The Help’s effect on Children’s Literature

Posted on January 18, 2016

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After the success of The Help, I figured it was only a matter of time before some other enterprising author wanted their own happy slave, happy domestic narrative. Since audiences howled with laughter at Minny’s antics in the book and the film (gaining former comedienne and now full time actress Octavia Spencer a best supporting actress Oscar), Spencer’s now landed a slew of new films where she simply plays a variation of Minny.

Ah, Minny. From cracking jokes, to loudly grumbling about her employer (still in comedic form), in short, the character of Minny is an updated Mammy from Gone With Wind for a new generation. A few of Minny’s smh WTF lines:

Frying chicken quote from the novel

Frying chicken quote from the novel

 

The line above was actually changed in the screenplay and in the film to read, “Frying chicken tend to make you feel better about life” as if cooking this bird to a golden crisp is therapeutic.

The end result seems to be that with the popularity of The Help, other recent publications sought to find their very own “Happy Darkie,” only this time its in children’s literature.

 

Troubling Trends; Happy Slaves and Revising History in Children’s Lit

First up, a book that attempts to tell the story of President George Washington’s chef, a slave named Hercules. A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a  story told in the first person “voice” of Hercules’ daughter Delia. The story line revolves around Hercules’ attempt to bake a cake for Washington’s birthday, and high jinks ensue when there’s not enough sugar for the cake (insert eye-roll here). Lest you think that this should have been a heart-warming “it’s take your daughter to work day!” tale, its important to remember that the book was based on real people who were slaves.

 

A Birthday cake for George Washington

 

Controversial childrens book

 

Cue the social media outrage over revisionist history for children. Once the you know what hit the fan, Scholastic defended the book here

Scholastic defends book

Link: http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/response-birthday-cake-george-washington

The end result was that over the weekend, Scholastic Books pulled this newly released children’s novel. Here’s a quote from their statement:

“We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor and illustrator.”

And . . .

“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Link: http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/new-statement-about-picture-book-birthday-cake-george-washington

 

 

Happy  Birthday Mr President is recalled

 

This couldn’t have happened without the combined efforts of a diverse group of voices. I saw the hashtag #slaverywithasmile on Twitter. There were Facebook discussions, and bloggers like Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian have compiled links on this book and others that included smiling Indians here:

http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-will-they-say-or-master-narratives.html

Special thanks should be given to Leslie Mac, who came up with the hashtag #slaverywith asmile

https://storify.com/LeslieMac/a-birthday-cake-for-george-washington-a-slap-in-th

A must read: https://storify.com/Ebonyteach/children-s-literature-about-slavery-the-storm-cont

Some of the people who should be commended for making this happen, are “@LeslieMac, @CrazyQuilts, @Ebonyteach, @debreese, @djolder, among others.” this quote is per Mike Jung, on Twitter.

Of course there were those who claimed that getting the book pulled was censure and bordered on bullying. One dissenting comment wondered why slaves weren’t afforded the right to smile, as this poster was truly angry over criticism of the author’s interpretation of the Hercules’ time with George Washington.

So I will say this again. SLAVES HAD TO SMILE. They smiled even when they were unhappy.

They smiled so as not to displease their “Master” and “Mistress” of the plantation. If you were under the total control of another human being, just how happy would you be?

And the practice of making sure blacks showed those pearly whites, even under duress, continued long after slavery and into segregation. I’d dare to say that a more recent example could be the Sandra Bland case, where she was stopped by an officer, but didn’t “Smile” or behave in a humble matter he thought she should have, and things escalated.

To quote Paul Laurence Dunbar:

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
       We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!

I like @Ebonyteach’s explanation that the outrage over the novel was not “bullying” or censure, but “reclaiming our narratives” HELL YES.

 

Before all this happened, author Ramin Ganeshram spoke up in defense of her book:

“Yet, the discussion and criticism of the book has, instead, been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.

It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.”

Here’s a link to Ramin Ganeshram’s complete counterargument in favor of her creation:

http://www.cbcdiversity.com/post/137284630773/the-first-bite-slicing-through-a-birthday-cake-to

 

The author goes into how many years of research she’d done to tell this tale, only she neglected to mention that if Hercules was so happy, why’d he run away?*

I mean, why bother with facts when you’re trying to tell the heart-warming tale of a slave who is just so darn thrilled to bake a damn cake, that he scowls at his child and breaks into a smile when the white massa comes on the scene. Oh, and when its time for a picture to be taken for the cover of this book.

Years of research, and yet the author decides to ignore the fact that of the emotions slaves were granted the ability to show, number one was (drumroll) . . . to smile. The happy slave narrative is one of the most enduring and  shameful myths that will probably never die. Not when “Jim” from Huck Finn is still a favorite, and The Help made some people feel all warm and fuzzy about their very own domestics.

Twitter pic from the novel

 

So you see, author Ramin Ganeshram simply continued to promote the smiling slave (and during segregation, it was the happy black domestic) narrative:

 

Ferris State University picture of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Ferris State University. Artist’s depiction of Uncle Tom’s Cabin book cover, complete with smiling, oh so happy darkies (check out how they all appear to be the same shade of dark brown).

 

 

The "Happy" darkie myth of Aunt Jemima

The “Happy” darkie myth of Aunt Jemima

 

Mammy banks

Mammy banks for those who like to collect such things. And they’re smiling!

 

GE ad

This GE ad uses the stereotype of blacks and fried chicken, picturing a smiling child.

 

 

Louise Beavers, the early screen prototype for Stockett's Aibileen Clark

Louise Beavers, the early screen prototype for Stockett’s Aibileen Clark. This is a studio publicity shot.

 

1950s bigoted advertising

1950s bigoted advertising, for of all things, blacks and fried chicken. This is just one of the many ways African Americans were used as symbols of mockery during segregation. Oh, and PLEASE note the grotesque smile.

 

Luzianne coffee and chicory image from the Ferris State Jim Crow Museum

Luzianne coffee and chicory image from the Ferris State Jim Crow Museum

 

Sunflower, the stereotypical centaurette from Disney's Fantasia. Kindra is another stereotypical depiction of a black child

Sunflower, the stereotypical centaurette from Disney’s Fantasia, happy to be of service.  Kindra from The Help is another stereotypical depiction of a black child

 

 

From the Disney animated film Mothergoose from Hollywood, a caricature of Stepin Fetchit

From the Disney animated film Mothergoose from Hollywood, a caricature of Stepin Fetchit and the studio promotional photo of Stepin.

 

Smiling Aunt Jemima clone

Smiling Aunt Jemima clone. This actress needed to smile in order to portray the character of Aunt Jemima in the flesh.

 

 

Aibileen's folksy sayings and demeanor resemble Uncle Remus from Disney's Song of The Song

Actor James Baskins plays Uncle Remus, from Disney’s Song of The South. Notice the smile.

 

 

So, where did the Happy darkie, or darky, myth originate?

“According to Amy Kaplan’s “Nation, Region, and Empire” (Columbia History of the American Novel [New York: Columbia U P, 1991]: 240-266), the “plantation tradition” that romanticized slavery was invented by Thomas Nelson Page. Page’s In Ole Virginia (1887) was “a collection of dialect stories narrated by a faithful ex-slave who reminisces nostalgically about ‘dem good ole times'” (244).

As Kenneth Warren explains the function of the tradition in Black and White Strangers, “The happy-go-lucky darky images of the antebellum South could be contrasted favorably to the images of impoverished, potentially dangerous blacks of post-Reconstruction. Such contrasts were staples of plantation fiction and minstrelsy, both of which were going strong through the 1890s. The needs fulfilled by these images were not solely racial: ‘For many white audiences the black African was the creature of a pre-industrial life style with a pre-industrial appetite,’ allowing whites to indulge their nostalgia for a lifestyle that was no longer available to them as they congregated in urban centers. The promise of black America was an assurance that old ways andold pleasures were recuperable. Of course the old ways were beyond recovery” (119).”

Link: http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/plant.htm

 

Pairing blacks with food and making it seem as though we get so excited about our meals that it’s actually comical, continues to dog the black culture in America.

 

Chicken ad

Chicken ad

 

Mary J Blige Chicken loving Burger King commercial

Mary J Blige’s infamous Chicken loving Burger King commercial

 

 

Slaves weren’t the only ones who had to smile. During segregation, black actors won roles based on how well white audiences liked them. This generally meant they had to . . . wait for it  . . . SMILE.

Bill Robinson

Publicity still for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, long considered the greatest American Tap dancer

 

 

 

To be continued. I’m searching for more articles and quotes on this. For addition smiles, see Uncle Ben (Uncle Ben’s Rice)

Uncle Ben

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

and Rastus (Creme of Wheat) with Aunt Jemima, still large and in charge, and smiling on local supermarket shelves.

*More on George Washington to come.

 

 

 

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