In 1965 Frank Defelitta made a documentary called Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.
Setting up his camera in Greenwood, Mississippi he interviewed residents both black and white. One of those voices on film was Booker Wright, a personable African American waiter who worked at a restaurant called Lusco’s. It’s Booker Wright’s appearance in the documentary that was the impedus for a fascinating and sad piece of history. NBC had a segment on Dateline called “Finding Booker’s Place.” They also have a corresponding article on the making of that documentary over forty years ago.
40 years later, Mississippi waiter’s ‘magical moment’ renews race relations
“The meaner the man be the more you smile although you cryin’ on the inside . . . ”
-Booker Wright, from the documentary Mississippi: A Self-Portrait
In the documentary, white community leaders sit around a table discussing how “The colored people are very happy in Mississippi” as they justified segregation, feigning ignorance over why the rest of the nation is pushing for integration. Here’s an example of what a white resident from that time period had to say:
“ . . . I’m white today because my parents practiced segregation” – From the documentary Mississippi: A Self-Portrait
Booker Wright worked at Lusco’s as a waiter, and then he founded his own restaurant called Booker’s Place.
At some point I hope to post the entire clip of Booker’s powerful testimony on tape, where he patiently explains how he must behave in order to earn a living in Greenwood, Mississippi. After it was shown on NBC in 1966, white customers refused to let him serve them and pushed for his firing. Long story short, he lost his job at Lusco’s because they realized he wasn’t a “happy darkie.” His own restaurant was firebombed, and he was beaten within an inch of his life.
His granddaughter recounted how he was humiliated later on in his life, as many of the white citizens of Greenwood never let him forget their anger at his candor.
See a clip of Booker Wright’s riveting, honest assessment below. Booker begins speaking at 1:50m in this 4 minute clip:
Now let me contrast this with the insulting depictions of the black men in The Help, as this was one of my pet peeves with the novel (and in case you haven’t noticed, this blog is called A Critical Review of The Help).
As Booker Wright’s story attests, black males and black females experienced segregation TOGETHER. I was never sold on the whole “throw the black male under the bus while putting the black female female on a pedestal” premise the book promoted. Because far too many black men were either called Boy, Uncle, or Nigger. In fact, an example can still be found in your local supermarket:
So while “Uncle” Ben and “Aunt” Jemima may be comforting brand icons, their real history is anything but. They were, and continue to be examples of how African Americans were expected to smile in servitude, because they “enjoyed” it, as if that was all we were cut out to do.
In The Help novel author Kathryn Stockett, apparently knowing of only one black male while growing up (her beloved maid Mrs. Demetrie Mc Lorn’s abusive husband Clyde), seems to base most of her African American male characters on this one man. All these “Clydes” appear in the lives of her saintly maids as straight up sinners. Males like Connor (baby maker, runs off and leaves Constantine once Lulabelle is born. Lulabelle was renamed Rachel in the movie), Minny’s father, who’s never named in the book, but Minny tells the reader all about her “no good drunk daddy.” Clyde, Aibileen’s philandering husband and baby maker who runs off leaving her to raise their son alone. Clyde leaves Aibileen for a woman named Coco, who Minny reveals contracted a “cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster” AKA a veneral disease on pages 23-24 of the novel. Far too many readers thought this was a humorous conversation between two affable maids. I found Minny and Aibileen’s conversation about “spoilt coochies” insulting, offensive and bullshit of the highest order, especially since blacks having “venereal diseases” was brought up as a major excuse for blocking integration during segregation. See the scan from a 1963 local Jackson, MS newspaper below, painting all things negative on black children:
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And there’s also WIMS, which stands for Wednesdays in Mississippi, where integrated groups of young women went door to door to talk with women of Mississippi:
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Now read the scene Kathryn Stockett created. Minny’s the first speaker:
“You know Cocoa, the one Clyde ran off with?”
“Phhh you know I never forget her.”
“Week after Clyde left you, I heard 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.”
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 just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” (Minny and Aibileen, those devout, church going Christians discuss Aibileen’s ability, via prayer and black magic, to call down a venereal disease on her husband’s mistress. Pg 23-24 of the novel).
Because so many people fell in love with Kathryn Stockett and her good friend, director/screenwriter of the film Tate Taylor’s work, even claiming that it “opened their eyes” (not enough apparently, to recognize how the author and her director friend Tate Taylor actually demeaned African Americans in the process) bogus awards are still being handed out to those who didn’t get their Oscar due. I’ll have a post up about the need to reward this film and the rationale involved, or as a few of us like to say, “it’s all about making this shit legit, no matter how stereotypical it was.”
Most of the African American males in The Help are vile caricatures, thankfully deleted from the film because they were so stereotypical. Yet the worst one, the abusive Leroy, is an example of the black brute trope in full display. Propaganda films like The Birth of A Nation, still lauded today because of its “special effects” had white actors in blackface portraying this stereotype. Remnants of this mindset, where black males are depicted as all things bad and frightening can also be found in those who insist on calling teenager Trayvon Martin a “thug” and some even going so far as to claim he deserved to get shot.
Actual statements referencing the “black brute” stereotype now commonly known as the “thug” label.
From MSNBC, one of many “responses” about the Trayvon Martin murder:
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Here’s one from the Huffington Post:
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There are more of course, and some are pretty bad. I chose not to list the ones which are seriously stomach churning, but they’re out there.
For more on the Trayvon Martin case and America’s history of portraying African and African American males negatively, see this post
Yes, stereotypes of the black male being seen mostly in a non-flattering light are nothing new. Even when black men smiled and groveled, or provided humor, like Booker Wright, demeaning them still wasn’t enough during segregation.
However in The Help novel, the primary white males who practiced segregation are called “honest” (Skeeter speaking of her father) “good” (Skeeter musing over Stuart after he dumps her and takes back his engagement ring), or just doing the will of their constituents by practicing segregation (Stuart Whitworth uses this excuse as he explains to Skeeter why his father, Senator Stoolie Whitworth is an ally of Governor Ross Barnett, as fiction meets the real life pro-segregationist Governor of Mississippi who was once quoted as saying “The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the black man in Africa . . . He made us white because he wanted us white, and he intended that we should stay that way.”
And though Constantine’s father, who’s white, produces several bi-racial children that he’s unable to care for, because he “cries” and tells Constantine he’s sorry for her plight, Stockett doesn’t label him negatively like she does the black males paired with her triad of Mammyfied maids, namely Constantine, Aibileen and Minny.
In The Help, the men who practice segregation are deemed “Handsome Good Ole boys” And “Southern Dreamboats” per the studio’s misguided overseas marketing campaign:
In one of the worst cases of sanctioned revisionist history with a cherry on top, real life bigots are remade from this:
To Hollywood creations in chic hairdos, flawless makeup and designer outfits:
You won’t find any promo for the film or the book, or lines in the movie or novel depicting the primary maids as “pretty” or even “attractive.” The closest Stockett gets is saying Yule May has “good hair, no naps” (Aibileen’s observation from the novel as she drools while looking at the back of Yule May’s head in church) and stating Yule May possesses a better figure than Hilly. None of Minny’s children are considered “cute” unlike Aibileen’s generous observation of Hilly’s daughter Heather, or how Stockett again uses Aibileen to remind Mae Mobley that she’s a pretty girl, as well as daily esteem building mantras like “You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tent.”
Though Minny’s children are between a rock and a hard place (their sharp tongued, bossy mother Minny and their violently sadistic father Leroy) in the book Minny actually smacks her daughter Sugar for laughing at Celia, giving her this eye rolling, “know your place gal” lecture. “You shut your mouth, Sugar. Don’t you never let me hear you talking bad about the lady who put food in your mouth, clothes on your back! You hear me!” (Pg 334)
Saint Aibileen only turns judgemental on one child. And that’s her best friend Minny’s youngest daughter Kindra, where she says uncalled for assessments like this to make readers chuckle “As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking.” As Minny hollers and even threatens her youngest daughter Kindra to make dinner, Aibileen thinks “Kindra – she seven now- she sass walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. (Pg 396)
Not once in the novel or reportedly in the film does Aibileen, who imho was written to be second only to Mother Teresa in goodness, treat a black child like this:
Instead of Aibileen’s lack of compassion for children in her own community raising a serious Uncle Tom flag, Aibileen’s behaviour and her WTF quips such as “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.” (Pg 91) endear her all the more to those who think this kind of thing is just how blacks were supposed to act, you know, ’cause we just love white chilluns so.
Many people also miss Stockett’s admission at the end of her novel which kind of explains how segregationist ideology seeped into her book. Keep in mind Stockett was born in 1969 and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964 when you read this. From pages 447 to 448, hard copy of the novel (same first run edition with the Medgar Evers error):
“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.
And God, how I loved to talk to Demetrie. After school, I’d sit in my grandmother’s kitchen with her, listening to her stories and watching her mix up cakes and fry chicken. Her cooking was outstanding. It was something people discussed at length after they ate at my grandmother’s table. You felt loved when you tasted Demetrie’s caramel cake.
But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her own lunch break. Grandmother would say, “Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,” and I would stand in the doorway, itching to get back to her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work. Not to mention, white people didn’t sit at the same table while a colored person was eating.
That was just a normal part of life, the rules between blacks and whites. As a little girl, seeing black people in the colored section of town, even they were dressed up doing fine, I remember pitying them. I am so embarrassed to admit that now.
I didn’t pity Demetrie though. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house, cleaning up after white Christian people. But because Demetrie had no had no babies of her own, and we felt like we were filling a void in her life . . .”
I’ll wrap up this part of the post with an excerpt from The Nation article:
For a lot of young white people, I think, racism has become completely untethered from history. They’ve been taught “colorblindness” sans a sense of what it means to grow up in a country where white supremacy was once the ruling ideology. “Reverse discrimination,” then, is a catch-all for frustration at rules they don’t understand (white people can’t say the “N-word”), and double standards that seem unfair (e.g., “Why can’t we have White History Month and a White Entertainment Channel?). It’s understandable, but also a little depressing. ”
I found this great article on The Root:
How Did Blacks Travel During Segregation?
The Negro Motorist Green Book was helpful for navigating Jim Crow America.
by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.
“In 1936 a Harlem postal worker and activist named Victor H. Green decided to develop a guide that would help African Americans travel throughout the country in a safe and comfortable manner. The Negro Motorist Green Book (also called The Negro Travelers’ Green Book), often simply known as The Green Book,identified places that welcomed black people during an era when Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation made it difficult for them to travel domestically without fear of racial backlash.
The Green Book listed businesses and places of interest such as nightclubs, beauty salons, barbershops, gas stations and garages that catered to black road-trippers. For almost three decades, travelers could request (for just 10 cents’ postage) and receive a guide from Green. Eventually the guide expanded to encompass information about Canada and Mexico.”
Read the full article at the link below:
For more on where The Help went terribly wrong, see this post:
To be continued . . .