If we’re not the watchdogs of our own culture, then who will be?

Posted on December 29, 2011

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Whenever I’m challenged on why I started a blog or continue to take a stand of dissention over Kathryn Stockett’s novel, if I’m so inclined I offer a detailed, history filled response. Or sometimes I tell the person to go f**k themselves.

The latter doesn’t usually happen. But on occasion, when I get the OMG! It’s just a book! Lighten up will you? inquiry on my motives. my response may not be pretty, especially since I’m at that wonderful point in life when I don’t have to answer to someone who’s not paying my bills. That kids, is the one true beauty of getting older and not being “beholden” to anyone. Except God. 

But it’s not as if I just blow off those opinions. Because you know what they say about opinions. Everybody has one. Besides, it gives me a bit of  insight on just how Stockett’s novel got so popular.

The depictions don’t matter to some, in fact many proclaimed them spot on in accuracy. While they bother others because they’re the same old stereotypes about the “strong black woman” and the “funny, big black woman” better known as the beloved “Mammy”.

Pay no attention to this cover. It’s just a marketing ploy. So which bird is Aibileen?

And it also underscores another point:

If African Americans aren’t the watchdogs of our culture’s history, just where do you think the truth will come from when errors arise?

Al Jolson, a beloved American entertainer in blackface singing about his “Mammy”

Let me see if I can frame this another way, for those who still don’t understand:

If Americans aren’t the watchdogs of our shared nation’s history, just where do you think the truth will come from when errors arise?

Say for example,  if someone claims one plane or no plane was involved in 9/11, or that the Holocaust never happened, then who will challenge it?

Those who were there. That’s who.

Those who REMEMBER. Who have it burned in their memory and pass it on, so that others never forget THE TRUTH.

Those who do the research, and study, and can cite their findings with surety.

But it won’t come from an author who states “I just made this shit up!”   to a crowd when asked to address the issues in her book. Especially when that same author states in three audio interviews that Medgar Evers was “bludgeoned” on his front yard, which not so coincidently makes its way into The Help, on page 277 where Skeeter states “or hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers”:

Error on Evers in the Paperback version of The Help

See more on the Medgar Evers error in this post

And the truth won’t come from  a director/screenwriter who admits:

“All of the criticism we’ve been facing is based on the fact that I’m not an African-American director and that Kathryn is not an African-American writer,” Taylor says. “It suggests that race relations in my country are still very black and white. But outside of a small academic elite, it doesn’t matter . . . “

 

In the same interview, Taylor also states:

“Civil rights is just the backdrop. I’m not qualified to make a film about civil rights . . .  “

Link to the full quotes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/20/the-help-domestic-servants-on-film

Also keep in mind Taylor’s Stockett’s good friend and the man who was entrusted with bringing her book to the big screen. Yet he continued to spout lines like this (items in bold are doing):

“If you want to see a historically accurate portrayal of life in the sixties, but go behind the door and see the humanity and the love behind these courageous . . .”  – Director of The Help Tate Taylor

Link: http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2011/aug/08/interview-director-star-the-help-why-see-movie/

 

And also

 

“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.”  – Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

Here’s a small sample of  Tate Taylor’s “truth”

“The scene where Viola Davis is sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that’s worse than seeing a lynching. It just is.”

Link: http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/the-help-director-people-are-too-critical-of-this-film.php?page=1

And here’s a portion of the cringe worthy dialogue he wrote for his good friend Octavia Spencer:

“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life ” and “Minny don’t burn no chicken” (spoken by Octavia Spencer as Minny in The Help)

 

 

Taylor may have gotten his cue from the dialogue Kathryn Stockett created for Minny in the novel:

“A course. Can’t have no proper sandwich on no raw bread. and this afternoon I’ll make one a Minny’s famous caramel cakes. And next week we gone do you a fried catfish . . . ” (Minny, Pg 140 of the novel)

Minny’s public declaration of her love for chicken is stated something like this in the novel “Frying chicken tend to make me feel better about things.”  Then she goes on to grouse about working for Celia Foote. So her love of chicken isn’t meant to suggest it’s therapy for everyone. Unfortunately, by Tate Taylor changing her “me” to “you” as in frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” it seems to suggest she’s advocating frying up chicken for what ails ya. What’s even worse, Minny’s devotion to chicken plays upon a known stereotype that exists to this day, of African Americans and the bird. This is but a part of the bigger stereotype involving African Americans and our history in America. For linking blacks with food to encourage laughter has been a national past time.

1950s bigoted advertising, for of all things, blacks and fried chicken

 

 

Or perhaps the chicken humor was merely a continuation of Taylor’s short film:

Tate Taylor’s Chicken Party, starring Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and of all things, “fried chicken”

 

 

 

There’s a reason why Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima smile on products that they neither own a controlling share of or have any say in the daily business operations. They smile, but it’s not out of happiness.

Uncle Ben, now distinguished looking and a permanent sales image for Uncle Ben’s Rice

Aunt Jemima has her own button

 

 

One thing Kathryn Stockett’s novel has shown is that African Americans, or for that matter, any minority group should not take it on faith alone that an author has the ability, or the willingness to present their images/histories in a manner that avoids accepted stereotypes.

What Stockett’s novel also shows, is that from publishing to film, there were more than enough people content to either overlook or condone her use of caricatures, possibly because they too  thought the depiction of the author’s black characters were authentic.

The debacle centering around Stockett’s creation highlights that actors are people too. And that just because someone is an actor, it doesn’t mean they don’t have their own self- esteem issues. Thespians seek validation from others just like regular folk. None more so than minority entertainers, who must navigate roles that either play off their race, or parts which steadfastly avoid it altogether.

It’s that middle ground, the quest for a depiction that can give a message without much compromise and limits mockery which is the holy grail.

And it’s not as if it hasn’t been done, or that there haven’t been performers whose prior sacrifices paved the way for others.

 

It may be time to remember what came before, in order to move forward.

Because there are actors and writers, both white and black whose work encompassed history, dignity and a message that resonated without resorting to humor that demeans or drama that demands the viewer suspend belief.

Stockett’s book and subsequent film, while revealing the hardships African Americans faced during segregation, also continues the mistake of mocking a people who’ve historically had their image co-opped for that very purpose. In addition, Stockett’s work unwittingly or perhaps knowningly continues a great myth. That African Americans had “affection” akin to love for those who oppressed them.

For as this early 1920s Houston Chronicle article, reprinted in the NY Times declares:

DESERVES A MONUMENT – Plan to Memorialize the “Black Mammy” Wins Southern Favor

Excerpt: . . . those who can remember dear old “black mammy” of the days of long ago. The movement has for its object the erection of a monument to perpetuate the memory of the mammies of the South . . .

 

Mammy monument aritcle pg 1

Excerpt from the newspaper article below, Part 2:  Wholly unlearned, without even the rudiments of education, holding with unshakeable belief to all manner of superstition . . . “sperrits” and “ghostes” even as she believed in her own identity with hellfire and brimstone as essential ingredients of her religious belief- she was the truest, more faithful, most trustful, most devoted creature that ever served with simple faith and love sincere . . . How intense was her pride in “white folks” how tender, how constant was her love of her “white chilluns!”

Excerpt from the novel The Help:

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)

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 Treelore, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)


Tate Forrest, one a my used-to-be babies long time ago, stop me on the way to the Jitney last week., give me a big hug, so happy to see me. . . he start laughing and memoring how I’d  do him when he was a boy. . . And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup a coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Aibileen Pg 91)

Mammy monument, part 2

Excerpt from part 3 of the article: Her faith in god was the simple, trusting faith of childhood, unclouded by doubt., undisturbed by mysticism or metaphysical refinement., which had no place in the narrow field of her mental operations. Her (word is unlegible) crude prayers framed by her unlearned lips were lifted to the heaven in which she believed, with the unquestioning faith that they would be heard and answered by a merciful Father. . .

Excerpt from The Help which relate to the sentiment and mindset above:

Cause that’s the way prayer do. It’s like electricity, it keeps things going. (Aibileen, Pg 23 )

“You saying people think I got the black magic? (Aibileen, Pg 24)

“Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety.” (Minny, Pg 23)

“We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear. (Minny, Pg 24)

 

 

Mammy monument, part 3

Mammy monument, part 4

 

 

Excerpt: Though her skin was black, her soul was white

 

 

Excerpt from The Help:

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)

If you’re one of the millions who, like Kathryn Stockett believe that laughter is the best medicine when dealing with serious racial issues, then The Help is the book and movie for you.

I’ve previously mentioned non-fiction novels like Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of The Street, a book that revisits the systematic gang rapes of black women and girls during segregation. And Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicles the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north.

 

Salt and Pepper’s here. The comedic duo of Celia and Minny, making segregation fun for all

The really sad part is, this is how Kathyn Stockett earnestly details the woman who “inspired” her best selling novel:“When I grew older and awkward, when my parents divorced and life had gone all to hell, Demetrie stood me at the wardrobe mirror and told me over and over, ‘You are beautiful. You are smart. You are important.’ It was an incredible gift to give a child who thinks nothing of herself.”

“And yet, as much as we loved Demetrie, she had a separate bathroom located on the outside of the house.”

“I never once sat down to eat with her at the table. I never saw her – except the day she lay in her coffin – dressed in anything but that white uniform.”

Link: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html

Another dissenting opinion on The Help:

 

I have an observation that needs to be named and explored, the heavily reliance upon emotion to defend loving ‘The Help’.  I notice that the many fans of ‘The Help’ book & movie, praise both for the emotions that it invokes within them. Fans have said they were inspired, encouraged, angry, fearful, happy, and often hungry for southern cooking. All emotions and feelings that can stand by themselves without any explaination-emotions are personal. It is great the project can make you feel something. Emotions are one piece of `The Help’ fan nation.  I value the coupling of emotion to seeing the lasting outcome of those emotions WITH action.

For example, I was angry and scared when I watched “Saving Private Ryan”. I felt happy watching “Pretty Woman”.  I felt encouraged and comforted (in my teenage years) reading “Sweet Valley High”.  While I remember those emotions, yet I returned to my life. I didn’t have to change, think about the status quo, acknowledge what I ignored, face my American privilege, etc, etc. I wasn’t pushed to fight for veteran’s rights.  I didn’t start working or learning about sex workers.  I didn’t start volunteering at the local all-girl high school for bake sales. Nothing else was required of me-I keep it moving.  Those films and books didn’t force me as an audience member or reader to DO anything.

 

Viola Davis saying the line that was never uttered in the book “You are a Godless woman”

 

 

The emotions I felt didn’t propel me into anything greater with lasting positive outcomes. I am a fan of those movies and books-but it didn’t invoke some greater purpose out of me-still doesn’t. It was perfectly okay for me to be entertained without any further commitment. I venture to say that the fans of ‘The Help’ use the emotional responses as a defense against a transformative outcome. It is as if, since you feel emotion, the emotion in of itself is enough. The emotions fans felt are used to counter and dismiss all dissenting views of `The Help’. Serious critics (I’m proudly a serious critic, not a pop culture ‘hater’) of ‘The Help’ have our emotions too PLUS, evidence of something greater within the pages, on the screen, that propels us into a greater action. . .

`The Help’ is a symptom of greater challenges that will haunt us as remixed versions of the same old sad trap. I haven’t seen any fans of ‘The Help’ organizing to become advocates for fair treatment and wages for current domestic women. Where are the collective fans of ‘The Help’ to assist women changing careers into writing, publishing, marketing?

I have rarely seen a fan talk about the awakening that lead them to discover anything else-a sustainable forward moving effort. I haven’t seen a fan come on here and outline any historical record that supports that southern men were indeed passive in the treatment of African-Americans. I haven’t seen a fan confess to discovering the economic labor domestic movements in the American South.

Nor have I seen where white women have listened and sought out African-American women authors that write about the South. It seems being a fan of `The Help’ is all that is required.

Yet, fans require that dissenters do all sorts of things; repeat ourselves, resist being offended, ignore historical fact, pretend better fictional work DOESN’T exist, accept colorblind racism rheotric, accept contemporary hate crimes across the country, among other super human feats.

Serious critics of the film and book have highlighted, outlined, referenced, compiled information that are a part or revisit sustainable collective movements-we have done more than just feel something. For example, Julia and I have developed a relationship because we can talk about ‘The Help’ AND discuss moving beyond it to greater sustained efforts. Yes, we have negative emotions about the book and movie but we have both been able to label, explore, discuss, and identify what we can do next.

What is the next book you are looking forward to reading? Does it actually center on Black women, racism in the West, contemporary domestics in urban places, Black Reconstruction, racism in publishing, independent films, or local theatre groups? If you haven’t or aren’t moved to DO anything else, besides come here to ask questions then (as some have done) refuse the answers-fine. I would then say, so maybe the book & film weren’t as great afterall,  just you are the same as before. I believe the execution of the book, film, and supplemental product tie-in’s are a great failures to imagine what “Mammy would have to say.” (I take this from Stockett’s autobiographical sentence that comes out of Skeeter’s mouth and Stockett’s Afterword.) Domestic workers have said plenty in their own words but no one has given them the marketing packing or financial, corporate, and dominate culture support to reach mass audiences as GIVEN (not earned) Kathryn Stockett or her alter-ego Skeeter.

It is more of a challenge, a good one for everyone. I witnessed those of us that are critics accept the challenge for action. Many joined Twitter, especially for the discussion on Ida B. Well’s birthday. I think the film and book fails the fans in this way but both projects don’t ask or require much after you put the book down or leave the movie theatre. You can stay the same. Your world can stay intact without much change or transformation.

Plus I love many things that I can critique, so to show I’m not wagging my finger. I LOVE MODERN FAMILY & HAPPY ENDINGS on ABC. They are, in my opinion two of the best comedies on network TV in a long time. I love them so much I buy the DVD seasons when they are released! I even memorize some of the punch lines. For example, I think that Cameron & Mitchell should be able to show more intimacy on screen as a loving couple. ABC doesn’t allow them to kiss, hug, cuddle, and no sexual innuendos. They have never mentioned fighting for the right to marry. WTF? I think ABC is tap dancing around showing the full lives of gay families…LGBTQ folks all want the right to marry. That is a huge blind spot in the series, a series I adore. I can love MODERN FAMILY and be critical of the huge gap. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of great American TV. While though I adore and love MODERN FAMILY, I can see it is missing a huge piece. The writers are talented enough to deal with gay rights only as far as the mainstream will allow them. I want them to go farther, having Mitch & Cam fight for the right to marry each other on this very successful and brilliantly funny show. What is my action in moving beyond MODERN FAMILY, I’m active in supporting shows, and films that openly have LGBTQ full lives, like “Pariah”. In “Feasts of All Saints” I recognize the homosexual characters and complexity for me to wrestle with the ageless question of loving whom you love. See, I practice being challenged into action even if I LOVE something so much.

Fans, what say you? Where are you going from here? Are you looking forward to Stockett’s next book on women during The Depression? Did you find out the background of her family’s maid? Were you moved to find out about James Anderson? Have you discovered other people of color authors or BETTER white authors? Have you heard of “Pariah”? Did you find out about Anne Moody? Have you stumbled upon “Wattstax” or “Thundersoul”? Most importantly, are you willing?

Kwanda, I thank you for your passion, your knowledge, and your willingness to share this on my blog. This comment was on another site, so it was edited to take out  a few personal references, but Kwanda still graciously allowed me to re-post it here.

Kwanda is also on twitter. You can follow her tweets under @AmethystNite

To be continued . . .

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