Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?

“Familiarity breeds contempt – and children”

                        – humorist Samuel Clemens (better known as author Mark Twain)

It seems truer words were never spoken, especially when it comes to some writer’s attempts to portray African American characters. So it begs the question Are African Americans the children borne of familiarity?

In classic novels such as Dr. Doolittle, The Three Gooliwoggs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as countless American movies, caricatures of the black culture, from physical appearance to speech abound.

So what went wrong with The Help, that it too lands in the category of a novel with what some consider insensitive, with outright erroneous depictions of African Americans?  Did Katherine Stockett even realize that she had imbued many, if not most of her African American characters with negative, stereotypical traits?

To find out possibly what the author was thinking, here’s a quote from a recent interview:

Interview with Sarah Prior of the UK site BookRabbit

The characters in the book seem to be a favourite aspect of The Help for many readers, do you have a favourite?

“Aibleen and Minny I had a ball with, Minny was pretty fun because you can let it all out, she’ll say anything or do anything. Aibleen was a little bit more difficult than Minny because she was more careful.”

 For Minny to “say anything or do anything”, especially during segregation, would not only have  put her life in danger but those of her family. It’s as if the author had no concept of just how horrific segregation could possibly be, or she wouldn’t have told Katie Couric in an interview:

“I’d never let any of my characters get hurt”

Sadly, real African Americans were not as fortunate.

Why there was a need to have most of the African American characters in the novel provide “humor” when their station in life during segregation was anything but funny, resurrects images of  black actors and actresses inserted into films and sit-coms as the bossy help, all attitude and mouth, yet with no real power or tact. Their job was also to provide broad ethnic “humor”. 

In addition, several of the characters in The Help who were meant to be positive are saddled with negative traits:

Absentee father, single parent, the Mammy character reborn

Aibileen – her broad southern dialect not-withstanding, it would seem that Aibileen would be a fully fleshed  character. Yet early on she reveals an absentee  husband she calls “Crisco” because he was “no account, and greasy”. Though her son has died and her husband has left her, Aibileen seeks no further companionship. She considers Minny, a woman fifteen years her junior as her good friend, yet how many women actually are close to someone with such a wide age gap? In addition, neither woman appears to have any goals or dreams, nor does the book show any attempt by the women to encourage each other to achieve their dreams (because everyone, even individuals under the oppression of segregation had dreams).

Aibileen’s character is likely to join the long list of female caretakers patterned after Aunt Chloe, the Mammy prototype from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Patricia A. Turner’s “Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture” Ms. Turner describes Chloe as  “Dark skinned, loyal to her master and mistress, an able cook and housekeeper, plump, asexual, good humored, Aunt Chloe was one of the first of a long line of fictional black women whose characters comforted and assuaged.”

Aibileen takes great pride in the seventeen white children she’s cared for over the years. She even recalls how she told one “don’t drink no coffee or you’ll turn colored.”

It’s these type of sayings that dilute Stockett’s message. Every now and again, Aibileen comes across as a woman at odds with her own race. She dotes on her white charges, yet calls Minny’s husband Leroy “a fool.” And Aibileen, Christian though she is, engages in mean spirited gossip with Minny about members of her own church. Perhaps this is part of the humor the author meant to weave through the novel. Instead, it reads as too similar to the cackling crows in Disney’s animated classic Dumbo. It seems blacks are yet again relegated to joking and laughing and providing laughs, without delving into deeper emotion.

Sticky fingers

Yule Mae Crookle – College educated, hard working. Yet inexplicably, she winds up stealing from her employer and living down to her last name.

Motormouth comedian

Minny –  bossy, loudmouth joker, at a time blacks could be assaulted or  killed for acting “uppity.” In truth, the loss of a job for her inability to hold her tongue would have been the least of her worries. Minny is a source of anger and frustration, because she mirrors characters like Prissy from Gone with the Wind, Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and even Mammy from Gone with the Wind. Minny is the definitive cantakerous help.

Actors whose roles included playing characters similar to Minnie included Steppin Fetchit, Mantan Mooreland, Willie Best and a host of others who provided comedic diversion. But they were usually in comedies, not dramas. Even her payback to Hilly is supposed to be humorous. As Minny explains to Miss Celia:

“I say ‘ That good vanilla from Mexico’ and then I go head. I tell her what else I put in that pie for her…Nobody in the kiichen said anything for so long, I could a made it out the door fore they knew I’s gone. But then Miss Walters* start laughing…say “well Hilly, that’s what you get, I guess. And I wouldn’t go tattling on Minny either, or you’ll be known all over town as the lady who ate two slices of Minny’s shit.”

*Miss Walter’s is Hilly’s mother.

Unwed mother

Constantine – bi-racial maid who’s dismissed from the Phelan household early on. Constantine’s backstory is that her father was white and her mother was black, and she in turn is an unwed mother who has a near white looking child.

Abusive drunkard and baby maker

Leroy Jackson – Minny’s husband is described as abusive, both verbally and physically. In several scenes he’s mentioned as being drunk. Minny and Leroy have five children, with a sixth on the way.

Absentee and irresponsible

Aibileen’s husband Clyde and Constantine’s common-law husband Connor. Both took off once a child was born.

But The Help is hardly alone in attempting to create a contemporary “beloved” black domestic, one the viewer or reader can laugh at, rather than with. One misguided example is this sit-com created over a decade ago:

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfieffer (the P isn’t silent)

While this 1998 television comedy was about a sarcastic black manservant in the white house during Lincoln’s presidency, it’s one of the most current examples of the “intelligent” minority among bumbling whites. Desmond was the smart one, whereas his cast members, like Mary Todd, Ulysses S Grant, General Lee and even Abraham Lincoln himself were assigned the respective roles of the nymphomaniac, drunkard, comedic foil and incompetent skirt chaser. All this took place using the backdrop of the Civil War as a source of many of the jokes.

Much like Aibileen and Minny from The Help, the main character of Desmond cracks jokes (sometimes in standard English, other times switching to a more modern tone). The comedy was broad, and though Desmond was the “smart” one, many of his adventures included a quest for wealth, so that he was scheming much of the time.

Desmond is more aware than the others give him credit for, and is the one who usually solves the predicaments the others characters get into. The show was cancelled after less than five episodes, and was also the source of protests, not just over Desmond’s character, but the making light of slavery, as well as not being particularly funny.

One reviewer stated this about Desmond on the movie site : “A dignified and intelligent overweight black man, truly a rarity among prime-time role models.”

And this, “the show had its moments, as evidenced in the episode in which Desmond, Nibblet, and Lincoln are stranded behind Confederate Lines. Desmond has convinced the Southern soldiers that he is, in fact, a white Confederate spy disguised as a black Northern free slave. One Southerner inquirers, “It must be awfully hard on you to even temporarily go through life as a Negro.”

To which Desmond replies “Oh, it hasn’t been that bad. I have been able to get a lot more white women!”

Another reviewer left this:  …“Desmond was smart, sharp, had a comeback for every comment and did it with a smile and with style, and that all served to remind audiences of the character of Benson, another manservant in the employ of a politician.”

Still another review believed the show got a bum rap:

“Sure this wasn’t the greatest show on TV, but it seemed that those opposed to it (because of it “racial insensitivity”) just wanted to get TV air time. The sole African American character (Chi McBride) was the most intelligent! And the show tried to to meld well-worn characters into modern (albeit crude) comedy.”

More info on the show can be found here:

To be continued…

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