The Real Help: Helping Put “The Help” In Its Historical Context – A Reading Project
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:
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
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 Presentby 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:
- ArtsCriticATL has a review of the film where they call it a “feel good movie for white people”. It also talks about how so many people are unable to face the truth of the Jim Crow era
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)
- That African Girl talked about her experience seeing (and enjoying) the movie.
- Entertainment Weekly has an article with Martha Southgate where she says:
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.