SHOTS FIRED: The Association of Black Women Historians has a few things to say about ‘The Help’

SHOTS FIRED:  The Association of Black Women Historians has a few things to say about ‘The Help.’

And they aren’t just talking to white people.  They are talking to all FANS.  And they are telling you to get your mind right (and giving you a reading list to help you).  Statement in full below–bold is my emphasis:

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help.   The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.

Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.

Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

Word Count: 766

Suggested Reading:

Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent to:

Read it again here.  And REBLOG THIS EVERYWHERE.  These are black women HISTORIANS.  They have lived the history or they are close to someone who has.  And they have paid their muthafrakkin DUES to WRITE the history.  THEY are the experts.  Not some…well, you know who.  THEY ARE BAWSE.

Reblog this hot 16 right here.  Because in the future……


9 thoughts on “SHOTS FIRED: The Association of Black Women Historians has a few things to say about ‘The Help’

  1. I have not read the book or seen the movie, and now I don’t think I want to. I have read Coming of Age in Mississippi and it was quite good.

  2. I read the book and plan to see the movie. I feel that the primary concept in the book is flawed. Considering the repercussions during this time, why would female household help risk their jobs and the safety of their families to reveal their treatment to a powerless, self-serving while female journalist? This journalist does nothing with her findings to improve the lives of these women or others working for white families..
    I plan to see the movie because black actors as as talented as others in the film industry and they need to work. They deserve the recognition and our support.
    Thanks for the bibliography..

    • @Jeanne and @Antonya: Thanks for commenting and for reading. Much appreciated.

      I recently finished the book. I still have no plans to pay for the movie although I won’t do any written review or critique of it without seeing it. I don’t think that is fair.

      That said, while I understand the sentiment around supporting black actors/actresses, I wonder how far we are going to take it. For example, if they did a Gone with the Wind reboot, would we be in line at the theatre because Angela Davis is playing Mammy? And on the other side of this, considering the content of the book and the movie and its big studio (well funded) marketing push, is this one of those movies that somehow needs our support? Wouldn’t we be better off spending our $15 on media that truly reflects the vision we have of ourselves (the Awkward Black Girl web series would be a good example) or other indies?

      And I say this and I actually do agree that we need to support black actors/actresses, directors, producers and studios as much as possible. I supported For Colored Girls when it came out even with the skepticism about Tyler Perry’s directing because I believe in the characters, the poetry and the actresses involved (and I also gave money to ABG). But I think knee-jerk race loyalty–especially when it comes to images that are dangerous and ahistorical–hurts us more than it helps and is silly and infuriating besides. How can we make demands on Hollywood for better roles, storylines and characters if we will support anything?

      Again, thanks for reading. And I would love to hear more about your reaction to the movie. What was great about it? What did you enjoy?

      Happy Sunday.

  3. Pingback: Not a Review of The Help | Nuñez Daughter

  4. I don’t think the book nor the movie purport to be a historically accurate treatise of Black life in the South during the 1960’s.
    No one movie can include every horrendous acts perpetrated against Blacks years ago.
    There may well be one or two sequels based on the present popularity of the book and the movie.
    I will say about the movie however, that the excrement-laced pie segment didn’t sit well with me, a black woman.
    I guess however powerless black women in that era had a limited supply of ammunition in their revenge arsenal.

    • I am still looking for a nice, free copy of the movie but I have heard that this is a part that really sticks with the viewer and not in a good way. Researching slavery, I was actually less moved by this piece when it appeared in the book; adding unsavory ingredients to food was not the most common passive resistance (you’d be more likely to find cooks putting poison or other things that are guaranteed to make the master or mistress sick in a dish) but it did happen. I think Minnie ‘fessing up to it in the book was the silliest thing I’d ever heard–she could have gotten lynched or at least beaten easily for some mess like that–and the whole “Hilly is too embarassed to tell” storyline was equally silly and is an example of one of those moments that could have been dense and complicated (and historically accurate) but ended up just being a Real Housewives cat fight. Also, I agree with another reviewer–she never would have made that pie in her own house.

      But this again goes back to the way that the narrative plays out or is written out by the artist and writer–how do you convey that kind of redress, resistance, violence, etc. in a way that makes it resonate in all of the complicated ways it did for the person committing the act and the oppressor who is in this case a victim? So my personal issue with the way voices and accuracy is deployed in the book is not that things aren’t part of someone’s personal story or vision and not that it is fiction. It is. But there are real moments that have happened in time that are full of so many layers and twists that the real work isn’t in laying out the event because it doesn’t lay easily. Those moments sit up. They turn around. They fight back. They claim privilege. They claim oppression. They screams and cry. They aren’t EASY to write or show visually–and the work of showing them so that they are shown in the most honest and full way possible and so that the audience reacts in a way that appreciates the complexity is the hard hard work of the artist.

      Thank you so much for commenting. Have you read the book? Please come back and leave some thoughts here!

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