Make ‘em Laugh

Throughout this blog I’ve mentioned how Minny is the prototype clown from generations past. Because there was once a time when characters like Minny made up the only roles African Americans could land in Hollywood. Some of these roles have almost faded from our collective memory. But their legacy still lives on. Every now and then Turner Classic movies or even AMC will play a black and white movie, and viewers can view some of America’s greatest black thespians.

Hattie McDaniel justly commemorated on a U.S. stamp

 

When a black entertainer was truly gifted, as in an awe inspiring “How’d they do that?” they would be featured. Such a thing happened to a phenom known as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

He’d already been known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest tap dancer of all time. Even Fred Astaire cited Bill as an influence. By the time Bill was paired with Shirley Temple he was older, but still gifted and fleet of foot.

Audiences raved over their dance numbers, and Bill became a fixture in many films featuring America’s Little Sweetheart, the angelic Shirley Temple.

To accurately cover this topic, I’ve  had to break out some textbooks that sum it up much better than I ever could. So my references for this post are;

On The Real Side (A History of African American Comedy)  by Mel Watkins and

Brown Sugar (Over One Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars) by Donald Bogle

I bring all this up, because the relationship between Aibileen and Mae Mobley, and to some extent Minny and Celia (playing the childlike bride) struck me as oddly familiar. 

When Bill “Bojangles” Robinson teaches Shirley how to tap dance down the steps in The Little Colonel, in this iconic moment not only are Shirley and Bill bonded, but the audience eagerly bonds with them. It’s one of those moments when people think, see, blacks aren’t so bad. Look how wonderfully he treats this little girl. 

And that was the point. The filmmakers had found a way to insert a talented entertainer without “offending” white sensibilities. Because during segregation what was first and foremost was learning how to navigate the treacherous waters of pleasing, instead of displeasing whites. 

Aibileen’s “aw, isn’t that precious” moment comes when she teaches little Mae Mobley to use the potty. In addition, Aibileen’s positive affirmations that she has Mae recite endear her to many readers, especially white readers. To me it rang false, because the same self confidence she was attempting to instill in Mae could also have been helpful to her “good friend” Minny and her children, all victims of constant abuse from Leroy.

And for someone to instill self confidence in others, it would be good if they followed their own advice. In one of my many WTF moments while reading this novel, the author has Aibileen making this statement about her own culture:

I tell him not to drink coffee or he gonna turn colored. (Pg )

The potty, like the steps, and like Minny’s cooking lessons to Celia are shared experiences. Just as Bill patiently teaches Shirley how to mimic his dancing, Aibileen winds up showing Mae how to urinate on a toilet (that her first success on a potty is in Aibileen’s newly built outhouse was not lost on me)

And much like Minny, Aibileen finds a way to turn this occasion into something humorous, teaching Mae to say Hilly smells like “Tee-tee.” (Pg 94)

Aibileen and Minny (especially Minny) have many such occasions to insert “humor” into either their dialogue or their situations in The Help. It’s no surprise that Skeeter comes in a distant third on the humor front between the three main female protagonists. Because Skeeter is not meant to be laughed at, but laughed with.

Celia, Hilly and Elizabeth share the bulk of scatterbrained antics among the employers, with Charlotte Phelan thrown in for her absurd rules on how a young lady should look and behave.

But even then their “humor” is decidedly different than what Aibileen and Minny serve up.

For instance, Aibileen gets to mispronounce words, possibly for comedic affect:

Pneumonia is used in place of ammonia as in  “Just pour some pneumonia on that garbage” (Pg 84 )

Law is substituted for Lord as in “Law it’s hot out here.”  (Pg 4)

Even Minny gets in the act:

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

And these two also gets the bulk of similes and metaphors:

First day I walk in the door, there she be…fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Aibileen ( Pg 1)

Her legs so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week.  Aibileen (Pg 1)

Miss Hilly talk real slow, like she spreading icing on a cake. (Page eight)

Seventy years a worry done put so many lines in his face, he like a road map. Aibileen (Pg 20)

Stockett has Aibileen and Minny speaking on subjects the younger crowd, like Skeeter, Hilly and Elizabeth, and even the white socialites in general wouldn’t (at least in this novel)

Which brings up another troubling issue within the pages of this novel. How the author divides the characters along racial lines far too often on what white people do, as opposed to how she believes African Americans behave.

Aibileen and Minny, two women heading to church have a particularly crass conversation about  a character having a “spoilt cootchie”. Aibileen even exclaims “people think I got the black magic?” (Pg 23)

For anyone unaware of the stereotypes and crude myths that have dogged African American’s for years, Stockett touches on two of them here. That though we may profess to be Christians, we still fall back on pagan beliefs, like “black magic”

Here’s the excerpt from the book:

“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.”

“Say what?”

“Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, up walking in a week. Isaiah fell off the cotton truck, on your prayer list that night, back to work the next day.”

Hearing this made me think about now 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 (Aibileen’s estranged spouse) run off with?”

“Phhh. You know I never forget her.”

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that 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.” (Pg 24)

How utterly offensive is this exchange? This is supposed to be two grown women. Two regularly attending church members, according to the novel. Their reasoning is not only juvenile, but stereotypical.

Minny has just revealed that Aibileen’s estranged husband (apparently not her ex, since the book never mentions that Aibileen sought a divorce) has given his new lover Cocoa a venereal disease. Apparently Aibileen “prayed” for this to happen. But Cocoa either doesn’t get medical attention, or somehow if she does, it’s not cleared up until months later.

How, and why would Kathryn Stockett believe a scene like this is funny?

But wait, there’s more.

Stockett goes on a book tour, almost giddy as she recites the lines, and totally clueless (as in airhead clueless, yes I went there) as to the negative connotations of her own words. Yes, apparently African Americans (in this book) believe prayers to God will result in someone getting bestowed with a venereal disease.

Unfortunately, there’s no comparable section in the novel where Skeeter and the gals have an equally TMI moment, though Stockett boldly proclaims in the same video excerpt that Aibileen and Minny remind her of her own friends. Really? REALLY?

It’s not only funny, but strange that Stockett didn’t “share” that info when creating Skeeter and the gang.

Skeeter is the innocent but oh so driven southern belle, Hilly is a shrew of a belle, and Elizabeth is the befuddled belle.

Yet no where do they even approach behaving like Stockett has Aibileen and Minny.

But my first clue that the antics of the characters would be separated along “How Black People Behave” is when Stockett decribes the raucous scene on the bus, and goes on to tell an interviewer this:

Oprah Radio host Nate Berkus (no transcript available)

Excerpt:

“Yes absolutely. And you learned, I think as an African American in Mississippi to be very careful with your words and then one of my favorite scenes from the book is when all the maids were on the bus and they get to talk about all their white employers and they get to make fun of them as openly as they can.”

http://www.oprah.com/oprahradio/Author-Kathryn-Stockett-Audio

Then what would possess the author to write a scene like this, at a time when African Americans were still expected to tow the line in Stockett’s beloved Jackson, Mississippi:

I spot Minny in the back center seat. Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend.

I need to interject here. Why is a fifty-three year old woman hanging out with someone so much younger than her? It makes no sense. And Aibileen’s statement of “Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend” simply hightlights the age difference.

Where’s her friends in her own age group?

From Aibileen’s description, it’s as if she’s enthralled at having a much younger (and stronger) friend, thus it reads as if Minny is the leader, and not the other way around. One of the benefits of age is wisdom, which in this scene Aibileen sorely lacks as she eagerly listens in on Minny’s wise cracks.

From the novel:

I take the seat in front of her (Minny), turn around and listen. Everybody like to listen to Minny.

“. . .so I said, Miss Walters the world don’t want a see your naked white behind any more than they want to see my black one. Now, get in this house and put your underpants and some clothes on.”

“On the front porch? Naked?” Kiki Brown ask.

“Her behind hanging to her knees.”

The bus is laughing and chuckling and shaking they heads.

“Law, that woman crazy,” Kiki say. “I don’t know how you always seem to get the crazy ones, Minny.”

“Oh, like your Miss Patterson ain’t?” Minny say to Kiki. “Shoot, she call the roll a the crazy lady club.” The whole bus be laughing now cause Minny don’t like nobody talking bad about her white lady except herself. That’s her job and she own the rights. (Pg 13)

Hmm. The way the scene is written, the driver (who was most likely white, since Jackson, Mississippi hadn’t starting hiring black drivers yet) and other passengers up front (who were most likely white and sitting up front, since any black person with sense would still take a seat in the back especially in 1960s Mississippi) would have Minny thrown off the bus for her big mouth.

I believe they would have. This scene is a modern take on the time period.

Here’s a photo of how it really was. And notice something, no black person is laughing or joking:

Back of the Bus - See anybody laughing?

 

 

 

To be continued…

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