“Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves. Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations–duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights–implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.”
The Help is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. Skeeter is one of the most annoying “heroines” of 21st century. Reading it was like eating ice cream with my back against a Woolworths counter while watching hoses slam into black children in the street outside. Bull Connor is on the corner, motioning for the fire trucks to fill’er’up.** And somehow, my maid churned and froze this Ice cream herself.*** Of course.
The quote at the top of this post is from the first chapter of Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Like The Help, the title of Genovese’s book was deceptive to the point of fraud. Wouldn’t a book about the world the slaves made begin, continue and end with the slaves themselves? Wouldn’t it explore the life of the quarter, the household and the workshop? The day-to-day threat of sexual violence endured by female slaves? The auction block and the constant insecurity of family life? The runaways, the truants, and the slaves who purchased their freedom? The women who nursed their sisters, aunts, uncles, children, the midwives, the cooks, the illicit book learning, the musicians, the quilters, the painters, the dancers and the gardeners? The men, women and children who created community through religious service, gossip over fences, trade and barter, higgling at markets and itinerant peddling? The men who fought during the Civil War, the women who nursed and lingered along Union lines even though they knew they weren’t technically free but contraband?
Instead, Genovese begins his book expounding on the so-called intimate, symbiotic relationship slavery created between (unsexed, unraced) master and (unsexed, unraced) slave. And he works very hard at proving his own theory right–that masters and slaves could not exist one without the other, with the implication that masters were actually at their own slaves mercy (oh, and vice versa, of course).
Roll Jordan Roll has been critiqued for years but in a re-reading for Common-Place, Walter Johnson outlined the fundamental problem best:
The notion of slaveholders So themselves for an audience of their own slaves in a kind of Hegelian dialectic is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it illuminates countless aspects of American slavery. It does not, however, quite capture the quicksilver slipperiness with which slaveholders could reformulate the nominally beneficent promises of paternalism into self-serving regrets, reactionary nostalgia, and flat-out threats. Can it be mere coincidence that so many examples of planters expressing ostensibly “paternalist” sentiments refer to slaves who have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing?
That at any moment a slaveowner’s paternalism could turn to caprice, that the lives of the enslaved were more than a response to slaveowner largesse–this only begins to describe what is missing from Genovese’s tome. And it perfectly summarizes what I found most disturbing about Stockett’s novel.
“I didn’t pity Demetrie, though. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house, cleaning up after white Christian people.” ~Stockett, “In Her Own Words”
I read the Help and felt the hairs on the back of my neck quiver with ancestral rage. Because once again, here is another text purporting to describe the inner workings of black people’s lives–in this case, black women–which contradicts itself within a few chapters of the opening, then does its best to prove its own theory right–
“I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.” Stockett
–but without ever truly entering the inner lives of “the help” themselves (If we are honest, the book never really enters the inner lives of the mistresses either).
The book is so seductive, so “entertaining”* because it makes a complicated, fraught subject perfectly resolvable. As Emerson Zora said, in a different context, everything was just so damn convenient. The author’s largesse is behind this (#Sigh at the largesse of the mistress): Skeeter is just young enough to have the energy to write the book about the maids and to have neither a career, nor a husband or children drawing her immediate attention away from their “plight” (Tenured Radical covered some of this issue elegantly in her critique; read it here).
She is “naive” enough to believe, at least initially, that it would “so easy.” I would add privileged enough but even the one white female character from the “wrong side of the tracks” is afflicted with this willful blindness to the violence of race relations in 1960s Mississippi. But she is privileged enough, with her club membership and brief stint dating the Senator’s son, to rub shoulders and be friends with the women of Jackson’s high society–because otherwise how would she begin to have her
transformation realization that the women she was friends with were really “that bad.” This transformation realization is also possible in part because she was just Northern-educated enough to be able to see some of the contradictions in the world around her.
And thus, voilà, Skeeter is no longer an awkward, I-Can’t-Fit-In-Because-I’m-Tall-With-Frizzy(?!?)-Hair Southern debutante to a copywriting, long-haired, short skirt wearing (gasp) liberal. So neat. So clean. So easy.
(And there are some black female characters scattered in there…somewhere. Speaking black dialect…or something like that. I think one has an abusive husband…or something. And one is definitely sassy. Or something. Gives her a hard time when she’s just trying to save the po’ black folk. *wipes tear*)
Nothing is hard for Skeeter, nothing is dangerous. It isn’t clear from the novel that by following around black maids and typing out their stories Skeeter risks anything more than possibly losing her future husband, or enrage her mother, or endanger her spot at the Wednesday night bridge club. Oh, there is the sort of fear that the police will come by the house or someone will see her as she enters Abileen’s to interview her and the other maids. And though the interviews are bracketed by a beating that blinds Robert, one of the boys, because he was attempting to enter the White Only bathroom of a local store, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, there is no sense that this young white woman is in any visceral danger, much less understands the danger she is putting the other women in.
And you WANT her to get it. You want her to have a transformation, the same transformation white women–and again, I must turn to Tenured Radical as one of the most eloquent white critics of the film–were having across the country in response to the racialized violence of the time period:
My own changes in consciousness came more from becoming deeply immersed in Black and Latina women’s work on the Lower East Side when I became a community organizer for a brief period, and subsequently by privileging the perspectives of academic colleagues of color, not from a one to one relationship with a single woman of color that I imagined as uniquely affectionate, or from becoming alienated from other whites. This required from me a sublimation of the self, deferring to others and learning some harsh lessons about my own class/racial ignorance, rather than the emergence of a newly, empowered individual agency as Skeeter demonstrates. While Skeeter demonstrates the possibilities inherent in listening, and a new sense of reciprocity (sending money from the book to each woman), her articulation as “a good person” throughout mutes what is actually a far more difficult transformation for white people. Her passage into becoming one of the group also rings quite false to me: she goes from outsider to insider in a heartbeat, and doesn’t have to demonstrate the ongoing earning of trust which I think is critical for white women even (especially?) in relation to our sisters of color in the academy. And Skeeter *never* unlearns her privilege in any obvious way, although she does learn guilt (which Aibileen and Minny free her of, so that she can go take a job no Black woman would have been offered in New York in 1963.)
The best you get from Skeeter is a move to New York City to be work for Harper & Row–because, ya know, her boyfriend broke up with her and they kicked her out of the women’s club and the book is, well, published.
Oh yeah. About those black characters. Scattered in there…somewhere.
This is not a review of the Help. The Help isn’t worth a review. It’s Twilight meets Gone with the Wind, shaken not stirred. I am writing this because if I don’t I might scream. Or I might kill Mr. in my sleep.
Besides other people have done a much better than me reviewing the movie, why re-invent the wheel? Aishah Simmons does a great round-up of various conversations here and includes her own excellent critique. Zora Walker has been posting, and will continue posting, notes, reflections and critique related to the movie and the book. I’ve already posted the Association of Black Women Historians statement on the Help phenomenon–and if you don’t believe THEM, the women who have lived, researched and are MAKING the same history Stockett used to write her damn book, then I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ll just toss out two things. First, the comparison to slavery is so blatant, I’m afraid if I turn my head and look out the corner of my eye, I’ll see my dissertation holding a shock stick and yelling, “NO!” while the spirits of my ancestors tap machetes against their palms in 6/8 time around it:
“Domestic work was synonymous with black women in freedom as it was in slavery, and the active efforts by whites to exploit labor clearly circumscribed black lives. Yet black women fought for dignity, to be treated with respect, and for a fair chance to earn the ncessary resources for making a decent living. The women identified autonomy as vital to freedom and to making decisions about wage work most commensurate with their non-wage responsibilities as mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives….” Tera W. Hunter, “Domination and Resistance : The Politics of Wage Household Labor in New South Atlanta.” Labor History, no. 1991 (1990): 205-221.
This is RELEVANT. Read more, read the rest. The free labor of enslaved women, men and children–and the coerced, cheap labor of these same raced bodies after emancipation–was not enforced by a wish and a prayer and a mean remark from a white mistress. They were enforced through the whip, through dogs, through chains and through the sometimes more effective control of land, employment opportunities, education and professional advancement, housing, travel, marriage, sexual relations, health care and food options (hell, that sounds a lot like now). The Help, at least the book, captures none of these things.
Second, but related, a white woman writing a book did not then and does not now resolve these things. But black women speaking their truth IS a form of resistance we have engaged in for years and years and years. And for years and years, even the crumbs of words we’ve been able to pass down in written and archival form, have often been mediated through the pens and minds of white women. And for years, black women historians, writers, artists and filmmakers have been creating works of history and art that truly do reflect the voices of the women in our lives and the genealogy we are descended from. And we scrape, save, beguile, cry and pray for support that we need to actually speak our minds. And, again, only crumbs–CRUMBS–of potential black girl genius have filtered into the mainstream.
The overall confusion & critique around the book (and the film) stems in part from these two facts.
*Sorry for the over-use of the dramatic, punctuating “quotation mark.” Considering the literary falsetto this book hits as it tries to explain race relations and the the day-to-day abuses against women like my grandmothers, I couldn’t avoid it.
**Yes, I know Bull Connor was the Commissioner of Public Safety for Alabama. But his spectre crosses state boundaries. Besides–this makes about as much sense as the rest of the book.
***See the note above. Duh.