Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Help

My sister gave me a copy of The Help for my birthday and told me, "If you don't cry like, 4 times, you're a monster." Eek. I got a little anxious when I was 3/4 of the way through and hadn't shed a tear.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a compelling story about a group of American Southern women. I had a hard time putting it down, even though the book is highly problematic. Told from the perspective of two African-American maids and one white woman, the book is about how the three of them write a book about the maids' experiences working in the homes of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

The appropriation of the African-American women's stories and voices made me feel uncomfortable. Aibileen, a kind older woman who brings a very 21st century to bringing up children in the mid-20th century, ruminates:

Minny near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi. The Junior League Benefit come around ever fall and they be wanting her to make ten caramel cakes to auction off. She ought a be the most sought-after help in the state. Problem is, Minny got a mouth on her. She always be talking back. One day it be the white manager a the Jitney Jungle grocery, next day it be her husband, and ever day it's gone be the white lady she waiting on. The only reason she waiting on Miss Walter so long is Miss Walter be deaf as a doe-nob.
Even Stockett felt uncomfortable - in the after-word, she writes:
I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. 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.
It is, of course, absolutely impossible to capture another person's experience (and nearly impossible to capture your own), but one makes allowances for artist license. I am very sensitive to racial prejudice, so, for me, parts of the book were inappropriate.

Most of the white people in the book are racists, some of whom actively work to harm the welfare of the African-Americans, most whom merely look the other way when they saw it happening. I feel quite positive that any white reader of the book would identify with the white character who has the idea to write the book and works with the maids to tell their stories. But what I found most disturbing is that it's quite unlikely that those same readers would have followed the rather exceptional actions of that character. It's more likely that they would have fallen firmly in the "look the other way" category, or, let's face it, the Civil Rights movement would have ended well before a mere handful of decades ago, and racial injustices would be a thing of the past, which they are not. The Help allows privileged white readers to pat themselves on the back for something we don't deserve.

I noticed the British cover and the American cover are quite different! I'm afraid the American version has fallen prey to that well-known publishing-world fear that images of black people on the cover will keep write readers from picking up the book. All of this is just proof that we still have a long way to go to heal the long, shameful history of racial injustice in this country. If people are reading The Help with a critical mind and asking themselves some hard questions, I think that is helpful.

I did, by the way, get a bit misty a few times near the end, so I guess I'm not a complete monster after all!

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