Once again there’s a debate raging on the web. This time it concerns a Cheerios commercial which shows an interracial couple and their biracial child:
Here’s the commercial and its YouTube link:
Comments have been disabled, and according to the posts on Cheerios Facebook page, there are a few people upset with the cereal brand for portraying a black husband and white wife (even though the husband isn’t seen in a single frame with his wife, and is only shown at the end of the commercial):
If the man playing the father looks familiar, it’s because he’s Charles Malik Whitfield, an actor who played Otis Williams of the legendary singing group The Temptations, in the popular mini-series of the same name.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, “Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page also said they found the commercial “disgusting” and that it made them “want to vomit.” Other hateful commenters expressed shock that a black father would stay with his family.”
It’s not a shock to me that some people expressed racist ideology. Thankfully, others who don’t feel that way have come out to defend the commercial and see nothing wrong with a black man being paired with a white female. But in 2013, why would this still be an issue?
There are a number of reasons why this type of mindset is still around. For one, we will never truly eradicate racism. But what’s also important, is that far too many non-minorities (and also some minorities) wrongly believe if we just forget about the past, namely segregation, then all wounds will heal and there will be no more racism.
No one dares tell those who’ve experienced the Holocaust not to still grieve or hold memorials, or that they should just move on. And, on a personal note, had I not been aware of statements from the past and the ideology that spawned numerous misconceptions about my culture, I probably would have been just as unaware of how insulting several passages in the best selling novel The Help were, and how the book helps not only to contribute, but also continues painting black males in a negative light.
The scene was set when Minny Jackson makes this totally uncalled for statement about “plenty of black men”:
Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but that’s not something the colored woman do. We’re got the kids to think about. (Minny, Page 311)
Uh, no, this is how far too many black men ended up leaving their families during the period the book deals with:
And when black males marched in order to protest their treatment and silently demanded that they be afforded the title of “men” and not “boy” here’s how some in America responded:
For more on the treatment of black males in literature and in America, see this post:
Unfortunately, no major reviewer caught the ugliness woven throughout The Help novel, as black males became the primary whipping boys in order to give segregation and how black maids were treated a “humorous” touch.
In addition, the book’s message of “we love them and they love us” which is yet another antebellum inspired myth that was taken as fact in the novel and film, was wrongly resurrected. Note what Stockett learned during her “research” of this theory:
D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?
K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.
That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.
For more on the history of the antebellum myth of black workers loving those who oppressed them, see this post:
So when the Cheerios commercial is both lauded and condemned, look no further than some of the literary works that far too many celebrate as “authentic” depictions of a culture already seriously maligned and mocked in not just American, but also world history.
While most of the males who practice segregation in The Help are described with terms like “handsome” and “a good man” (Stuart Whitworth, who is briefly engaged to Skeeter, but takes back his ring once he finds out she’s behind the book “Help”). And “honest” (Skeeter says this about her father, after he tells her what little he knows about Constantine’s dismissal). And even Stuart’s father, a man who the novel has standing shoulder to shoulder with real life avowed segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, in order to block James Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss.
Here’s now the non-minority men of The Help were marketed overseas:
Stuart claims that his father, Senator Stoolie Whitworth is simply doing the will of his constituents, and his real feelings on integration cannot be revealed.
Even Constantine’s father is given a pass, as she tells Skeeter how much he loved her and even cried over her circumstances, though she and her biracial siblings lived in poverty.
In The Help, the black males paired with the saintly and sassy maids are labeled with terms like “fool” (Aibileen and Minny state this about Leroy: So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool-Aibileen, Pg 26). “No good” (Minny states this about her father: my no-good drunk daddy, Pg 38)) or described as absentee fathers (Clyde leaves Aibileen to raise Treelore alone, and Connor leaves Constantine, forcing her to raise their daughter, the angry mulatto stereotype Lulabelle, who was renamed Rachel and had a complexion change in the film)
And then there’s Leroy, a useless character who epitomizes the black brute stereotype that was common in older books. Leroy terrorizes not only his wife, but his children. Here’s how Leroy explains why he hits Minny:
“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” (Pg 413)
If you’re a regular reader of this site, then you’ll know that I mentioned when I’d first read The Help, that while it put African American females on a fake pedestal, the novel made the mistake of painting the black male in several negative terms that were prevalent during segregation.
It’s this mindset that’s been handed down from generation to generation, until far too many Americans seem to believe the worst about many black males.
As I read The Help, the book appeared to suggest the real problem with segregation wasn’t the people who practiced it, but that the maids had unwisely chosen the wrong men to either marry or bed. For example, the primary maid Aibileen is content to live as an asexual hermit who dotes on the white children she looks after, yet admonishes her son to call his estranged father “Crisco” in this scene from the book:
We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. (Aibileen, Pg 5)
In addition, there’s a very nasty scenario I call the Cocoa, Cootchie, Clyde debacle, where Aibileen believes she’s given the woman Clyde’s run off with a venereal disease via prayer.
From the novel (please pay attention to the items I’ve put in bold):
And look a there who else I done put on the list. Bertina 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.
“Minny, I say last Sunday, “why Bertrina ask me to pray for her?”
We walking home from the one o’clock service. Minny say, “Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety. ”
“Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, up walking in a week. Isaiah feel off the cotton truck, on your prayer list that night, back to work the next day.”
Hearing this made me think about how I didn’t even get the chance to pray for Treelore. Maybe that’s why God took him so fast. He didn’t want a have to argue with me.
“Snuff Washington,” Minny say, “Lolly Jackson- heck, Lolly go on your list and two days later she pop up from her wheelchair like she touched Jesus,. Everybody in Hinds County know about that one.”
“But that ain’t me,” I say. “That’s just prayer.”
“But Bertrina,” Minny get to laughing, say, You know Cocoa, the one Clyde ran off with?”
“Phhh. You know I never forget her.”
“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up with 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 worry you 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.”
Excerpt from The Help, Pg 23-24
There are so many offenses in this brief passage, I don’t know how it made it into the final copy of the book. Yet it was published. And many readers failed to note several things:
1) Minny claims Cocoa was afflicted a week after Clyde left Aibileen. So all three, Aibileen, Clyde and Cocoa were possibly infected with a venereal disease.
2) Aibileen mixes religion with “black magic” wondering, “You saying people think I got the black magic?” During segregation, and even today, no matter what religion those of African heritage profess to be, some uninformed hardcore racists will still allude to blacks as practicing voodoo or black magic. How an editor didn’t spot this affront is anyone’s guess.
3) Minny and Aibileen are supposed to be devout Christians. Yet in the novel, which was altered for the movie, they simply gossip about others in their congregation like a couple of mean girls. In addition, a devout Christian would know that black magic, or magic of any kind would have no place in biblical teachings. Thus Aibileen and Minny are simply stereotypes. Aibileen is the docile, blindly loyal maid and Minny is the sassy, quick with quip, back talking maid, two caricatures of black women which had a huge heyday in films and television during segregation, images which remain and are challenged to this day.
Claiming blacks were afflicted with “diseases” particularly venereal diseases came from bigoted ideology. Here’s a scan from a Jackson MS newspaper, circa 1963. Note what the woman who’s opposed to integration states:
And this next scan is from a non-fiction book which highlights the work done by the WIMS, a diverse group of volunteers who worked to dispel gossip that all blacks carried venereal disease during the civil rights movement, among other erroneous myths:
WIMS stands for Wednesdays in Mississippi. This organization sought the participation of upper class women of both races during the early 60s. The book is called Mississippi Women: Their Histories , Their Lives by Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swan, Marjorie Julian Spruill and Brenda M Eagles. The publisher is University of Georgia Press
Kathryn Stockett, and even Oscar winner Octavia Spencer felt so comfortable with this scene that they performed it on the road while promoting the novel. Stockett begins reading as Minny at about 7:51 minutes into the program. As she reads the “prayer/spoilt cootchie” scene, Clyde, Aibileen’s husband is re-named “Plunk” which is the nickname of the husband of Stockett’s real life childhood maid, Mrs. Demetrie McLorn:
Spoilt cootchie starts at 7:51 minutes into the clip.
Read more in this post: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/stockett-voices-minny/
In case there’s any question just why Spencer didn’t object to the tone and insulting dialogue, or why the vagina of a black woman and her venereal disease aka cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster is mentioned but not a word on any cootchie of Skeeter’s gal pals, it’s important to note that Kathryn Stockett revealed in an audio interview (Audible.com December 2009) that she had an agreement with Octavia Spencer early on:
Dapito: And is there a movie version coming out of The Help? Did I hear that right?
Stockett: The movie rights have been sold to a fellow Mississippian Tate Taylor (inaudible) Green and I’m just so lucky that the book is in the hands of people, not only Mississippians but friends of mine from Jackson. They’re two filmmakers based in Los Angeles.
Dapito: Oh I can’t wait. Do you think they will cast Octavia and some of the other narrators?
Stockett: I think Octavia will be the part of Minny because ah . . (pause and laughter) you know, that was just the agreement. It wasn’t that hard of, it you know, there was no pulling hair on that one. She’s such a natural.”
Link: An Interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of ‘The Help’ Narrated by Diana Dapito
There’s another earlier interview where Stockett admits actually begging on Spencer’s behalf, so that the actress could voice the part of Minny in the audio version of the book:
“It’s amazing,” she says, with special compliments to Octavia Spencer, the actress who voices the sections by Minny, a stubborn maid whose mouth gets her in trouble.
“Octavia is feisty,” Stockett says of her friend. “I begged them to give that role to Octavia and … it’s amazing.”
Spencer, an actress from Montgomery, Ala., and now in Los Angeles, says she has read the book three times and listened to it twice.
“I love this book. If I weren’t friends with Kathryn, I would still love this book.”
Read the entire interview here:
On Stockett’s behalf, Spencer jumps in to defend the author when the film premiered at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Philly, 2011. To read what happened at that event, see this post
Part of the PR hype on the book was that as a native of Jackson, MS, Kathryn Stockett had the family pedigree and had done her research. Unfortunately, Stockett made a whopper of an error that ended up on three known audio interviews, where she claimed Medgar Evers had been “bludgeoned” to death. In one of the interviews she even claims he was bludgeoned in front of his children. So, how could the same author who wrote about Evers being shot in her own novel completely forget this civil rights icon’s assassination by gunfire?
More on the Medgar Evers error that made its way into the novel can be found here.
Even though Octavia Spencer publicly admitted she’d read the manuscript before it was published, the actress had no qualms about sections in the book which directly insult her own culture. There’s an omnipresent narrator operating in the story, telling the reader who’s good and who’s bad, and even some characters like Hilly are given a “twist” as per the author’s own published revelation. Yet when it came to the black males paired with the maids, no such redemption or twist is afforded them:
Interview with Celia Blue Johnson & Maria Gagliano for Slice Magazine
“Sometimes you can see the cracks in the surface with Hilly. That’s why I threw in that cold sore. You can really tell that all the stress is getting to her.”
“It’s fun trying to make characters not too flat, meaning not all good or all bad. But it’s a challenge, too. With Hilly Holbrook, who is considered my villain, the best I could do for her in terms of giving her a good side is show that she really cares for her children and that she’s a great leader.”
It’s almost important to note that Spencer popped up on blogs around the internet defending the novel. What’s not known is whether her participation in doing so was part of her “agreement” in order to secure the part of Minny in the film. The screen grab below is from the site The California Literary Review http://calitreview.com/2526/the-help-by-kathryn-stockett/
While Spencer earnestly claims “Minny was my mother” I seriously doubt her mom would advocate fried chicken as therapy, or as Minny states in the film:
“Frying chicken tend to make you feel better about life.” Or that Spencer’s mom would even exclaim “eat my shit!” which is as bad as putting “Hasta La Vista” into the film. It’s especially troubling that Spencer would have no problem with linking her character with chicken, when throughout history and even now, African Americans have been linked with fried chicken for laughter and derision:
Somehow Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor dodged controversy while others have been called out for hyping a stereotype:
“The Blige backlash was swift, though, with mocking approaching meme levels over the ridiculous spot, in which the people’s diva stands on a table and rhapsodizes, “Crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty…flour…tortilla.”
The stereotype perpetuation of a black woman espousing the virtues of fried chicken is never a pleasant thing to behold, although Octavia Spencer didn’t cause much of an uproar for saying in The Help (for which she won an Oscar), “Frying chicken just tend to make you feel better about life” in a scene that was not intended to make you want to kill yourself.”
Octavia Spencer and the eventual director and screenwriter of The Help, Tate Taylor, have linked blacks with fried chicken in both The Help and an earlier project:
Rarely, if ever could an African American direct profanity at someone white in 1962 Jackson, MS as Minny does in the movie version of The Help, and live to tell about it. What strains credibility even further is Minny cooking up feces in her own kitchen, which is nasty beyond belief, feeding it to her employer, and revealing what she’d done. That’s not just bad fiction. That’s eye-rolling fantasy.
Sadly, portraying black males as violent brutes is as American as apple pie. Another southern author by the name of Thomas Dixon helped spawn this propaganda in his novel The Clansman, which then became the classic film The Birth of a Nation.
From the novel The Clansman:
“As he bowed his thick neck in pompous courtesy, she caught with a shiver the odor of pomade on his black half kinked hair. He stopped on the lower step, looked back with smiling insolence, and gazed intently at her beauty. The girl shrank from the gleam of the jungle in his eyes and hurried within.” – Pg 207 of the online text of The Clansman, 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon and basis for the racial propaganda film The Birth of A Nation.
In The Help, the black brute character is played by Minny’s husband Leroy, who ironically made it into the film, though his abuse is offscreen. Leroy is not only a vile brute to Minny, but also his children. And he’s written as being stupid as hell, saying this to Minny in the novel while she’s pregnant:
“You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month.” (Leroy, accosting Minny in the kitchen, Pg 406)
That line was written to show just how slow of mind he is. Unfortunately, none of the maids are written as being too swift either. Stockett has them using malapropisms liberally, as Minny mixes up “cadillac” with cardiac, saying the cat almost gave her a “cadillac” arrest (cue laughter). And Aibileen can say congealed salad, but confuses pneumonia for ammonia several times in the book. Constantine’s folksy sayings are laced with WTF fuzzy math, like this one where she asks Skeeter:
“How tall is you?”
“Five-eleven,” I cried. “I’m already taller than the boys’ basketball coach.”
“Well, I’m five-thirteen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.” (Pg 65)
And there’s this dialogue, where Constantine once again is enlisted to boost Skeeter’s self-esteem by appearing stupid as hell (Skeeter is the first speaker):
“I was in the attic, looking down at the farm,” I tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.”
“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top of the house mean the head” (Constantine’s answer to Skeeter, Pg 63 of the book The Help)
In 1965, NBC aired a documentary on life in Mississippi for African Americans. A lone black male spoke out, and was brutally assaulted for telling the truth:
“The meaner the man be the more you smile although you cryin’ on the inside . . . ”
-Booker Wright, from the documentary Mississippi: A Self-Portrait
You can read about Booker Wright’s courage in speaking out here
But why was it so important to have African Americans, specifically males, denoted as ignorant, lazy, but required to grovel and smile when insulted?
The simply answer is that power and control were the order of the day during segregation.
Blacks were paid low wages, worked long hours, in essence, segregation was profitable. Cheap labor, and live-in “help” of both black men and women freed up their employers. When African Americans demanded equality, the excuse often used to block integration was that we’d get equality when we “earned” it. Yet the bar continued to be raised, and even today, old habits die hard. Note the receipt given to a black customer who simply returned an item to a store. The code lists the reason given as “Dumb N*****
Read more in this post:
And to read more about the verbal gaffes made by Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer as per their published interviews, which cast doubts on the feel good PR spin on The Help, see this post:
Since this post is getting long, I’ll have to split it up. In continuing to explore why the Cheerios commercial has caused so much hate and resentment, I’m wondering why the networks still can’t seem to be inclusive or see outside the box when casting leading roles. It may be hard for some to see black males or other minorities in roles outside of the ones they’re usually cast in, which don’t include the hero or lead of a series.
The New Television Season: Where are the lead roles for minority actors?
This post is still in development . . .