Day 12 – Some thoughts on The HelpNovember 12, 2011
I know most of the buzz around this book has come and gone already, but seeing as I finally got it too read last month on my iPod Touch, here are my belated thoughts on this both widely popular, but somewhat controversial book.
One of the strongest critiques I heard before reading The Help was the frustration that the story of black maids serving white families, only drew the attention of the public when it is written by a white woman. This same scenario is mirrored within the context of the book itself; as the plot revolves around one white woman, who begins to write the stories of the black maids who serve the white families in her town. As Kelly from Mocha Mama so eloquently points out, there are many many books about this issue written from other perspectives which have remained unfortunately unread. For more great commentary on The Help, check out two of her posts about the topic and racism in general:
This is not really about cake
Talking to my friend Leahpeah
This whole conundrum of a white woman writing the story of black maids, also strikes a strong point with me because as a white liberal woman, I have heard and used the phrase “voice for the voiceless” several times in my life. Be it in reference to protests against the formerly named School of America, or in the broader context of working as a VISTA to bring about an end to poverty. How would I feel if I had to turn to a man to help bring attention to my experience as a woman? But yet, how does one work to end an oppression when you are intrinsically a part of the oppressors? In the book, I maintained a vague irritation with Skeeter Phelan (the white women writer), who out of her own frustrations with the limited expectations available for women in her community, stumbled upon the idea of talking to black maids. While she does evolve throughout the book, she never seems to entirely comprehend the risks that the black maids take in order to talk to her, or the possible dire consequences they face. But yet, without her interest and help, the stories of these particular maids would never have known to a broader public.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, this book occurs during some of the big moments of the Civil Rights movement – the brutal slaying of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a dream” speech, sit-ins, horrible lynchings and backlash against black activists who dare to speak out against oppression. In many ways I liked how these events were portrayed both as they might have been experienced by an average unaware white woman and also as the more involved connected black maids. However in this world of huge separations, inequality and racism, I am left pondering how anyone could think that the issues of racism are no longer relevant. The world described in The Help is not one from the safe time of “long ago” or “far away”. This was the world experienced by possibly you, your parents or perhaps (if you are quite young) your grandparents. The issues, scars, anger and pain of this type of world don’t fade overnight. In the story one of the characters ends up in prison after turning to crime to steal the last $50 she needs to send her sons to college. Think how an event like that would effect not only those individuals, but the next several generations of that family. Yes, I do believe much has been improved in regards to race relations in the US, but the idea we don’t all still bear the scars of it can lead to some scary assumptions. I think one of my concerns when reading a book like The Help is that the reader’s response will be less “Wow the issues of racism are still so relevant and we still have so much work to do to get rid of the many forms of oppression” and more “Wow, look how bad things were for black people in the South (not WHERE I live) during a time long ago (not WHEN I live).”
Another issue I had with the book was the way that instead of focusing on the systemic issues caused by limiting the expected capabilities of black women to solely domestic work for privileged white women, the book tried to cast the worst issues of racism around, “Hey it’s just a few bad folks”. Much of the book revolves around the villain character, Hilly Hilbrook, who seems to be the source of all bad racist ideas (separate bathrooms for the black maids, Skeeters banishment from white society after she is caught carrying civil rights brochures). This technique of focusing on a few bad seeds makes it much easier to find redeeming qualities in a system intrinsically discriminatory towards people based on the color of their skin. It also gives white people another way to say, “oh but I don’t do those horrible things that Hilly did, so I am not a part of the problem”.
In the end I feel like my issues with The Help revolve around its tendency to both seem like it was telling a new untold story of oppressed people (a frequent mistake by white liberals – myself included) and also somehow managing to gloss over the harsh realities of racism then and racism now. Obviously not every book of fiction needs to be a social justice call to action, but I feel like this book could have used a little more bite and emphasis on the systemic basis of racism and less on the individualized solo racist. I should also say that even with all my reservations about the book, I did find it an enjoyable book and I should also admit that it brought an era of US history to greater light for me (seeing as I haven’t actually read many of the other perhaps more accurate descriptions of black maids serving in the South). I especially enjoyed the character of Minny, who often expresses her deep-seated anger at the world and is also scathingly honest, sometimes to her own detriment. So if you haven’t read The Help I would recommend doing so, but perhaps with a couple of grains of salt.