I’d gone back to a store to return an item. I wasn’t upset, I just explained that I’d gotten all the way home and wound up coming all the way back due to someone else’s mistake. I heard a comment behind me, jokingly of course “someone’s gonna get fired.” And the salesperson, who’d been quite professional up until that point responded with:
“Oh no, we wouldn’t do that. Everyone makes mistakes. But if it happens again”, and with a noticeable posture change, the clerk reared back into a slouch complete with rolled shoulders and a totally different voice “man you fired!”
Insert Gary Coleman’s “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”
or Amos ’N Andy’s “Holy Mackarel, Kingfish! ”
or Jimmie JJ Walker’s “Dynamite!” (Okay, I believe the proper way to phrase it is Ah-Dyno-mite!)
Or Snoop Dog’s “Fo Shizzle.”
I decided to add Dave Chappelle’s “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Rick James* b***h”
*there have been several variations of this line from a skit on Dave’s now defunct show. Britney Spears used “I’m Britney B***h. While X-Men United used “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Juggernaut b***h.”
Just insert any ridiculously bad impersonation of an overused phrase by a black character on TV, and you’ll have the moment most people (yes, even the cute white guy to the side of me) dread. When someone decides to break up a tense situation by mimicking what they believe is a uniformly beloved phrase or slang term so that we’re somehow ethnically bonded.
I didn’t get mad. I just kept my face hard as stone. I’ve found, over time that uncomfortable silence speaks volumes.
Now, what does all this have to do with The Help?
Well, as I read the dialogue, it reminded me of those type of cringe worthy situations, when well meaning individuals lapse into an impression of what they believe to be a funny African American, a prototype character that will never be given the merciful death they deserve. And I get it, I really do.
See, most people would laugh just to get it over with and move on.
I guess I’m just not wired that way.
I wonder if I’d tried to reciprocate, if I did some kind of comeback impression how it would be received. I wouldn’t because I really don’t know if there are any. I mean, would doing an Irish accent give the same affect? Russian? Valley girl? Italian?
It’s not the same.
Now, when Jimmy Kimmel uses Guillermo in just about every skit, showing us how supposedly funny everything sounds with his Spanish accent. It’s kind of in the same vicinity.
Or when the now defunct show Heroes took a great character (with a really cool power) like Hiro and turned him into a Japanese version of Charlie Chan, its kinda close.
And this season NBC has a new show called Outsourced. It’s a comedy set in an Indian Call center. If the writing’s bad, the show will be all about how funny everything is coming from the perspective of those in India. If the writing’s good, their culture won’t be the stuff of terrible jokes. It’ll be based on how the things workers go through each day are hilarious.
Anyway, that’s my hope. But still, it’s not the same. Plus I don’t think including more minorities into this mix, as in look how funny my The Simpson’s faux Indian convenience store owner impression can be makes much sense.
And really, someone help me out here. Am I being too thin skinned?
Aren’t we supposed to be able to laugh at our “differences”?
Then how come it feels as though its way too one sided.
I just want to know why there’s a “type” of black person that’s the go to, default mode. Usually it’s someone whose command of the english language is null and void, and their accent is definitely southern, even in today’s time.
Right now I’m watching the Wimbledon Women’s Tennis final. It looks as though Serena is about to win her 4th singles title at Wimbledon, moving past Billie Jean King in all time Grand Slam victories (with thirteen). And big sis Venus is in the stands cheering her on.
I really enjoy watching the Williams sisters, just because they play “big babe tennis” as announcer Mary Carillo says. Because though they’re siblings, Venus and Serena are as different as…well, they’re just wonderful opposites.
Venus is regal and serene, yet she does a little self effacing giggle whenever she tries to tell a joke.
Serena has a great competitor’s mean streak, something Richard Williams first revealed to the media years ago.
Even when she’s down she rarely folds. At times she’s arrogant, emotional and plays tennis brilliantly.
I say all this because, if these two sisters can show how their personalities differ, then why are Aibileen, Minny, Constantine and Yule May basically the same character?
Okay, Minny is a bit bossier than either of those others. But even she says “Law” for “Lord” in the book.
When I read their dialogue, each woman speaks almost identical. And I had to find out if I was just imaging it. Until I found this article:
Interview with Mokoto Rich of Time Magazine
The first voice to come to her was that of Demetrie, the African-American maid who worked for Ms. Stockett’s grandmother in Jackson in the 1970s and ’80s. “She came out in the voice of Aibileen,” Ms. Stockett said in a telephone interview from her home in Atlanta. “Then a few months later I came back to it and I found that Aibileen had a few things to say that were not in character, and that’s how Minny got started.”
And this one:
Interview with Jane Kleine of the Post and Courier
“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.”
Sigh. I suspect Kathryn Stockett, like that clerk I mentioned, reached back and pulled out the old “I know some black people, I’ve listened to them speak and this is how they sound.”
It especially didn’t help when I listened to this audio interview:
“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical. And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know, Octavia, she will tell you like it is.
And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”
“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 em as openly as they can.”
So I present to you, what Stockett, in full “blackface” wrote for the bus scene:
“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 probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me’s lucky to have her as a friend.
I take the seat in front a her, 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 a see my black one. Now, get in this house and put your underpants and some clothes on.”
(I have to interject here. Does this not sound almost exactly like Mammy chastising Scarlett for showing too much chest in Gone with the Wind?)
“On the front porch? Naked?” Kiki Brown ask.
“Her behind hanging to her knees.”
The bus is laughing and chuckling and shaking their 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 club.”
(The book has it listed as “a the crazy 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)
I’m truly sorry, but this is also what that bus scene reminded me of. The crows from Dumbo. In fact, there were several scenes that put me in that mindframe. When Aibileen and Minny were in church cracking jokes on people. When Aibileen and Minny spoke to each other over the phone, cracking jokes on people. See what I mean? It was the Aibileen and Minny comedy hour. They really didn’t start talking about anything that had any gravity UNTIL Skeeter asked them to work on the book. And neither of them seemed remotely interested in the growing civil rights movement that was right smack in their own backyard.
Note what the author has Minny saying:
“And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver.” (Pg 218)
to be continued…