“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”
– Minny Jackson, Pg 24 of The Help
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help brings up a number of negative slurs and dispersions that were cast on African Americans during segregation. The one I’ve cited above is pretty bad. But there are others. It’s important to know why this is so, since many white readers see that line as a harmless joke, while some black readers like myself view it as offensive.
During segregation, a major myth that gained traction was that blacks were immoral. Another was that blacks carried venereal diseases.
Many southerners openly talked about their beliefs, as the excerpt from the Clarion-Ledger and the book called Mississippi Women: Their Histories , Their Lives by Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swan, Marjorie Julian Spruill and Brenda M Eagles reports.
The publisher is University of Georgia Press.
WIMS stands for Wednesdays in Mississippi. This organization sought the participation of upper class women of both races during the early 60s. The scan is from the novel, quoting what actual residents believed:“These included rumors that the Freedom Summer volunteers were all Communists and sex-crazed miscegenists . . . and that all blacks carried venereal diseases.”
There was also the highly offensive myth that most black men were worthless “no-accounts”
The reasons why these vile assumptions were spread about the black culture were twofold. First, segregation was profitable. Jim Crow laws cheated hard working African Americans out of a decent day’s wage, even though they worked long, tiresome hours and were treated badly.
Two, it was built on the power structure of one race being superior to another. Phrases like “The decent white people of our city” “The good white people of our state” and “Our great traditions and way of life” were code for blacks not being “qualified” to be considered the equal of bigoted whites at the time. Sticking with “traditions” were simply a means of keeping the status quo the way it had always been. That blacks were to be thought of and treated as second class citizens.
That’s heady stuff. I can remember reading one of my mom’s old romance magazines, where a woman recently blinded bemoaned her fate. That was, until the bartender listening to her sad tale replied “Would you rather be blind, or black like me?”
This idea that somehow blacks would rather be anything but what they were seemed to be a running theme by those examining the black culture, especially during segregration. But taking into account all the negatives some bigoted whites placed upon African Americans, I can see why some felt comfort and justification in thinking that way.
It was a false reasoning. Because when African Americans sought and fought for equality, it wasn’t because we wanted to be white, or that we believed the propaganda that only the white race could be considered “civilized.” It was that we wanted to be afforded the same rights and respect as white Americans.
So when Kathryn Stockett decided to include a scene in her novel concerning two black characters cackling over another black woman contracting a venereal disease, it put me in mind of one of her quotes (items in bold are my doing):
Interview with Michele Norris of National Public Radio
NORRIS: There’s a scene, and I was going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind reading it. It’s on page 52. Minny is working for a woman named Ms. Celia, and her husband doesn’t know that she’s hired a maid, and someone is approaching the house, and Minny is afraid that Mr. Johnny has come home.
Ms. STOCKETT: Okay, I’m reading in the voice of Minny. Forgive me, I’m just a little white girl. So hopefully, I don’t tear this up too much.
You see, when Stockett has to gear up to voice one of her characters, she makes it clear that she’s “just a little white girl” getting ready to voice a big black woman. Now, Stockett was forty during this interview and far from a girl, but the helpless and hapless female mode is in full effect. From this interview and several others, its clear to me that Stockett does view blacks and whites differently. We’re the sexually promiscuous, heavy set, black as asphalt or black as night “other” that she was brought up to believe are only considered “good” when in domestic service. But that’s only the black female. Black males are a whole ‘nother matter. And that’s why her novel reads like it.
But why Stockett chose to speak so freely on black sexuality but steadfastly avoided doing the same with her own race is the question.
In her “spoilt cootchie” scene, not only does Minny state “Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”
But also that Aibileen somehow cast down a venereal disease on her rival via the power of prayer. And black magic. As the scene continues, Aibileen answers Minny with:
My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “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.”
Now, if this isn’t one of the stupiest and most degrading conversations two women, no matter what race could have. These are two supposedly devout Christians musing over the ability one has of using her pipeline to God to call down the plague of disease, namely a venereal disease on a third woman named Cocoa (perhaps there’s only one devout Christian, as per Stockett’s statement after Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit was filed which defended Aibileen as a “devoted servant of the lord”).
But to add insult to injury, Stockett adds in the well known stereotype of blacks still practicing and believing in “black magic” to accomplish the deed. It’s no wonder the movie of Stockett’s novel was completed with all deliberate speed. I suspect not having readers dwell on just how off base Stockett was in her depiction of African Americans is the reason for pimping the movie now instead of the book.
And if you think I’m being overly sensitive about what I perceive as bias by the author, then this study is a timely one:
A study was recently completed and published, concluding that African American females are more likely to be tested for an STD than white females, even if the black female is a virgin.
Here’s an excerpt and a link to the MSNBC article:
Race a factor in whether young women tested for STDs
African-Americans more likely to be screened in ERs
By Brian Alexander msnbc.com contributor msnbc.com contributor
When young women visit the emergency room complaining of symptoms that mirror those of a sexually transmitted disease, many aren’t tested for a possible infection — unless the young woman happens to be African-American, that is, provocative new research shows. . .
Overall, young black women had a 2.6 times greater chance of having their sexual history documented on medical records. Of those who said they were sexually active, 87 percent were tested for STDs, but only 58 percent of young Caucasian women who said they had sex were tested.
Even young black women who said they did not have sex were tested, and at far higher rates than whites: 30 percent compared to 2 percent.
The disparities are “troubling,” Holland (Dr. Carolyn K. Holland, a pediatric emergency room specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital), told msnbc.com. Any bias, even if unconscious — in this case, the presumption that young black women are more promiscuous than whites or more likely to lie about sex — can cause doctors to miss a diagnosis.
“Everybody should have their sexual history collected,” Holland said. “My practice now is that if you are sexually active and come in with a complaint — urinary, vaginal — yes, I am testing you.”
As the article and study points out, many white females are missing out on needed testing, simply because assumptions are being made about one race over another. And in this case study that assumption is backfiring to what may the detriment of a white female’s sexual health.
Yes, this article was quite timely, since I’d decided to speak on where Kathryn Stockett dared to go in her novel regarding the black culture, in particular her view of black sexuality and relationships.
In The Help, it seems the only women dealing with “spoilt cootchies” and no-account men are the black characters.
Because in trying to put together “different” voices in her novel (Stockett’s words, not mine. I’ll post the interview since the author chose to voice both black and white females and considered them “different”) Stockett made the mistake of using negative innuedo about the black community in order to define Constantine, Aibileen and Minny.
The “spoilt cootchie” dialogue by Aibileen and Minny can be found on pages 23 and 24. While I found this section insulting and offensive, Stockett apparently thought her own words were so funny that she used this section to promote the novel while on a book tour. In addition, she voices the part of Minny in a pseudo “Black” voice.
Here’s the You Tube link:
Now, hiding behind the artistic rights of an author or freedom of speech is a good way to avoid answering any serious questions on the insulting way blacks are portrayed in the book. Especially when Stockett made the decision to keep Skeeter’s “cootchie” as pure as the day she was born. In fact, no where in the novel does any white character even bring up their vaginas, or call it by any slang.
Yet that same You Tube video has Stockett chuckling about how this scene reminds the author of conversations among her friends.
Somehow I highly doubt that. And since Stockett has already admitted using some real life stories she was told in her novel, then why not include the white characters talking about their sex lives during bridge games?
Is it because she didn’t want to alienate conservative white readers?
The white women of The Help act silly to be sure. They’re chatty, and even bigoted at times. But with the exception of one character having sex before marriage they each have a mate that they’re happily married to, or they’re dating someone who treats them accordingly.
The females in the novel who don’t get romance or a mate who values their worth are the black characters, namely Constantine, Aibileen and Minny.
Again, the question is WHY?
Because to me it shows a bias to portray black females as more promiscuous than whites, just like that study found. And it also harkens back to the insulting negative innuedos that were used against the black culture during segregation, the ones that were used to block equality and integration.
White characters are usually sexually repressed (In The Help, Stockett has Skeeter still as a virgin, and Stuart certainly doesn’t try to get into her panties) and if they have children they’re legally and happily married (Elizabeth and Hilly) or follow the rules of romantic engagement to the letter, with romantic dates, conversation, in short everything most women desire.
Again, it’s something Stockett decided the black characters in her novel could do without. Because the men Stockett chose to label as “no-account” are Minny’s father and Aibileen’s estranged husband Clyde.
While Constantine doesn’t mention that Connor, the man who fathered Lulabelle and then left is “no-account”, he is by default, since not giving any information on why he’d abandon his lover and their child makes it appear as if he should be in that category. And it also appears to make Minny’s (or Stockett’s) statement come true:
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)
Constantine doesn’t call her white father “no-account” though, which is in line with Kathryn Stockett painting most of the white males in the book in a favorable light. Constantine’s father has a number of children out of wedlock with Constantine’s mother, but in the short scene where Constantine talks about him the reader learns he’s truly sorry for the way things are, thus he’s given a pass.
This isn’t anything new, but its been used so much by a few authors that its past tiresome. Far too often in fiction, minorities are depicted as those who’ll say anything or do anything, thereby making them appear exotic, hyper emotional, hyper angry or bossy and oversexed.
The flip side of all this is how white males continued to pursue black women, as if they were still the slave masters having their pick of choice females to warm their beds. Notice how Stockett never reveals whether Constantine’s mother’s relationship with her father was consensual.
It’s a dirty secret that will always haunt attempts at reconciliation between both cultures. Because one of the reasons African Americans come in so many variations of brown, is while some white men assaulted and lynched black males for close contact with a white woman during segregation, many of them sought out and sexually assaulted African American females.
A recent non-fiction novel that sheds more light on this and also shows another side of Rosa Parks is Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of The Street.
Additional information on the book from the publisher (Randomhouse):
Rosa Parks was often described as a sweet and reticent elderly woman whose tired feet caused her to defy segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and whose supposedly solitary, spontaneous act sparked the 1955 bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement.
The truth of who Rosa Parks was and what really lay beneath the 1955 boycott is far different from anything previously written.
In this groundbreaking and important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who strolled toward home after an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered the young woman into their green Chevrolet, raped her, and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks. In taking on this case, Parks launched a movement that ultimately changed the world.
The author gives us the never-before-told history of how the civil rights movement began; how it was in part started in protest against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men who used economic intimidation, sexual violence, and terror to derail the freedom movement; and how those forces persisted unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era when white men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South that began during World War II and went through to the Black Power movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.
At the Dark End of the Street describes the decades of degradation black women on the Montgomery city buses endured on their way to cook and clean for their white bosses. It reveals how Rosa Parks, by 1955 one of the most radical activists in Alabama, had had enough. “There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around.” Parks refused to move from her seat on the bus, was arrested, and, with fierce activist Jo Ann Robinson, organized a one-day bus boycott.
The protest, intended to last twenty-four hours, became a yearlong struggle for dignity and justice. It broke the back of the Montgomery city bus lines and bankrupted the company.
We see how and why Rosa Parks, instead of becoming a leader of the movement she helped to start, was turned into a symbol of virtuous black womanhood, sainted and celebrated for her quiet dignity, prim demeanor, and middle-class propriety—her radicalism all but erased. And we see as well how thousands of black women whose courage and fortitude helped to transform America were reduced to the footnotes of history.
End of excerpt.
The state of Alabama has only recently issued a public apology to Recy Taylor, who was a twenty-four year old wife and mother when she was attacked by seven men. As McGuire’s book attests, the practice of raping black women and teens, and then labeling them as prostitutes once they made a formal charge against their attacker(s) was common. A chilling excerpt on the males who targeted and got away with the crime against Recy Taylor can be found here:
There’s no middle ground when some authors craft black characters. And because of all the mis-information still floating around on the black culture, authors must do their homework and not rely on outdated, offensive assumptions or tales told to them by others who are merely repeating negative innuedo. Unfortunately that’s what I think Kathryn Stockett wound up doing, even though she may have had the best of intentions.
Like other authors before her, Kathryn Stockett relies on the myth that if a black character isn’t oversexed, then they abstain from sex all together for some trumped up reason, and become the asexual, docile, blindly loyal Mammy type.
Delilah from Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life is one such character.
When a second movie of Hurst’s blockbuster novel was released 1959, Delilah was re-named Annie, but she was still asexual, while Lana Turner had as many suitors as fabulous gowns she wore.
In The Help, both Constantine and Aibileen wind up becoming this character under Stockett’s direction, and for no plausible reason.
Take for instance the excuse Aibileen gives for being so disenchanted with having been wronged by her husband Clyde, that she turns their son against him and swears off all men:
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. (Aibileen teaching her son Treelore to call his father “Crisco”, Pg 5)
And look a there who else I done put on this list. Bertrina Bessemer a all people! Everybody know Bertrina and me don’t take to each other ever since she call me a nigga fool for marrying Clyde umpteen years ago. (Aibileen, speaking of the people she’s put on her “prayer list” Pg 23)
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 a business. (Pg 22)
The tag of “no account” or a worthless man is sprinkled much to liberally in the book, especially when addressing the black character.
In comparison, even though Skeeter is let down by Stuart Whitworth not once, but four times, he’s never called “no-account” but a “good man” even though:
A) He stands Skeeter up on their first blind date
B) Their first meeting ends in disaster, with Stuart acting like a heel and having to apologize after seeing Skeeter’s tears.
C) When Skeeter and Stuart finally start dating, he reveals driving to San Franciso to see his ex-fiance.
D) He takes back his engagement ring on the very night he gives it to her (after finding out about her involvement with the maids stories and their book Help) and dumps her.
In my book that makes the man “no-account”. Hell, from the first date he should have been dropped. He was drunk and insulting, telling Skeeter her coat smelled like fertilizer and saying this about the tractor hitched to her truck “That is the funniest damn looking thing that I have ever seen.”
But the clincher is when he comes right out and tells her “Look, I told Hilly I wasn’t ready for any damn date.” (Pg 120)
However, all is forgiven when he comes begging for another chance and especially when he calls Skeeter “pretty” on page 171:
“What. . .do you want, Skeeter?” he’d asked and I’d sort of tensed up then, hoping he wasn’t planning on getting drunk again.
“I’ll have a Co-Cola. Lots of ice.”
“No.” He smiled. “I mean. . . in life. What do you want?”
I took a deep breath, knowing what Mother would advise me to say: fine, strong kids, a husband to take care of, shiny new appliances to cook tasty yet healthy meals in. “I want to be a writer.” I said. “A journalist. Maybe a novelist. Maybe both.”
He lifted his chin and looked at me then, right in the eye.
“I like that,” he said, and then he just kept staring. “I’ve been thinking about you. You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re” – he smiled- “tall.”
We ate strawberry souffles and had one glass of Chablis apiece. He talked about how to tell if there’s oild underneath a cotton field and I talked about how the receptionist and I were the only females working for the paper.
“I hope you write something really good. Something you believe in.”
“Thank you. I . . . hope so too.” I don’t say anything about Aibileen or Missus Stein.
I haven’t had the chance to look at many men’s face up close and I noticed how his skin was thicker than mine and a gorgeous shade of toast; the stiff blond hairs on his cheeks and chin seem to be growing before my eyes. He smelled like starch. Like pine. His nose wasn’t so pointy after all.
The waiter yawned in the corner but we both ignored him and stayed and talked some more. And by the time I was wishing I’d washed my hair this morning instead of just bathed and was practically doubled over with gratefulness that I’d at least bushed my teeth, out of the blue, he kissed me. Right in the middle of the Robert E. Lee Hotel Restaurant, he kissed me so slowly and with an open mouth and every single thing in my body-my skin, my collarbone, the hollow backs of my knees, everything inside of me filled up with light. (Pg )
Now, this scene is lovely. And it shows that Stockett has a major crush on the white males of her book, even those who profited from segregation, like Skeeter’s father, Stuart, Stuart’s father, in essence every white character in the novel. Though they may not have professed a firm belief in the separation of races, they still benefited from the system that kept blacks subservient.
Unfortunately, no such scene exists for Constantine, Aibileen or Minny. And I have to wonder why.
Did Kathryn Stockett so strongly believe that blacks and whites are different, that African Americans don’t believe in romance? Was she so influenced by her segregated upbringing that she decided only white women were gifted with men sweeping them off their feet? Has she never witnessed a happily married black couple? Or even that a black male would stick with his wedded wife, in sickness and in health, and that he could truly believe in his wedding vows?
A Closer look at Minny
Unlike Aibileen’s decision to swear off all men, Minny is a thirty six year old abused wife who’s carrying her sixth child in the novel.
Because as her “good” friend Saint Aibileen reasons:
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)
The sentence in bold is my doing. Note that while Aibileen is overprotective of Mae Mobley, her concern doesn’t really translate as fierce to her good friend Minny, or Minny’s children. But then again, many readers miss that Minny is supposed to represent an abused woman.
One who’s been abused for over fifteen years by her husband Leroy. And yet Aibileen’s warped solution to Minny’s predicament is to have more children.
Minny’s youngest child is five when the book begins. which means that by the time Minny was thirty-one, she had five children. Compare that with the number of kids the white employers have in the novel. Elizabeth and Hilly have two children and they are in their early to mid twenties.
There’s no mention of any other employer having over three children. Yet Aibileen also comments on her two sisters having eighteen children between the both of them:
I scan down my prayer list. My Mae Mobley got the number one rung, then they’s Fanny Lou at church, ailing from the rheumatism. My sisters Inez and Mable in Post Gibson that got eighteen kids between em and six with the flu. When the list be thin, I slip in that old stinky white fella that live behind the feed store. the one lost his mind from drinking the shoe polish. But the list be pretty full tonight.
And look a there who else I done put on this list. Bertrina Bessemer a all people! Everybody know Bertrina and me don’t take to each other ever since she call me a nigga fool for marrying Clye umpteen years ago. ( Aibileen, Pg 23)
Stockett slips in the negative myth of blacks having too many kids and can’t take care of them, which is another negative observation on the sexuality of the black culture.
Since Leroy is the one black male Stockett allows to remain with a primary maid of the novel (that is, until the books end, because Minny finally leaves her abusive husband after one beating too many, and that means all the black females focused on in the novel are without a significant other, unlike the white females). So, since Minny is carrying Leroy’s sixth child, does Stockett allow him a compassionate “twist” much like she grants the white males in the novel?
Nope. Leroy is as brutish as ever, a true stereotype. He’s the black “brute” character of the novel, getting suspicious of Minny and demanding to know what her problem is. When she responds that she’s tired, he ignorantly answers:
“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 heel of a 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)
This post is still in development . . .