I was already working on writing about other black authors during the same period Stockett has Skeeter helping the maids get published, when a poster named Clickety Keys asked a question regarding Skeeter’s assistance.
We traded comments over whether there could be a double meaning in the book’s title, especially since Skeeter “helped” the maids get published. I brought up the UK cover of the novel, as I believe this makes it pretty clear who the title is referring to.
The Ebony Magazine Pictorial History of Black America will be used as a primary reference source for this post. I’ve got all four volumes. They’re bound, hardcover research texts. What I like about Ebony’s research books on the 60s and 70s is that they were written closer to the time period actual events took place.
Ebony magazine, for all the accolades and criticism thrown at the journal through the years, provides an excellent source for American history. Primarily black history.
Most people know about the Harlem Renaissance
But few know the 50s and 60s were considered The New Black Renaissance.
“The era of challenge, reasssessment, and social tumult ushered in by the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision of 1954 and given impetus by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 was mirrored by a burst of black creativity of unprecedented proportions. More books on black themes were written and published from that time period through 1970 than during any period since the black man came to this continent” Pg 263, Chapter 8, New Renaissance Ebony Pictorial History Black America.
The writers of this “New Renaissance” had the old guard to guide and mentor them, like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, and a woman who was called “The mother of young black poets” Margaret Walker. (Pg 264)
Gwendolyn Brooks is notable for her 1950 Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection titled Annie Allen. In 1942 Margaret Walker won the Yale Younger Poets award for her book of prose called For My People. And Ann Petry’s The Street was a best selling novel in 1946.
What were the differences in this New Renaissance vs. the Harlem Renaissance?
Well for one the Harlem Renaissance benefited from wealthy white patrons enamored with black lifestyle.
Whites flocked to Harlem, not just for the artists but the chance to mingle with what they termed “exotic” musicians and entertainment. But there was no such creative incubation by white patrons during the 50s and 60s.
However, from the creation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the New Black Renaissance had been ushered in. Ellison also published a collection of essays and interviews titled Shadow and Act in 1964.
James Baldwin became one of the best known writers of this time period, as in 1963 his novel The Fire Next Time predicted the intense fire of black revolution to come. In 1956 his groundbreaking work Giovanni’s Room dealt with homosexuality. Another Country was published in 1962.
Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s research on the emerging black middle class was highlighted in his book Black Bourgeoisie, first published by the U.S. in 1957.
Well known journalist Louise Lomax’s The Negro Revolt was published in 1962.
Writer Lerone Bennett Jr. mined new literary fields when Before The Mayflower: A History of Black America was published in 1962.
Gordon Parks had an autobiographical novel of his teen years published in 1963. His book titled The Learning Tree would go on to become a major motion picture.
Paule Marshall had her first novel published in 1959 called Brown girl, Brownstones. Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a collection of four short stories was next published in 1961.
Leroi Jones authored Blue People: Negro Music in White America, 1961.
Anne Moody’s moving, riveting account of her life in Mississippi was chronicled in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a book released in 1966.
Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, an unflinching look at the mean streets where he grew up was published in 1965.
Maya Angelou’s Now I know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969.
Singer Billie Holiday’s autobiography was published in 1956. Malcolm X had his bio completed and published in the same year as his death, in 1965. Alex Haley penned Malcolm X’s account of his life, a few years prior to his own popular and critically successful novel Roots.
Lillian Rodgers Parks novel about her 30 years as a maid and seamstress in the White House was published in 1961.
1961 was also the year Alonzo Fields published a memoir of his own experience working for the Nation’s first families, titled My 21 years in the White House
Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was performed for the first time on Broadway on March 11, 1959. It was the first play by an African American to win the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play. The play provided a number of firsts.
It had an almost entirely black cast and dealt with day to day life of an average black family.
The play was both a critical and financial success, with stars in the making such as Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr, and Diana Sands.
But the production was not without its critics.
Claudia McNeil played the strong, overbearing, older female head of household while Sidney played her conflicted and considerably weaker in spirit son.
I bring up all these works (and will add more as I complete this post) to show that African American writers were being published during the time Stockett sets her novel in. In addition, there were periodicals like Ebony, Jet, Sepia, Negro Digest and a wealth of local papers where black writers could house their articles of interest. A compilation of first person accounts from maids living in Jackson, Mississippi would have been welcome reading.
But recall when Skeeter is in Aibileen’s home, though the maid professes her love of reading and writing, Skeeter makes no mention of literature in the home by other black authors. The book mentions Ralph Ellison, but his work had been published quite some time earlier.
So why didn’t Aibileen know of the black female contemporary writers who’d paved a way for her?
Here’s a wonderful link that was provided in the comments section of the debate going on over Valerie Boyd’s review of The Help. Boyd’s article for Arts Critic ATL.com can be found here:
Many thanks to the commentor Lvtoread for this info:
The Chicago Defender, which was founded by Robert S. Abbott on May 5, 1905, once heralded itself as “The World’s Greatest Weekly.” The newspaper was the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper by the advent of World War I, with more than two thirds of its readership base located outside of Chicago. Abbott began his journalistic enterprise with an initial investment of 25 cents, a press run of 300 copies, and worked out of a small kitchen in his landlord’s apartment. The first issues of The Defender were in the form of four-page, six column handbills and were filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers.
The National Association of Black Women Historians has issued a smack down to both the novel and the film version of The Help:
“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers”
They’ve also included a list of recommending books about the time period:
I’ve already listed a few of them. I’ll post the dates they were published a bit later:
Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
So here’s the million dollar question, why isn’t Aibileen aware of what other blacks are doing outside of Mississippi?
Because that meant Stockett would have to do more research. And it also meant limiting Skeeter’s role in the novel. And that, was not to be.
Interview with author Kathryn Stockett by Motoko Rich of The New York Times
“She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.”
I found a copy of a text by a Negro Nurse/maid/Nanny from the early 1900s. And there was article more directly titled I AM A DOMESTIC by Naomi Ward, published in 1940.
There were also sociological interviews done by black authors, both men and women on the domestic experience in America during this same period.
You can read more about their first person accounts here:
Black publishing companies and the major publishers seeking black voices in the 50s and 60s
I couldn’t have compiled this list without the text Black Book Publishers in the United States: A historical Diary of the Presses from 1817-1990 By Donald Franklin Joyce, who was at the time the Director of the Felix G. Woodward Library at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee.
This text is a must-have for anyone interested in knowing and preserving the history of African American publishing.
It includes information on the second oldest African American publishing house, which was the AME Zion Publishing House, founded by the African Methodist Zion Episcopal Church in NY city in 1841.
The Negro Year Book Publishing Company, founded by Booker T. Washington and twelve influencial black males, financed by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. The Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the interests of the Negro Race had a member separate from their group, a man named Monroe N. Work.
The American Negro Academy, from 1897 to 1924 was an active publisher of books and pamphlets
Free Lance Press was established in 1950-1980, in Cleveland, Ohio
The NAACP gained entry into the publishing field in 1914 with Julia Henderson’s “A Child’s Study of Dunbar”
Other publishing houses at this time included the Memphis State University Press, Greenwood Press, and Path Press.
The National Urban League published its first book, Ebony and Topaz in 1927.
Hampton University Press, part of Hampton University, formerly known as Hampton Institute College, was the earliest black University to publish under its own institute in 1879. By 1920 Fisk, Howard, Tuskegee and Atlanta universities followed suit.
Take a look at the controversial subject matter of this review from 1957 which was in a black magazine called The Crisis. Also note the major publisher, Doubleday. If anyone has doubts that a prominent publisher would not have jumped at the chance for the maids stories, then this should quell your doubts:
Click image for a larger view:
Newspapers that also published books included the Baltimore Afro-American Publishing company, releasing The White Man’s Failure in Government by Elijah Johnson in 1900. In Cincinnati Ohio the Dabney Publishing company was founded in 1909 (active from 1909-1952). In 1926 the compnay published Wendell Dabney’s The Colored Citizens of Cincinnati
Third World Press was established in 1967, Johnson Publishing (Ebony, Jet, Sepia empire) started a book division in 1962 and Broadside Press began publishing in 1962 there was the Afro Am Publishing Co. in the early 60s. Other copies included Drum and Spear Press and Black Academy Press
The publisher for the best selling, 1957 novel Corner Boy by Herbert Simmons was Houghton Mifflin.
I’ll return with more info on Little, Brown, and The University Press
To be continued . . .