Disappearing Ac(cents)

With a nod to Terry McMillan’s best seller Disappearing Acts, a major source of disagreement over The Help is the missing southern accent for the white characters, and the oversimplified dialect and very broad accent given to the black characters.

The novel has gained accolades and praise for its “authentic” vernacular, especially by some readers and reviewers for Stockett’s crafting of the black characters. Since the white residents of this book, (who live in Jackson, Mississippi  but sound as if they’re residents of Martha’s Vineyard), are devoid of southern accents and vernacular. So how does the author explain this?

Kathryn Stockett told CBS reporter  and anchor Katie Couric, when asked why none of the white characters have a southern accent that members of her family “spoke so beautifully” she truly never heard an accent.

Stockett on CBS. Her grandparents maid Demetrie's photo is in the background

Here’s the excerpt of her statement:

“My grandmother spoke so properly, my stepmother speaks so properly, almost all of my friend’s parents spoke this beautiful,  just southern eloquence, and I…honestly, I just wrote it like I remembered it.”

“ . . . but I have to say I think the African American language is lovely as well.”


So while unable to recall her own family’s southern accent or phrases (an apparently her own),  somehow she’s able to remember the vernacular and broad accent of a maid who died when she (the author) was 16. How is it then, that a UK reporter noted while interviewing the author, “She talks like a Southern belle, though it’s probably the English concept of a Southern belle; ‘Would y’all care for something to sip on?’ she asks. She serves tea and cake while telling me about when she attended ‘culinary school’, caressing the words in her high sing-song voice.”

In the same interview the author talks about Celia’s southern accent:

I had a lot of fun writing Miss Celia,” Stockett says. “I wanted to create a character who’s so poor that they’re beyond prejudice. But in terms of dialogue? Hers was the hardest to capture. When you really get down into deep, thick redneck accents, you kinda have to take out all your teeth before you can really pull it off. But I do love those accents,” she sighs.

Here’s how Celia is described in that same UK article. Celia Rae Foote grew up in Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, and she ain’t educated. Lower than white trash, sweet-natured with peroxide blond hair and very tight dresses, Miss Celia is despised by all the snobbish Junior Leaguers; she can’t play bridge and she can’t cook but wants to pretend to her new husband, Mister Johnny, that she can, so she secretly hires Minny.

Now, going to the novel to read the first time Miss Celia makes an appearance, this is what the character says to Aibileen, on their initial phone call:

“Um hi. This is… (Aibileen is the narrator here , relays that The lady stop, clear her throat) Hello. May I…may I please speak to Elizabeth Lee-folt?

A “redneck” acccent is sorely lacking here, if there ever was such a thing.

However, even though Aibileen relays Miss Celia’s dialogue in near perfect english, she replies “Miss Leefolt ain’t home right now. May I take a message?”

“Oh” she say, like she got all excited over nothing.”May I ask who calling?”

As their conversation progresses, Miss Celia explains “I’m kind of new here and well, that’s not true., I’ve been here a pretty good stretch, gosh, over a year now. I just don’t really know anybody. I don’t…get out much.”

Celia sounds no different (or worse) than the other characters like Skeeter, Elizabeth or Hilly. There’s no “ya’ll” to be found uttered by these characters, who read as if they don’t reside in the same region as their “help”

Switching over to the African American characters, in a 2010  interview with The Root, the author talks about why they have broad dialect.

“I wrote it like I remembered hearing it,” she said, though she added that you tend to think that everybody who lives somewhere else “talks different.” While she existed in proximity to the help, they definitely inhabited “somewhere else.” 

Stockett further explains in a different interview:

“The voices of Aibileen and Minny came to me fairly easily once I got going,” she says. “I’d listened to the cadences and dialect of black Southerners most of my life, and I just played them back in my head.”


Now, keeping in mind Stockett’s answer to Katie Couric (to which I’m still searching for a link to the written transcript), and in a totally different article where yet another interviewer noted:

Kathryn was lovely! So softly spoken with the cutest southern drawl.


After reading and watching the CBS interview (and hearing Stockett’s southern drawl for myself), it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that there was a deliberate decision to strip the white characters of their accents (probably to make sure they spoke “beautifully”  also)

It makes  Stockett’s explanation about not hearing her own family’s southern drawl/accent to Couric seem unnecessarily evasive.

Besides, this is something the higher ups should have addressed BEFORE the book was printed  (which I don’t doubt they did and probably decided to still go for it). However, Stockett shouldn’t have been left to face the music alone. Which is what happened in a December 2009 interview with Michele Norris of NPR: 

NORRIS: You know, I’m sure that you know this, that some black women readers are very uncomfortable in reading the book. The book touches a chord with them, and many are quite angry, either at the situation the domestics find themselves in or the language that you use or the fact that a white woman wrote this book and attempted to get inside the head of black domestics. What’s your reaction to that? Are you surprised, or do you take some satisfaction that you actually touched a nerve, that you got some sort of emotion, that people are talking about your book?

STOCKETT: I’m a Southerner – I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve.
link: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815 

Later, in the same interview Stockett expressed her regret:

NORRIS: You know, Southern blacks and Southern whites often sound like each other in terms of their vernacular, but the black Southern dialect does have distinct differences. How did you know when you got it right, when you actually were writing in an authentic black woman’s voice from the 1960s?

STOCKETT: I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.I think that’s a huge distinction between writing your first book and your second book. When you’re writing your second book, you can’t help but think how it’s going to make the readers feel.

Demetrie is the deceased maid of Stockett’s grandparents, and has been mentioned as the inspiration for both Aibileen and Minnie by the author. 

Okay, so the book is out there with many, if not all of the white characters reading like Leslie Howard sounded in Gone With the Wind, where he’s doing a faux British version of a southern accent and he just sounds British the whole time.

Somehow  I doubt moviegoers will be as forgiving as many readers and reviewers, so I fully expect everyone in the film version of The Help to have a southern drawl. But then if the movie has to correct the book…what will all those people who believed the voices were already “authentic” do?

And dialect-gate brings up some troubling questions.

For a book that claims a central message is “we’re all equal”, then why don’t BOTH groups who resided in the south have the regional dialect?

And why would Stockett tell this to a UK reviewer:

” There has been a lot of comment about you as a white woman, writing in the voice of black women. Did you ever question whether this was your story to tell?

‘Well I didn’t think anyone was going to read it when I first started writing it and then a few years down the road when I started sending it out I had 60 plus rejections from agents then I was pretty sure then no one was going to read it, and then when it was going to be published I thought well maybe my friends would buy it, so I really didn’t have that fear of writing it so much, but once I found it was going to be published I kind of braced myself for a lot of criticism, I’m still kind of bracing myself waiting for it, I’m sure it’s coming at some point, but it hasn’t come yet.’ “


I find the part I’ve put in bold hard to believe. As posted a few paragraphs before this quote , Stockett was asked by Michele Norris of NPR “You know, I’m sure that you know this, that some black women readers are very uncomfortable in reading the book. The book touches a chord with them, and many are quite angry, either at the situation the domestics find themselves in or the language that you use or the fact that a white woman wrote this book and attempted to get inside the head of black domestics. What’s your reaction to that?”

She was also asked a similar question by Katie Couric of CBS and  Mary C. Curtis of the Root. There’s also an article where she talks about being on a plane and an African American reader expresses her displeasure with the language/dialect in the book (link to be posted shortly). If I had to view this another way, I’d say while the accolades from all the book clubs might be nice, to know to that there’s a fair share (in the racial group of a woman you sought to honor) that are pretty vocal about their displeasure, well that can’t be a very comfortable position to be in.   

But creating African American characters with dialect that’s hard to read while writing white characters speaking common english is nothing new. There were two wildly popular novels that did the very same thing, and faced the same criticism.

One was Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life:

From this brief dialogue except its not hard to figure out which character is supposed to be white and which one’s supposed to represent a black woman:

“Do you know of anyone who wants a position for general housework, sleeping in?” she inquired of the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black moon face that shone above an Alps of bosom, privately hoping that scrubbed, starchy-looking negress would offer herself.

“ …honey chile, I’ll work for anything you is willin’ to pay, and not take more’n mah share of your time for my young un, ef I kin get her and me a good roof over our heads. . . I needs a home for us honey.”

Now here’s dialogue from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind:

“I don’t believe it.  At that barbecue when you were sick and I didn’t eat beforehand, Ashley Wilkes told me he LIKED to see a girl with a healthy appetite.”

Mammy shook her head ominously. “Whut gempmums says an’ whut dey thinks is two diffunt things. An’ Ah ain’ noticed Mist’ Ashley axing fer ter mahy you.”

And here’s Aibileen’s internal dialogue in an excerpt from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help:

As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Aibileen, Pg 396)

An example of Skeeter, a native of Jackson, Mississippi speaking with another native of Jackson.

“Aibileen, do you think they’d. . .hurt us? I mean, like what’s in the papers?”

 Aibileen cocks her head at me, confused. She wrinkles her forehead like we’ve had a misunderstanding. “They’d beat us. They’d come out here with baseball bats. Maybe they won’t kill us but. . .”

 “But. . .who exactly would do this? The white women we’ve written about. . .they wouldn’t hurt us. Would  they?” I ask.

“Don’t you know, white mens like nothing better than ‘protecting’ the white women’s a their town?”

My skin prickles. I’m not so afraid for myself, but for what I’ve done to Aibileen, to Minny. To Louvenia and Faye Belle and eight other women. The book is sitting there on the table. I want to put it in my satchel and hide it. (Pg 366)

to be continued…

One Response “Disappearing Ac(cents)” →
  1. Who set the standard-or nonstandard-of how black people are ‘supposed’ to talk in books? Why would their dialect or manner of speaking be so radically different from the white people from whom, presumably, they learned to speak the native tongue of the country where they were enslaved? Education and reading affects the quality of speech but the accent, the slang, and colloquialisms should be the same.


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