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The Real Help: Helping Put “The Help” In Its Historical Context – A Reading Project

September 3, 2011

If you’ve been online at all in the past year or so, and especially the past few weeks, you’ve likely seen some of the controversy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help. If you’ve been following my site for any length of time, you know that authenticity is a big issue for me – I always think we should, as readers, seek out the people telling their own stories rather than reading an author telling a story for someone else who they’ve decided is “other”For various reasons, it’s not a book I’d have picked up on my own, even given the ridiculously crazy hype that’s surrounded it, and I’m happy to see these issues explored.

That being said, I want to put in quick a big disclaimer: I have nothing against those who have read it, watched it, and loved it.

I do though, have two questions:

1. I’m all for authors having the option to write whatever they want. But for that to work, we need a level playing field where all people can tell their stories. If one group is profiting of the stories of another group, as seems to always happen, that is where the issue comes in. If you’ve read this book, have you also looked up similar works by African American authors? 

2. Way too many people are willing to see The Help as historical fiction and accept the view Stockett gives of a white woman helping the poor black maids who love their jobs. And if readers aren’t willing to engage and seek out the truth, that is where the second issue comes in. In this book we have, essentially, a white-washed truth. So again, if you’ve read this book, have you also looked into some of the real truth of the civil rights movement?

When the Association of Black Women Historians released their statement I was really interested to read their perspective – I highly recommend you read it. I was also really excited to see that they included a reading list of more accurate and authentic works for readers to try instead of or alongside of The Help. And then Amanda emailed me asking if I’d like to do a reading project to read all of the books on the list, and of course I had to agree!

The books listed are:

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

Non-Fiction:
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 after the Civil War
 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

Our plan is a reading project where we pick two books each month and discuss them / review them. We will review on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, and will include a Mr. Linky or some other type of link collector so that anyone else who is interested can share their review of the book, thus ensuring we are giving publicity and a voice to the authentic works and learning the truth of the history. We are going to start on September 10th with Susan Straight’s A Million Nightingales and then on September 24th will review Jacqueline Jones’ Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.

Are you interested in joining us? We would love to have people read along and share their thoughts with us. We would also love for other people to take on hosting one or more of the books / discussions on their own site in coming months. Please email one (or both) of us if you are interested in hosting!

I had planned to write a lot more about the controversy surrounding the book and the movie but I’m just not able to get the words out. Instead I will share with you the collection of articles that I’ve bookmarked to return to:

Aibileen is now an unemployed maid, Skeeter is moving forward in her life of white privilege — and the filmmakers expect viewers to feel good about this.

  • RacismReviews talks about how the book is a continuation of the issues women of color have faced in the feminist movement, of having their stories told for them.
  • A.V. Club’s review of the movie has a great line that I can’t help but share:

The civil-rights movement might have ended segregation and beat back centuries of slavery and oppression, but let’s save a slow clap for well-meaning white folks with the moral courage to put themselves at the center of the narrative.

  • Chron.com and Jezebel both talk about the plight of ‘the help’ today, i.e. maids and nannies.
  • Salon had an article talking about the right authors have to write about whatever they want.
  • The New York Times has a truly fantastic article about the danger of stereotyping, saying:

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.

There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not. (emphasis mine)

Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.

  • Feministe talks about how books like this show African Americans as passive instead of as active agents fighting against injustices. It also talks about how ridiculous it is that dialect was spelled out for the African Americans, but not for the whites, who also speak in dialect.
  • The Rumpus has a long article about many different issues in the book, including the many stereotypes that are peppered throughout.
  • Shakesville has a long and fantastic post about many issues in the book and movie.
Note: Clutch also posted about black women filmmakers, I’m also considering checking out some of their works as an accompaniment to the project. 
Note 2: Do check out Amanda’s introduction post as well!
93 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011 9:06 am

    I don’t necessarily think that people who read and enjoyed that book NEED to pick out more authentic books if they just enjoyed it for what it was and didn’t look at it as “historical fiction”. It’s a fun book and even funner movie, but I do find a certain degree of condescension in it… That being said, I have sought out some books from that era that are sitting on my shelf now. My husband and I even watched a documentary we found on tv too. I will definitely check out that list!

    • September 3, 2011 10:33 am

      No, not necessary to search out other books, but I do think it’s important to at least think about the issues presented in the book rather than just take it as truth Jenny. But you know me, I can’t resist a good list of books to read ;)

      • September 3, 2011 11:32 am

        I agree that it’s important to think about the issues rather than take that one book as truth. And I guess I, personally, might feel offended at the thought that anyone would think *I* took it as truth even though I enjoyed it because I abhor ignorance and that’s the last thing I think I am when it comes to racial and cultural issues. I know there are a lot of other readers to whom The Help is truly just popular fiction and not intended to even be that historically accurate. But I suppose it’s possible (well I’m sure it is) that there are probably a lot of people out there who read it and didn’t think any more about it. But I bet the majority of those readers aren’t the type who are going to seek out other books about it. I guess I look at readers as more intellectually curious so those who would take the advice to seek out more books are the ones who are not easily blinded to the truth anyway. I hope that makes sense!

      • September 3, 2011 11:36 am

        True point Jenny, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to say much having yet to get around to reading the book myself, but I hope to understand more after these reads and after it. I certainly assume that readers can see the issues, but then, I like to think the best of everyone. heh

        I have to say that I love that the book is getting people talking :)

  2. September 3, 2011 10:03 am

    Great idea!

  3. September 3, 2011 10:05 am

    I have read The Help and I enjoyed the book, though I couldn´t quite shake the feeling that maybe there was something to question here. Yet, I never read any other books on this era. Not because I am not interested, but because too many time periods-places have my interest, and this one is not on the top of my list. I would love to, but don´t think I could handle it at the moment.

    I really like the idea of your project, but I do not agree with two things:

    First, the fact that people would not have sought out different books does not mean they are not able to question if this book is an ‘authentic’ account of that era.

    And that leads to my second objection and that is the notion that there is such a thing as ‘the real truth about the civil rights era’ or any era. Now, I have to put up a disclaimer, because I feel that this era stands out much more for people from the America’s. I have seen many people say that “this is another book about a white lady who helps the black nannies”. To me, that story isn’t as much part of a repetoir, because I had never come across it before. I can imagine that this is some sort of mechanism that makes the past more accesable to “white America”, easier to discuss their parts and guilt, while being able to identify with a character that objects to these treatments. I can also see how this is a way of glorifying an ugly past… And I see how that is wrong and unhelpful and another form of oppression even. What gets to me is that THIS is not what is being discussed, but instead the author’s background is being discussed. The Help is a story written by a “white” woman (I am sorry, I just hate using these terms. It’s ingrained in the Dutch not to use words like “race” because of our own historical background. To us using “race” feels like you’re a racist) and part of the book is written in the voice of “black” maids. One group representing the other. Again, I see the difficulty, the undermining, etc, but does that make the story less authentic? To me, it is not about “the real truth”, or “authentic voices”, it is about balancing the spokespersons, so to say: adding authors of different backgrounds (of ethnicity, class, gender) to the mix and then seeking to form some haphazard, always only approaching and not reaching a picture of “the real truth”. Because frankly, if you read the Help and contrast it with a book written by a “black” maid, then yes, your image woiuld be more balanced, but sometimes it seems to imply that automatically the story of the “black” maid would cover the “real truth” and I honestly do not believe that this one author can be equalled to the experience of the whole group. History, sources, fiction, will always be made up of lone voices, voices of individuals and individual experiences that may resonate with experiences of other individuals. These individuals may even use the same words to describe experiences they ahve been through as a group. However, I hope my objections above outline why I do not believe these will ever cover “the truth”. Oh, they may cover it, but never reveal it directly. I believe diversity in representation is the key and that is what your porject seeks to act, I just notice that this discussion seems to slide from diversity of representation to one “group” of authors being “wrong” or “inauthentic” because they are from a different background. And these two things are not equal to each other.

    Again, I command your project, especially because it seeks to do exactly that: to add more voices to the mix, to contrast them with this “hyped” book. However, I do not belief they are more truthful per se. Not because I want to dismiss how awful that area was, but because I believe the voice of one individual is never “the truth”.

    Also, I like how The Help is actually raising this debate and these issues. I honestly hope that the same will once occur for certain episodes in the history of the Netherlands that we would much rather forget today.

    • September 3, 2011 10:07 am

      Eh, hope that does not sound to angry. Again, I really like the idea of your project. It is just the general discussion (not your post) that this is a reaction to. Some of your links are very interesting. And that feministe article finally helped me understand why the accent bothered me in the book.

    • September 3, 2011 10:37 am

      Heh thanks Iris, some really great points. A line I always like is that there are three truths to any situations – your truth, my truth, and the real truth. This, you could say, is one of those instances.

      The issues being raised about the book are, I think, truly opening the eyes of some people who lived in that time. i.e. that your maid / nanny didn’t necessarily love you, she was doing her job! My complaint is that this book got HUGE while the books that talk about the true hardship the maids / nannies / etc faced rarely get anything, because we’re afraid to know and sometimes find it easier to think that racism is cut and dry good vs evil instead of a continuum with many faces. So we’ll (and it’s an issue especially in the US where this was / is their history, I think) read the book that paints white people as being good and helpful instead of showing how even nice and educated white people could be very racist.

      So yes, it’s really fantastic that the book is getting people talking!

      • bookgazing permalink
        September 5, 2011 9:02 am

        Big agreement with this point. If we lived in a different world with a more balanced makeup of popular literature (and more general balance) ‘The Help’ would be less problematic, but we don’t. I read ‘The Help’ last year and enjoyed it, my review is v positive. Since then I’ve heard a lot from people who are personally affected by the fact that this book has received so much attention and their critical perspectives have led me to see that book in a different light, just as many critical readings of other texts have. I can absolutely see why this book fits uncomfortably into the world we all inhabit and the kinds of stories that dominate entertainment.

        Btw The source that sparked me to think about different recations to the book was http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/ which might be of interest to you. Off to investigate some of the links you left to see what else they add (this film seems to be getting discussed alongside The Blind Side quite a lot, so I feel I’ve read more about that than The Help).

      • September 8, 2011 3:04 pm

        Yes I think if you’re not familiar with US history or culture, Jodie, it becomes hard to realize how revisionist some of the parts of it really are as well, which makes it hard for those from other countries and cultures. Thanks for the link too!

  4. September 3, 2011 10:41 am

    I only know a little bit about the controversy, and have not yet read the book or seen the movie. I do want to do both and see what I make of them, but it seems like a lot of people out there are ignoring some of the obvious problems with the story. I will be interested in reading what you uncover in these other books, and think I am going to go take a look at some of the links you posted. It does seem to be a very controversial issue.

    • September 3, 2011 10:45 am

      Thanks zibilee, I hope you enjoy following along and maybe even joining in. My tentative plan is to end the project by reading The Help :)

  5. September 3, 2011 10:53 am

    This sounds like a really good and interesting project, Amy. I read and enjoyed The Help — my sister and I both read it and saw the movie together — but certainly it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a “tell all” book about what the civil rights movement was. And I don’t think most readers read the book that way, at least I hope not.

    I do, however, disagree with one statement in your post, a characterization of the book as “a white woman helping the poor black maids who love their jobs.” I didn’t, at any point in the book, think that Stockett was trying to imply that the black maids liked being maids. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear they don’t like it, at all, and want something more for themselves and their families. The book may have sugar-coated or ignored some of the realities these women faced (particularly the threats of violence, which don’t seem to have enough of a sense of reality in the book), but I wouldn’t say that statement a message I took from the book, or, Id venture to guess, Stockett would have wanted either.

    In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of the books and finding some to read myself.

    • September 3, 2011 10:57 am

      I hope people don’t see it as that, but so often the issues seem to be just ignored so I worry Kim. It’s hard to talk about the book having not read it myself yet, I’m really just going by the reviews and articles I’ve read on it – I do plan to read it as well as part of the project. So thank you for clarifying :) And I’m glad to hear you’ll try a couple with us – they sound really interesting.

      • September 5, 2011 11:29 pm

        Oh good, I’m glad you’re going to read the original as well. Maybe you said that in the post and I just missed it? Either way, I’m sure that will help think about the other books too. I read the Anne Moody book in college — it’s quite good.

        • September 8, 2011 3:04 pm

          Nah I wasn’t really planning to but then the more I thought about it the more I thought it would be a useful thing to do Kim :)

  6. September 3, 2011 11:39 am

    You might be interested in the book I posted a review for today, White Water, because it is sort of an introduction to Jim Crow for children. I think it does a great job, because it’s hard (it seems to me) to come up with ways to tell this story to young kids.

    • September 3, 2011 8:38 pm

      Thanks for the information about your review Jill, I’ll definitely check it out!

  7. September 3, 2011 11:42 am

    Thanks for being willing to take on yet another project with me, Amy!

    Speaking as a historian, I view The Help as dangerous because it’s REVISIONIST history. It’s not how history actually happened, and yet it’s entering public consciousness as what did happen.

    A great example of this is that I worked at a national park and discussed the African-American regiment that participated in the Civil War for the north. Every single tour I gave, someone told me I was wrong because what I was saying didn’t match what happened in the film “Glory” about that regiment. In fact, I was the one who was historically accurate, yet people refused to believe it because of one Hollywood film they’d seen. This is my concern with The Help.

    I’d encourage everyone to check out my post in addition to Amy’s to get my perspective on the problem with revisionist history.

    • September 3, 2011 8:39 pm

      Eecks, scary Amanda! I always hope that people know better but… then… you know… I tend to learn about other cultures around the world via books so clearly I believe at least part of what I read as well! Thank you for having such great ideas and inviting me to participate :D

  8. September 3, 2011 12:16 pm

    I am so glad to see you two take on this project! I read The Help and didn’t love it, but that had more to do with its literary merits than the subject matter. I promptly grabbed many of those titles from the library when I read the original response. (For the record, I’ve also been recommending Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro, a novel about a white, Northern, female reporter, who covers the trial of the Scottsoro boys. It’s incredibly well done.) I’ll be following (if not always reading) along!

    • September 3, 2011 8:40 pm

      So glad to hear that you’re reading some of these titles too Carrie! That book sounds really great too – adding it to my wish list :) Thanks!

  9. September 3, 2011 12:44 pm

    I read and reviewed The Help last year, and while I really enjoyed it, I instantly had a knee-jerk reaction to its underlying problems. In fiction, I am absolutely, 100% am tired of the *white woman savior* coming in to save the day. And there were several places where Skeeter is interviewing women that I specifically call up in my review as very problematic. So I was uncomfortable with the book and did some research at the time.

    It’s partly why I haven’t seen the movie, especially after seeing an interview between Katie Couric and Stockett where, when asked if her grandmother was prejudiced, she said something along the lines of: Well, she didn’t use the n-word, and that’s really bad prejudice….

    This is what I think is so wrong in our race relations right now. There is a much more subtle (and in my mind, more dangerous) racism pervading our culture at the moment: see anything having to do with President Obama. It scares me, to be honest. So I’d love to take part and host a book. Just let me know when.

    • September 3, 2011 8:43 pm

      Glad to hear you liked it Jenn. I don’t think liking it and noticing the issues / being concerned about them have to be mutually exclusive, definitely think both can happen together so glad to hear you did have that experience.

      That comment from Stockett in the interview sounds uh… problematic to say the least :S Eecks. You are very right. Racism is still SO prevalent now but it’s not the type we’re shown in books and movies. It’s not overt and in-your-face, it is more subtle, nuanced, often even unconscious and unrecognized. It is SO dangerous that we keep pretending that unconscious racism is somehow OK, or that we don’t have to examine it. Definitely scary.

      SO EXCITED you’re willing to host too! I’m going to email you :D

  10. September 3, 2011 12:48 pm

    You ask great questions Amy, and this project is such a good idea! The books you’ve chosen look wonderful…unfortunately I have no time to commit to another project, but I’ll try to join in on The Book of Night Women at least, since I’ve been meaning to read that already. I wish you the best with it!

    • September 3, 2011 8:44 pm

      Ah time is always the issue isn’t it Emily!? I’m glad you’re going to try one at least – I’ve ALMOST picked that one up so many times so I’m really glad to have an excuse to now. heh.

  11. September 3, 2011 12:49 pm

    Wow! The project sounds great! Good work, Amy. Looking forward to the ‘unfolding’.

  12. September 3, 2011 2:47 pm

    Interesting post, Amy! Wonderful reading list too! I will look forward to following your reading project. I haven’t read ‘The Help’ but I would like to one day – it is sitting on my bookshelf, and I discovered it when it was released, before it set the blogging world on fire. I remember the description on the back cover of the book pulling me and that is how I got the book. It is interesting that the book and the movie (more the movie) is causing a controversy with many people feeling that it doesn’t describe the reality of that period authentically. My own take on it is that it was authentic for the author and I think she has the intellectual freedom to depict things as she experienced it. If someone else feels that it is not authentic, let them write a book and refute it or make a movie and refute it. I am reading a book called ‘The End of Mr.Y’ by Scarlett Thomas now, and I remembered a line in it, when I read about the controvery created by ‘The Help’ in your post. The line went like this – “Popular science can say some pretty wild things these days, but the supernatural is still out, as is Lamarck. You can have as many dimensions as you want, as long as none of them contains ghosts, telepathy, anything that f–ks with Charles Darwin, or anything that Hitler liked (apart from Charles Darwin).” I found this quite interesting because in some way it seems to apply to the fiction or even any book that is written today. I don’t know why there is a big controversy and why everyone is debating heatedly with raised voices, if a ‘white’ author writes about a ‘black’ person’s experience. (After all James Baldwin was a ‘black’ author who wrote about a white gay person’s experience in one of his books. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a ‘white’ writer who wrote about the ‘black’ experience in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Why isn’t anyone protesting against her book? James Fenimore Cooper was a ‘white’ writer who wrote about native Americans.) Similarly saying anything bad about Mandela is taboo. So is the case, if someone says anything nice about Hitler or about Iran or about North Korea. Similarly saying something negative about the Jews is taboo. Why do we have these taboos and holy cows? Why can’t a ‘white’ person write about the experience of a ‘black’ person? Why can’t someone say a nice thing about Hitler or about Iran? Why can’t someone write a critical piece about Jews, if it is based on facts? I remember reading somewhere that the historian Norman Davies wrote in his book ‘Europe : A History’ about Jewish postwar cooperation with Communist atrocities and compared it with Nazi atrocities and this led to a lot of controversy and led to his getting sacked by a leading university. What is wrong in writing about Jewish atrocities, if it is a historical fact? I personally think that instead of protesting against a particular author or a particular point of view, we should be able to see it as a point of view which is as genuine as any other point of view, which adds richness to the complex picture of the world we live in.

    • September 3, 2011 8:51 pm

      Thanks for the comment Vishy, all of it very true. The issue with this book is more that in the US race is still such a polarizing issue and the civil rights era is so close to people and such a painful memories… and the books by African American authors that tell their truths don’t get big, while the truth from a white perspective does. So a lot of the controversy is about why white readers are so willing to embrace the book that shows the white truth while disregarding the books about the experiences of those who actually were maids and nannies and the African Americans who were working for civil rights, you know? It’s a revisionist history that shows the whites leading the way in the civil rights movement, the black maids loving the white children, life not being too bad at all for them, a black maid comparing herself to a cockroach, the white woman getting ahead in the end… but the stories about the actual lived truths of the maids doesn’t sell because white people don’t want to hear it. So of course I say I have no issue with this book or Stockett writing the story she did – I have issue with this being the only side that gets publicity / marketing / a movie / etc. Frustrating really…

      • September 5, 2011 8:39 am

        Hi Amy :) First of all, I apologize for writing an impulsive comment like that. I hope you are not too angry or annoyed with me. I should have thought about it a little carefully, before articulating my thoughts. It is just that I get a little too enthusiastic in commenting sometimes. I actually totally agree with what you have said in the reply that you have given to my comment. It is sad that one point of view gets projected at the cost of others. Your comment – “It’s a revisionist history that shows the whites leading the way in the civil rights movement, the black maids loving the white children, life not being too bad at all for them” – made me think. If this is what Stockett’s book said, then it is sad, though I can imagine why she depicted it that way. It doesn’t sound very different from the holocaust denial which is happening in some places in Europe these days. I apologize once again, for my impulsive comment. I think I should talk less and listen more.

        • September 8, 2011 3:07 pm

          Oh gosh not at all Vishy! I LOVE debate and discussion, always, and always appreciate different views and opinions. So never think you have to watch what you say!

          The other thing about this book is that for anyone not familiar with the history and culture of the Southern US, it would be rather impossible to know or recognize some of the issues. So the people who are talking about it the most are those familiar with Civil Rights history, racism in the southern US, etc.

          Again, no apologies needed at all!!

    • bookgazing permalink
      September 5, 2011 9:09 am

      ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe was a ‘white’ writer who wrote about the ‘black’ experience in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.’ Now I’m not American, so UTC wasn’t part of my cultural background growing up, but I seem to remember that a lot of people do protest against this book because of the racial depictions.

      • September 8, 2011 3:08 pm

        I haven’t read it nor do I know much about the book or author so I can’t comment, but there quite likely (maybe?) is controversy. But there is also the time thing, that was written in a time when black authors really wouldn’t have been given a chance. Now that they do have a chance, does it make it better or worse when a white person decides to tell their story / history? I can’t decide!

  13. September 3, 2011 9:13 pm

    Very well written and argued. I know that you have a passion for authenticity that really comes out in your reviews. Considering your experience with Nigerian literature and GLBTQ, I thoroughly trust your opinion. Although I have not seen The Help and, to be perfectly honest, it’s not something that I feel compelled to watch, I am curious about the book. I am wondering what the fuss is about… You’ve really put an interesting spin on the hype. Happy reading!

    • September 4, 2011 10:29 am

      I am curious about the book too Lydia, and will likely read it at the end of this project :) Thanks! Appreciate the kind words.

  14. Tammie permalink
    September 3, 2011 10:21 pm

    I haven’t read The Help, and no particular interest in reading it. It’s just not the kind of book I’d normally pick up. I suspect the “problem” with this book is not so much the book, but its popularity. In many ways, it’s an interesting contrast to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both are works of fiction that caused readers to re-evaluate their understanding of a particular situation. From my perspective, the key to the controversy is ensuring most of the readers understand that the realities of both the civil rights and the pre-civil war eras is as individual as the people who lived them.

    • September 4, 2011 10:31 am

      Yes, I was like you until starting this project Tammie :) Now I will likely end with it. And yes, I agree fully. The book would be fine if books that told a more true story of the civil rights movement were more popular.

  15. September 4, 2011 3:48 am

    I think it’s amazing that you are doing this project. I haven’t read The Help but I would like to read it and also watch the movie. Do you think any of Toni Morrison’s books would shed some lights on this as well? Because I just bought a lovely edition of everyman’s classic of “Beloved”.

    I absolutely love what you said : “To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.” Good people can be racists too but that’s not entirely their fault, it’s the blinkers we wear in our lives and it needs more blogger like you Amy to be able to let them see beyond their own prejudice. I look forward to hear you and your team’s thoughts on the project! :)

    • September 4, 2011 10:32 am

      I am sure that Toni Morrison’s books are fantastic for anything all the time, JoV, at least from what I’ve heard :) So yes, I think it would also be great reading. And yes, you are so right about the racism – people refuse to see their own blinkers or point it out in others and so are oblivious, you know? It’s frustrating and sad!

  16. September 4, 2011 8:49 am

    Great idea for a project. I’ll be interested in following the discussions. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of The Book of Night Women, and it’s a very provocative book. I haven’t made up my mind about certain aspects of it, to be honest, but I’m liking that it’s making me think.

    My book group actually had a rather heated discussion about The Help this past week. (We were discussing Flannery O’Connor, and the discussion veered into race in Southern fiction.) I haven’t read The Help and have no desire to for a whole slew of reasons, and I had to be downright aggressive in my statement that they weren’t going to convince me to read it. (I’m not sure everyone understands what it’s like to have 100s of books on your TBR; it really makes me super-choosy about what gets my time, and popularity is not enough to convince me to read anything if the subject and style doesn’t automatically appeal.) I do really like that quote you pulled out from the New York Times review, and it speaks directly the one serious criticism anyone in the group had about The Help.

    But I think Iris makes a good point that this kind of story might be new to a lot of readers and as such, it could be helpful as an entry point. I may feel like this “white lady saves the world” story has been told 100 times, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has seen it before. I personally would rather move on to something else, and I wish other kinds of stories about race (and class, for that matter), particularly by black authors, would catch fire the way this book did. That’s mostly what I find discouraging, not so much the fact that The Help has done well.

    • September 4, 2011 10:35 am

      I’m with you on that Teresa, whatever, this book is popular, that’s not the issue really – the fact that the books on race and class by African American authors never get the same popularity and readership. Very discouraging. If they did then I’d be less concerned about issues in his book because people would be reading the multiple truths and more able to pick out the problems and get more of the truth of the civil rights era. But they don’t, so this becomes a problem when it doesn’t have to be one.

      And yes, good point about having so many books making you so picky :) I hope your book club picks a great book to read next instead! I’m also looking forward to getting to The Book of Night Women to see what you are talking about :)

  17. September 4, 2011 10:55 am

    I read The Help and watched the movie with a mixed race group — our book club that reads books about race in America. It led to great discussions because most of us remember the sixties and some, older than me, were the ages of the women in the movies. The Help gave us a starting point for telling our own stories and we appreciated it for that.

    I’m looking forward to watching your project unfold. Maybe I’ll get some ideas for more books for our book club. I requested the first two books from the library, but I’m not sure if I’ll get them read fast enough to participate.

    • September 8, 2011 3:09 pm

      Oh that would be a really interesting experience Joy, to discuss. I hope that you enjoy the books if you follow along!

  18. September 4, 2011 9:01 pm

    Excellent points re: nuance and representation, and awesome collection of links! I’ve bookmarked your post so I can go through all the links when I get time.

  19. September 4, 2011 10:35 pm

    I probably wont be able to join you in your reading, but I think its a great idea and I will definitely be checking in to read the reviews.

    I haven’t read the book, but with the movie coming out and all the hype I was definitely considering it.

    • September 8, 2011 3:10 pm

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do read or watch it Becky :) Thanks for following along.

  20. September 4, 2011 10:40 pm

    Amy, thank you for the post, all the links and your reading project. I have yet to read all the comments but will do so this evening as well as Amanda’s post and comments. I started reading The Help but had to put it down for many of the reasons your post (and many others) have discussed. I am glad to have the opportunity to read the statement by the Association of Black Historians along with some of the books they have listed. Let’s keep the conversation going. It is an important one.

    • September 8, 2011 3:11 pm

      Yes, it really is isn’t it Gavin? I’m really looking forward to the books listed and have loved reading the debates and conversations that have come up because of the book. If nothing else, at least it has people talking about this important subject :)

  21. September 5, 2011 5:05 am

    I haven’t read the book, seen the movie, or heard any hype – it hasnt really reached Zimbabwe yet. But I did live in the US for seven years, and this all reminded me of how very sad I found race relatons in the US. There seems to be a lot of people promoting a divided view of the US, as the only possible option. I moved to the UK, and lived there seven years, and I found it interesting how very much less divided a country it is racially. Obviously, it has its own problems, but vastly, bitterly divided identities are not such a feature.

    • September 8, 2011 3:13 pm

      Race relations in the US really are sad I agree Sarah. In some ways really scary, especially in the south. Then again, Canada isn’t perfect either and here we often just don’t discuss things at all. I find it less divided here, but also less discussion – perhaps like Britain?

  22. September 5, 2011 1:31 pm

    Great project! I’ve read To ‘Joy My Freedom and Coming of Age in Mississippi (both are fantastic) and have several of the others on my TBR list.

    I haven’t read The Help and still don’t know if I care to, but I saw the movie and enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was the terrible, racist embarrassment so many people made it out to be. That said, I did raise my eyebrows at the way history was glossed over sometimes (at certain points it was like, “uh…she’d be tortured and publicly lynched for that”). But I didn’t perceive it as a White Girl Saves The Day movie, or even a feel good movie. It had its funny moments, but overall I actually thought it was sad.

    I don’t know…I’m still unable to properly articulate all of my mixed feelings. The friend I saw it with looked surprised when I commented that I thought it was sad; in a lot of ways, I feel like we each saw a different movie (the difference being that I know more about the historical background than she does). She was able to look at it in a more lighthearted way. I don’t think one has to read a bunch of history books to form a critical perspective, but making a conscious decision to diversify perspectives on a subject does help battle that one dominant narrative from taking over.

    • September 8, 2011 3:15 pm

      So glad to hear that at least two of the books are fantastic Melissa – though I fully expect all of them to be!

      I’m glad to hear the movie and that it wasn’t as bad as some sites say. That being said, I’m always worried when the history is distorted like that – do enough people actually know the truth? I think you are right that for those who KNOW the historical context, it is a very different experience. And how sad that so many don’t know and are left in the dark. I just don’t know.

      And you are right, reading all the books isn’t necessary of course, but my hope (and Amanda’s too I think!) is to broaden our perspective and at least put out some publicity for the books and the ‘other’ narrative of that time.

  23. September 5, 2011 3:55 pm

    On reading the comments, I’d like to point out that there is also a possible danger of reading black accounts of black experiences as truth. They have as much ability to revise even their own stories in their own way as white people do. While I do think that getting the story from those whose story it is, is your best bet at reaching truth, truth is such a subjective thing. When I did my minor in history, the one thing I came away with is that the author of any account or timeline chooses what to include and what to leave out. In this way, we are given only what that particular author deemed was important and factual. We get his or her version of truth and significance, regardless of their race.

    Hey, just curious, did the Book of Negroes conjure as much controversy? I still haven’t read it yet…

    I did read Native Son, by Richard Wright (he was born in 1908 in Mississippi, but died in 1960, so it’s not really about the help but about a man convicted of killing a white women but also what it was like to be black in America). I thought the book excellent, but as with all fiction, well…it’s fiction, so I don’t take it as pure truth. I don’t recall if I’ve read any non-fiction, but again, but again, that too will be subjective.

    • September 6, 2011 3:33 pm

      It’s a good point that any account is naturally biased, however, I do have a tendency to trust the American Black Women Historians group to choose even-handed books. In general, I tend to at least hope that when historians provide a reading list, they are focused on giving even-handed accounts.

    • September 8, 2011 3:17 pm

      Very good point Steph, there are always multiple truths to every story. That being said, the furthering of one at the expense of the other is never a good thing! And actually, I didn’t realize until reading the ‘About the Author’ at the back of the book, but the first book we chose was actually written by a white woman, so it looks like the ABWH has included multiple perspectives, in that sense. Interesting for sure.

      And I don’t know… I haven’t heard of controversy around The Book of Negroes, except for someone burning the book in the Netherlands because they didn’t like the title…

      Also, that is another book on my wish list!

  24. September 5, 2011 4:04 pm

    Whoops, some errors in my comment. Sorry!

    • September 8, 2011 3:12 pm

      Heh I like how it posted this one first on you… no worries Steph :)

  25. September 5, 2011 4:28 pm

    I think too that it’s important we’re not too quick to rush to the aid of those who are perceived as the Other. I know how that sounds. But this in itself perpetuates the issue. We’re too often eager to get up in arms when it comes to issues like this, when perhaps the author’s statement and intent should be considered more closely, at least first. Stockett was writing from her own personal experience; while some may find it offensive, surely personal experience or interpretation can’t be labelled invalid? You take it for what it is, one woman’s perception of the times. I find this kind of thing only harmful when people read too much into it and are quick to assume an offensive stance and when people assume fiction as truth. What fiction writing always comes down to is one question, like that of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code: “What if?”

    • September 8, 2011 3:21 pm

      Definitely true Steph, and everyone should be able to write their own book and readers can pick what they prefer. I think a lot of the controversy especially around this book is that the other side of the story isn’t given nearly as many opportunities or marketing dollars and etc. AND there is a lot of revisionist stuff going on in the US right now about slavery and the Jim Crow era and so the combination of not being able to tell your side and your side being dismissed creates a situation that needs discussion.

      As to furthering the discussion contributing to “othering” I think that the fact that most of it has come from black journalists / bloggers / historians definitely shows it is an issue in the African American community as well that needs discussion. If that makes sense…

  26. September 6, 2011 1:37 pm

    Great post and very interesting comments too. I watched the movie several weeks ago and was so moved I had to search out commentary and reviews online. While I loved the movie, I felt it was a bit whitewashed and immediately wanted to hear from the other side. While I’ve read a lot on the slavery era and the American civil war, I honestly did not know that during a period as recent as the 60s, black people in America were predominantly maids and casual laborers. I spoke to a couple of friends whose grandmothers were maids and I think I’m better informed now. We may never know the complete Truth, but I do think The Help could have been more accurate and culturally sensitive.

    • September 8, 2011 3:22 pm

      Yes I think it’s something that a lot of people outside the US are unaware of Myne, simply because it’s not the narrative that the dominant culture wants put out there, you know?

  27. September 6, 2011 1:50 pm

    This is a fantastic project you and Amanda are undertaking. I haven’t read The Help yet although I have it on my shelf. I was going to try to read it soon but now that this project is happening I’m going to wait and Hopefully read it after the books on the list are finished. I can’t participate in September’s books but I will be participating in your project hopefully in October.

    I think the issues raised by The Help are so important and that it’s fantastic there are people who are willing to explore and discuss them.. I had no idea until I read yours and Amanda’s post that Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help because of her black nanny. I am utterly confused as to why she chose to write fiction instead of, as you pointed out, a memoir or non-fiction. I wonder if she’s ever answered that question. I don’t know if she understands or not that it’s troubling, sad and disturbing on one level that she went the route she did. I wonder if there are many people who don’t see the issues raised by the book’s premise or don’t care…I’m afraid there might be which is the most disturbing of all for me.

    Thank you for the articles you linked to. I am looking forward to reading them and to this project.

    • September 6, 2011 3:35 pm

      Ooo, I love that we found someone to read it in reverse–the project then The Help. I bet you’ll come at it with a very different/unique perspective doing it that way!

    • September 8, 2011 3:23 pm

      Thank you Amy, I’m glad you’re interested in joining in. We’ll be leaving the discussion open too so that people can pop in at any point – or at least that was my plan, you agree Amanda? heh

      I am really loving the discussions and that people are willing to look into the issues raised in the book. I think that a lot of people – especially outside the US – really don’t know…

  28. September 7, 2011 12:48 am

    I loved The Book of Night Women, although it’s a v challenging read. I haven’t read any of the other books on the list, but I saw that article and noted it for my wishlist! :) I might read a couple along with y’all, but I’m never going to read The Help. I have limited reading time, and I’d rather spend it on a different style of book.

    • September 8, 2011 3:25 pm

      I’m worried that you thought it was challenging, but hopefully I don’t find it tooo challenging Eva :) Very valid reason not to read The Help – we all have to decide how to spend our time. Some people choose it, some choose these books, others choose both. I would be surprised honestly if I heard you had read it – I didn’t think you would :)

  29. September 7, 2011 7:17 pm

    I loved that NYT article, and even more loved the Martha Southgate one. The line from the NYT article that you bolded was my favorite bit too!

    I’m kind of on the anti-Help side of things, if there are sides, but I feel like at this point it’s tapped into things that are way huger than itself. Like, all this importance is being placed on this one book, and that importance is really an accumulation of frustration with all the white-person-saves-black-folks literature that’s been written over the years.

    Anyway, I love this project! I will be looking forward to reading y’all’s reviews!

    • September 8, 2011 3:25 pm

      Yes Jenny, fantastic right? And I think you hit it perfectly when you say that this is really come out of an accumulation of frustration… not only at that narrative but also at the skewed marketing and sales figures as well.

  30. September 8, 2011 11:46 am

    As fundamentally unjust as it is — that Skeeter’s perspective is one which gets more press — it does provide an avenue by which readers who identify with her more readily than they identify with Aibileen can talk about subjects they might not normally talk (or, even, think) about. And, while talking, they might get a glimpse of another perspective.

    (How much they reflect on that, whether it truly alters their experience of the world, I don’t know, but there’s a possibility of change there for readers who might pick up The Help and would never ever pick up one of the other books on the ABWH’s reading list.)

    I didn’t read The Help; I listened to it. Which, although I’m aware the production is based on a text, took the question of dialect representation off the discussion table because all of the performers had southern US accents. That definitely changed my experience of the story, which is just one of many rooted in that time and place, as the ABWH’s list points out. (Susan Straight’s books are great and the Barbara Neely series — they’ve got a typo there — is good fun.)

    Having spent most of my summer re-reading childhood favourites, and having realized just how uniform the worldview they represented was, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we change, as readers, as people, once we decide to read beyond the familiar. It fascinates me.

    Add to that my current re-read of Gone with the Wind — clearly immersed in a single-minded, racist and classist, worldview — and, oh, it’s fascinating to compare and contrast Mammy’s with Aibileen’s and Minny’s experiences and the different ways in which their authors developed their characterization…or didn’t, in Mitchell’s case — well, I’ve got my own reading lists reeling (and realing) out of control.

    But I look forward to hearing how you and Amanda and others fare with this one you’re working on. Sounds like an interesting project for sure!

    • September 10, 2011 10:02 am

      Hmmm I see what you are saying BuriedInPrint, but that is one huge issue that I think we need to somehow overcome – the idea that as a reader we can’t identify with characters whose lives are not like ours. Isn’t doing that, experiencing other perspectives and lives through literature, what makes readers more empathetic?

      It is so true that we often get stuck in a rut of reading the same view over and over and I really think publishers and marketers do us a disservice by assuming that this is what we want or that this is good. I don’t know, personally I like trying to expand my worldview through my reading.

      Interesting to hear your thoughts on Gone With the Wind. Always interesting to compare and contrast isn’t it?

      • September 12, 2011 9:28 am

        I’m in agreement with the heart of your argument, but different people have different reasons for reading; lots of people do not look to books or movies to alter their perspective on the world, but to reaffirm their existing understanding, so how do we engage them in a conversation about important issues like those raised by this book/movie?

        (My Google Reader suggests that lots of readers appreciate their worldview changing as they flip pages, but my real life experience suggests that the majority of people do not read for this reason.Most of them read to escape, which seems to mean more of the ‘same’, not something ‘different’.)

        If the majority of readers do look to books to see themselves reflected there, and they simply overlook (or avoid, or dismiss) stories that push those boundaries, doesn’t a book like this create the opportunity for someone who will pick it up (or watch this film) — who would only have thought of Skeeter’s perspective (and yes, they’ve seen and read other versions of her story in other places), but now have Milly’s and Aibileen’s to consider alongside of Skeeter’s — to view the world differently (at least a little) afterwards?

        In some ways, it sounds to me uncomfortably like “settling” to suggest this — and I do agree that the potential for change is small — but I have found it extremely hard to have meaningful discussions on these issues with people whose opinions are starkly different than mine (often people of different generations, but sometimes just different experiences), and I think that something like this book/film can offer a “door” into a room that normally remains closed.

      • September 12, 2011 9:04 pm

        Hmmm that is a very true point BuriedInPrint. Making me think :) I just don’t know. Like, yes it’s good that these readers will now consider these other points but… that also means they’re not likely to look up to find if it’s true right? They’ll just take it as truth when it wasn’t really quite told as truth, it was more a white-washed truth.

        I just don’t know what is best! I think that is the issue isn’t it? There is never an easy answer. Thanks for making me think though :)

  31. September 8, 2011 11:28 pm

    Really enjoyed your post – I linked to it tonight from my blog.

    http://everydayiwritethebook.typepad.com/books/2011/09/different-perspectives-on-the-help.html

  32. September 11, 2011 11:48 am

    I also thought the article by Martha Southgate was powerful and persuasive; I also did a recent post on the controversy, but don’t plan on seeing the movie. I went looking for other novels about that period of time in the South, but had a hard time compiling a long list. Thanks for offering the list of suggested reading.

    My discomfort with The Help back when I listened to The Help sprang from the way the author, maybe even unconsciously, equated the college-educated Skeeter’s discomfiting feeling of alienation from her former peers with the complete alienation of African-Americans in the South at that time from the rights and privileges of a society controlled by those same peers. And the way it made Skeeter’s career success the climax of the book.

    BTW, I found your blog today by way of Everyday I Write the Book and will add it to my Google Reader list!

    Here’s the link to my post on Alternatives to The Help:
    http://baystatera.com/2011/09/06/alternatives-t…thryn-stockett/

    • September 12, 2011 9:17 pm

      Thanks for the link to your post Laurie, I’m definitely off to check it out after this. That is a really interesting point, and one I haven’t heard before. Definitely an odd comparison. And thanks!

  33. September 12, 2011 1:42 pm

    Very interesting post. I only came to The Help because I got the audiobook for free, which also means I wasn’t aware of the issue about how dialects were written down (as BuriedInPrint says, all the actors had southern US accents). I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t life-changing and it hasn’t stayed with me particularly, so I don’t think it’s lasting, great literature. And that reaction is compounded by the backlash I’m reading more and more of.

    On the other hand, the fact that Stockett is white doesn’t mean she has no right to write about this subject or that her perspective is wrong. And you could argue that you’re meant to read the book as a variant on the one that Skeeter publishes, in which case it is all black history as told to a white woman and edited by her. Which would be why she is the only one who really opens up her whole life to the reader. I certainly felt that the ending was intended to be problematic, that we are meant to feel uncomfortable that the white woman can find a way to get out of town and build a new life elsewhere while a black woman cannot.

    I would definitely be interested in reading more around this issue, and indeed have done in the past, but I’m afraid my TBR is way too big to join in your project. I’ll keep an eye on it, though.

    • September 12, 2011 9:08 pm

      Interesting Nose in a Book – I have heard that the audio is good because it takes away that one issue. I definitely think that Stockett is fine to write it, it just disappoints me that the stories written by African Americans never get the same publicity or marketing, you know?

      Anyway, interesting reading on the ending! I haven’t read it yet and am getting actually interested in figuring it all out for myself!

  34. September 13, 2011 10:11 pm

    Amy, this is a wonderful project. Really, it is. I stayed away from The Help for obvious reasons. In my view, it adds nothing new to that particular motif. But I will be supporting you in this. I have to dig up my copy of The Street. All the best.

    • September 16, 2011 12:17 am

      Thank you Kinna, I’m glad you enjoy. I am glad to hear you have one of the titles!

Trackbacks

  1. let “the help” tell their own stories « Fledgling
  2. It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? | Joy's Book Blog
  3. About The Help……. | Page247
  4. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland
  5. Voices – Nose in a book
  6. The Help « Necromancy Never Pays
  7. The Help – Kathryn Stockett – 10/10 | Reading With Tea
  8. Everyday I Write the Book » Different Perspectives on THE HELP
  9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett | A Room of One's Own
  10. The Help by Kathryn Stockett | Maple & a Quill

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