestors or missing and presumed dead by the hand of some “good ol’ boy”.  But if you read The Help, you’d think most of the white men who kept the wheels of segregation turning were really swell guys. And if you were an African American maid back then, it wasn’t segregation you should get away from, but the black male.  Of the three black maids with significant others, Stockett makes it clear that in The Help, the bad guy is the black male. Sure, there’s Robert and Treelore  (who’s deceased when the novel begins) and even Reverend Johnson. But I’m focusing on the primary maids of the novel and the men Stockett decided to pair them with. Now, comparing how Stockett crafted the white males, while I could have placed Raleigh Leefolt on the list, I chose not to. Reason being is he’s the only white male Stockett doesn’t put a “twist” on. As in telling the reader that really,  he’s either a “good” man or that he’s an “honest” man. Because as she has Skeeter state, Raleigh’s an ass. But maybe he still qualifies because according to the book, he’s still an ass who loves his kids. Too bad the African American males in this book don’t get that same special “twist”. 
  
I AM A MAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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I could care less how much hype Stockett rode in on. Once I opened the book and read what she wrote, the PR spin meant nothing. Either she’s behind the story 100% and the blurb that intrigued me enough to pick up, or she’s an author seriously in denial about what’s on the pages.

UK Cover of the Help AKA The cover they dare not put on US bookshelves

This is what I realized after reading The Help. Stockett has a fondness for African Americans who behave and look like this:

Service with a smile

Ferris State University picture of Uncle Tom's Cabin

While I grew up with this:

My Helen of Troy, Helen Williams the first African American super model.

Ali defeats Liston

Nina Simone, Forever Young Gifted & Black

And yeah, my people came from the south. Some of them were domestics. But what I was orally handed down and the bull Stockett’s slinging are world’s apart. It’s important to understand that Southern “compassion” in the 1960s really wasn’t. The example below highlights the dual nature of Stockett’s book, which is much like the mentality of the times regarding African Americans. Look what happened when Dick Gregory donated and Medgar Evers and the NAACP tried to distribute turkeys to black families in Jackson and the surrounding areas of Mississippi:

Jive Turkeys in Jackson 1963

Dick Gregory in performance at the Blue Angel in NY 1961. Photo by Dennis Yeandle, Associated Press

I was more than willing to see things from Stockett’s point of view. She had a black maid growing up (check). They were very close (check) and Stockett’s from the south, so that should have given her some insight and empathy on how African Americans were used and abused, but never valued under segregation. But before I could give up the old check on this point, I noticed some very ugly things in her writing. Not only are most of her black characters stereotypes, but she’s written a bad parody of what she believes ails the black culture.

My first example is Clyde, Aibileen’s husband. Now, I could understand how he’d be considered wanting as a man, especially after leaving Aibileen to raise Treelore ( a bit more about those hokey, stereotypical names in a moment) all alone. And I don’t begrudge Stockett creating a villainous character who happens to be black.

But then the whole Clyde left Aibileen and got with Cocoa, and a week after he left  don’t you know Cocoa came down with a venereal disease is just plain nasty. It’s so nasty and ugly and just plain wrong, that it fairly screams offensive. Yet Stockett has the docile Aibileen and uber sassy Minny joking about it. Note to Stockett: Since you decided Aibileen’s husband’s lover would wind up with a venereal disease a week after he leaves her, then it would make more sense to have Aibileen go get herself checked out instead of acting too dim witted to realize the affair existed well before he left.

But if the scene is only being written for crude laughs as in, “But this is what I was taught about African Americans” instead using some common sense, then its no wonder the book is crammed full of images and dialogue that harkens back to how some bigoted whites maligned the black culture.  Take a look at just a few scans from the Clarion-Ledger,  a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper from 1963.

The real Jackson, Mississippi was a city caught in the grip of racial unrest and the fight African Americans waged for civil rights. Notice what was pinpointed as reasons why the white and black race should not mix:

Speaking in ignorance, scan from the Clarion-Ledger 1963

Unfounded racial observations in 1963

Twisted Logic, again from the Clarion-Ledger, 1963

So why would Kathryn Stockett create a character who embodies that degrading racial hate, and somehow believe this was funny and part of a “homage” to Demetrie?

On top of that,  to have Aibileen act so slow witted as to assume people think she somehow caused it by means of black magic:

“You saying people think I got the black magic?”

“I knew it make you worry if I told you. They think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.”  (Aibileen questioning Minny, Pg 24)

The whole scene had me wondering what somebody was smoking after “spoilt cootchie” was left in. And then I find out it was the center piece of the road show, with video no less of the author reading in a pseudo “black” voice?

Oh please. PLEASE.

 
 
During the reading Stockett actually uses the name “Plunk” instead of Clyde.  Plunk is yet another real life person Stockett fills her book with, as he’s the Clyde/Plunk who was the abusive husband of Demetrie, the maid who practically raised the author.
 
 

Stockett discusses Skeeter's "bravery" and voices Minny talking "spoilt cootchies"

Okay, so the Cocoa-Cootchie-Clyde deal was a mistake I thought. Surely it gets better. No. It actually got worse. Because Stockett threw in Leroy, the brute stereotype.

Novel featuring the Brute stereotype

Intra-racism with the Black Brute Stereotype

There were a couple of other males, one who was another “no account” like Minny’s father, and one more absentee dad, Connor. Not only was he also wanting as a man, but apparently he was dark. As in Aibileen’s view of “black as me” which isn’t positive, especially since Saint Aibileen decides to compare her skin color to a roach just to see who’s the blackest. The roach wins by the way.

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)

I had a terrible thought after sizing up the African American males Stockett created.  That somehow she’d decided the ultimate villain during the racial unrest of the 60s wasn’t segregation, but that a black female was better off without a black male.

Stockett used the character of the black brute to do this, and in my opinion the inspiration wasn’t fictional.

In coming to this conclusion I noted that the author had strong feelings against a male simply called Clyde in the back of the novel, who was the husband of her grandparent’s maid Demetrie. In several interviews including the one I’ve excerpted for this post, Clyde is called by his nickname of Plunk.

Here are her words in an interview during 2009 with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph.com:

“The Stockett family went to Demetrie’s funeral, it was the first time Stockett had been to a black church. ‘I’d never had any interaction with black people except those who worked for our family. And I couldn’t believe how overt their emotions were. There were people speaking out during the sermon, joining in, agreeing with the eulogy, singing loud solos impromptu… but what really struck me as heartbreaking was how Demetrie’s husband was carrying on.’

‘Demetrie’s husband was called Plunk, and he was drunk and abusive, so much so that she slept with a pistol underneath her pillow. ‘As I understand it he beat the crap out of her, but at the funeral this man was wandering the aisles, screaming, fainting from heartbreak that Demetrie was dead, calling out her name and throwing himself at the coffin – people were dragging him away, soothing him. It horrified our family. I was 16. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut.’ “

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

 

 

It’s clear that this man had a profound effect on a much younger Stockett when she was just sixteen. Plunk is also called Clyde in the back of the actual book.

Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked questions about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day. (Pg 447 of the book under the section Too Little, Too Late)

But hey, not only is the message that a black female is better off without a black male in The Help, she’s better off without any companion, male or female. So Aibileen spends years and years alone, and so does Constantine, and apparently not only are they just fine with it but they’re better “Mammy” material because of it. Yep, that way they get to lavish all their pent up affection on Skeeter and Mae Mobley.  Because between Constantine, Aibileen, and Minny, their love is reserved for the characters Stockett has them paired with, respectively Skeeter, Mae Mobley and Celia, and poor hapless Aibileen is paired with yet another needy individual, as Stockett  dumps the Mary Sue called Skeeter on her.

The hits just keep on on coming in this book. Just in case I wasn’t already pissed about picking up on yet another stereotype, Stockett  inserts the ol’ “black people having too many kids and can’t take care of them”. There’s Aibileen talking of her two sisters having eighteen kids between the both of them, and there’s Minny’s five kids plus the one she’s carrying. If the reader still doesn’t get it, Aibileen makes an uncalled for comment about how unkept and unruly her good friend Minny’s home is:

 

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. (Page 396)

 

Or how about this unflattering description Aibileen gives of her “best” friend:

She roll her eyes and stick her tongue out like I handed her a plate a dog biscuits. “I knew you was getting senile,” she say.  Aibileen, noting Minny’s canine like expression before she answers. (Pg 430)

I mean, damn. A sister can’t catch a break in this book without Stockett dropping hints on how messed up she thinks we are. Or were in the 60s. I’m not sure about the time period though, because dialogue from other eras and thoughts intrude on this book so much I thought I was in the 1970s. Sho Nuff.

To me The Help is nothing but a book within a book. How one woman’s dream of working in publishing (Stockett) came true, but first she needed to have a bunch black women to go all Aunt Jemima in order to achieve it.
Aunt Jemima mangles the english language, just like Aibileen and Minny
Stockett never mentions the beauty in the black culture, and never even describes a black maid as attractive. The closest is Aibileen admiring Yule May for of all things, her straight hair. But that’s no surprise, since Aibileen is the biggest Uncle Tom in the book.
Yule May, Miss Hilly’s maid setting in front in me. Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap in in.  – Aibileen Pg 208
Stockett even uses “Saint” Aibileen to admire Hilly’s children. However, you won’t find a scene where Aibileen has a positive observation regarding her best friend Minny’s kids. There is a small section where Aibileen mentions Robert, Louvenia’s grandson is an attractive “boy” but bear in mind Robert is a twenty-six year old man. It’s important to point out that using the word “boy” for a black man was a no-no, because it was a derogatory term used by some whites to address black males, no matter what their age. The term “Uncle” was also used. For women it was “Aunt” , “Auntie” or “Girl”. And there’s nothing in the book where the main protag Skeeter looks at a black character and even remotely thinks they’re attractive. The closest is when she states Yule May has a better figure than Hilly. But Skeeter sure uses the work “black” ad nauseam to describe the African American maids she sees. They’re either “black as night” (Skeeter describing Pascagoula) “so black I couldn’t tell them apart” (Skeeter describing two childhood playmates) or “blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes” (Skeeter describing Minny’s skin color on Pg 164) and there’s “black as asphalt” a term Skeeter uses when meeting the maids who’ll provide her means of escape from Jackson, Mississippi.
The Dialect and Dialogue controversy in the novel:

It was easier to fall back on Amos n Andy type dialogue instead of crafting fully fleshed minority characters.  

           “You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) – Constantine’s reply to Skeeter

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known.  (Pg 5)

“Let’s see,  I put the green beans in first, then I go on and get the pork chops going cause , mmm-mmm, I like my chops hot out the pan, you know.” (Pg 166)

 

Apparently some writers believe this hokey type of dialogue represents not only black speech but also the extent of our interests and the level of our thinking.

Dreamworks picked this farce of a novel up and is putting it on the big screen. I hope they realize the big gamble they’re taking. Depending on the screenwriter to clean up the source material won’t cut it. I don’t care how much editing Stockett’s good friend Tate Taylor does, the book is just that rancid. Or should I say, just as “spoilt” as a “rotten oyster”. The producers could be hoping for a another hit like The Blind Side even after black moviegoers have expressed weariness at films that portray the white character as their savior.

While I was reading The Help, I could have sworn I’d read similar black character types somewhere else. Sure enough I re-checked the novel Imitation of Life and Aibileen’s character has a bit of Delilah, the mild mannered domestic. Lulabelle was the tragic mulatto Peola. There’s more on the 1933 reviews  for Imitation of Life which are similar to Stockett’s  and also the criticism Hurst got from a black reviewer here:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/a-failure-to-communicate/

But it wasn’t just Fannie Hurst’s novel that Stockett’s book put me in mind of. There was William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, where the controversy over Nat’s self loathing of his own race had many blasting the author. Aibileen and Minny’s inner dialogue, while not as literary as Styron’s, come close to disliking not only themselves but their community.

As far as the Stockett’s court case goes, I hope the plaintiff Ablene Cooper’s lawyer pulls out all the stops in order to show that Stockett’s book did more harm than good. It simply reinforced stereotypes of the black culture that others stubbornly hold onto. Stereotypes that Stockett has apparently been taught and took to heart. What’s even worse is that the author found other individuals in publishing and also surrounding her who were more than willing to pat her on the back for it, which simply compounded the problem. Because trying to pass off a book of insults as beautiful recollections regarding her beloved maid won’t cut it. As my tell it like it is, South Carolina mom would say, “How dumb do you think I am not to realize you just called me stupid?”

I don’t know if Stockett’s brother, his wife or even if her sister are behind the lawsuit. But if they are, I can’t say I blame them. Because this is the kind of controversy that sticks to a family name years down the line.  

 

Unfortunately for Stockett, the examination of her novel is only going to get worse, not better. The movie will simply put more scrutiny on her novel. Those not enarmored with the southern lifestyle of having docile or sassy domestics won’t be as charitable with their praise. It’s this type of intense analysis that was needed in the beginning. Had Stockett truly done her homework, then she would have known which stereotypes to avoid. Instead she plunged headfirst into embracing offensive myths about the black culture, rather than challenging them. The end result is a novel that seems to agree with much of what opponents of racial equality used in order to frighten and coerce others.  Thus Aibileen only appears good and loving when she’s obsessing over Mae Mobley. The novel continuously provides its own red flags, especially when Stockett creates the pouty Kindra, and has Aibileen ignore her. In doing so it makes makes Aibileen appear as if she’s playing favorites based on race.

Sunflower, like Kindra has attitude and this was from Disney’s 1940s movie Fantasia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stockett separates the children according to their actions and how the maids view them, placing negative behavior on Minny’s children Kindra and Sugar. The author has the scatterbrained Elizabeth Leefolt doing the same thing to Mae Mobley, and to a lesser extent Charlotte Phelan nags Skeeter about her behavior. But while Skeeter has Constantine to turn to, and Mae Mobley has Aibileen, Minny’s daughters are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their violent father Leroy and sharp tongued mother, Minny.

 

Stockett even has Leroy lacking in the brain cells department as he says this to Minny about her sixth pregnancy:

 

“You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month” (Leroy Pg 406)

After reading enough of these type of quips that show just how dumb many of the black characters are, there was no way to think it wasn’t intentional. Needless to say, Stockett paints the segregationist white males in the book favoriably, with Skeeter telling the reader He is too honest a man to hide things  (speaking of her father, Carlton Phelan, Pg 82) and He is a good man, Stuart  (speaking of Stuart Whitworth her beau on Pg 382). Stockett even decides to tell the reader that Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth is a trapped man. Deep inside he really doesn’t agree with the out spoken pro-segregation Governor, though Stockett has Stoolie standing shoulder to shoulder with Governor Ross Barnett as they block James Meredith from entering Ole Miss. No, Stoolie is only doing the will of his constituents by being so hardlined against integration. Here’s what Stuart says to Skeeter (Skeeter speaks first as Stuart responds):

 

“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 Missisippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Skeeter and Stuart, Pg 273)

Stockett even enlists the reader as an unwitting accomplice in choosing sides, as Mae Mobley’s behavior is preferred over Kindra’s.  Some readers don’t catch what Stockett did, or how the author tries to guide the reader into the conclusion that Minny is well within her right to holler and verbally abuse Kindra based on her sassy attitude, and she should indeed smack Sugar, again based on the teen’s behavior.  In Sugar’s case, it’s because the the girl laughs and gossips over Celia. Yet Elizabeth Leefolt is in the wrong when she does the very same thing, negatively labeling, shouting and striking Mae Mobley. Like Aibileen, many  readers want to punish Elizabeth Leefolt, and agree with Minny’s unwarranted punishment of her children.
Stockett needs to realize that she set up a no win premise regarding Minny’s kids, having them under the thumb of an abusive father and a mother who can’t hold her tongue. This results in the only black children in the book being negatively branded as a handful. Yet the white children are the exact opposite, because the reader is privy to Mae Mobley being unfairly labeled.  Stockett also gifts the employer’s young children with physical descriptions (ironically Stockett has Aibileen musing over Hilly’s daughter Heather being “pretty cute” and Mae Mobley as her “special baby”), while the author doesn’t touch describing Minny’s kids except for scenes showing them acting up.
By having Aibileen interested in solely one child, namely Mae Mobley, and then being inclusive of what ails Skeeter while knowing full well the horrors that Minny’s children go through, it makes Aibileen look like more of an Uncle Tom as well as a Mammy figure. Whether or not this was the outcome for the character that Stockett envisioned isn’t known. But it’s something she’ll have to come to terms with eventually.
And Minny is revealed to be less humorous and more lacking in wit when Stockett tries to craft an abused woman staying strong via crass jokes. Sadly, Stockett turns Minny into an abuser of her own children, while the character slowly bonds and then fawns over Celia Foote, descending further into stereotype by picking up a knife to defend Celia without regard to her own safety or that of the unborn child she (Minny) carries.
In addition, Stockett even delineates the African American females based upon a number of troubling factors:
 
 
 
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There’s also the matter of Stockett ignoring her own setting. Because by placing her characters in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, history shows that the city and its residents, both black and white were more aware and caught up in the civil rights struggle than Stockett initially researched or cared to include in her novel. The Citizen’s Council of Jackson is strangely omitted from the book, as well as mention of CORE and SNCC, two organizations that flooded Jackson with rights activists from all over the country. A crucial error is made on page 277 where Stockett has Skeeter state Medgar Evers was bludgeoned, when earlier in the novel the author includes a scene where the black characters react to Evers’ shooting death.
Stockett then goes on a book tour doing two audio interviews where she repeats that Evers was bludgeoned. More information on the author’s error can be found here

Jackson, Mississippi 1963 Woolworth sit in. From left to right: Hunter Grey Bear, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Anne Moody

Quite simply, The Help is a Book of Insults. And what it shows unfortunately, is that historically repeated negative myths and outright lies about an oppressed culture have been resurrected, so that a new generation are lured into laughing at African Americans once again.
Why should readers consider the problems I’ve listed within the book? Well, a poster on the Amazon.com thread stated it more passionately and eloquently than I could about the travesty that is Stockett’s novel:

“Misrepresentation in a novel, whether or not it’s fiction, hurts. It hurts more when the writer connects it with something as profound as the civil rights movement. It’s the same sort of argument I hear from young adult readers when the issue of whitewashing book covers is brought up: a publisher releases a book with a white model on the cover when the book is about a black protagonist. When black readers complain, some white readers go, “It’s just a book cover. Stop making this into a race issue.” They say it, because they don’t understand. When you’re white and you’re used to having your race take centre stage in every single TV show, movie, video game – every facet of popular media – it’s difficult, probably near impossible, for you to understand that even the littlest things like fiction characters are big things to black people. Because we don’t have Harry Potters or Edward Cullens (thank God) or any of those popular white characters to represent us. So we have to make do with the little black characters that populate contemporary fiction.”

And that, is why The Help is useless to African Americans  

 
Pick up Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns instead.  Or Francine Thomas Howard’s Page from a Tennessee Journal. Or even Hilary Jordan’s Mudbound. 
 

This post is still being developed . . .

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