Appraising “The Help”

18 Aug

I attended the premiere of The Help on a whim last Wednesday with a date who graciously swallowed his manly pride to join me for the ultimate chick flick. I instantly felt sorry for dragging him there as we joined the line wrapping around the movie theater, a large sea of women with only the occasional male dotted in between. But there was something even more unsettling about the crowd.

The normally diverse audience at the movie theater had an oddly monotonous queue: Sure, it held groups of blonds, dozens of brunettes, bunches of redheads and tons of silver-haired ladies, but there were noticeably few women of color.

Surprised? Well, the  best-selling book itself has never had a large Black following. In fact the book about the relationship between White Southern belles and their Black maids in segregated Jackson, Mississippi has drawn fire from many in the African American community.

I’m still waiting for my copy, so I can’t comment on the book . But here’s a quote from Stockett herself about the novel and its struggles: 

Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly.  Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much.  I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us. . .

But what I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960’s.  I don’t think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck, could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.  . .

The Telegraph lightly examines Stockett’s use of Black pidgin English when writing in the voice of Black servants. 

It’s a risky thing to do – being white and well off – to write in a black voice, especially writing in the vernacular. The dialect Stockett employs is like another language; it is a clever act of ventriloquism, which draws you completely into a world of okra and fried chicken and peach cobbler, but a world with menacing undertones. . .

The book pegged as a novel about the triumph of women from different backgrounds who come together begin a pendulum of change “with a whisper”  is marred by the fact that most of its appeal is drawn from the narrator, the White writer who decides that these Black maids, women paid to be invisible fixtures of the house, have an opinion and perspective that is worth exploring. The aspiring journalist must validate their importance in a world that deems them of little value beyond washing dishes and changing diapers.

It’s a story that should be told. And I am thankful that it has been, even if it is Hollywoodified and boxed with a pretty little bow that Photoshops away some of the darker realities of the period. But the gnawing fact that the author’s outsider status in the Black community lends credibility to the tale and gives it a mainstream appeal that no Black author could achieve  is still biting. That others are awarded and praised for telling our stories seems hypocritical, especially for a book that’s all about given the underdog a voice.

But I don’t blame Stockett. The woman found her golden egg – the magical story with mainstream appeal every writer seeks to pen. Who cares if it may be on the backs of the very people it claims to help. The lawsuit that was pending with her brother’s maid, Ableen Cooper – who claimed the author unrightfully used her character and namesake – was dismissed.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green threw out the case because a one-year statute of limitations elapsed between when Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book and when the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit sought $75,000 in damages.

It’s film adaption raked $5 million on its opening day. Not bad for a hump day.

But women lining up to see a film about how crappy their predecessors treated their maids seemed hard to believe. So what was/is the draw, my date and I wondered as we left the theater perplexed. While exiting, I overheard a couple of teary-eyed women exclaim how great the film was and witnessed a group of young girls posing for pictures besides the movie’s marquee.

My grandmother was once one of those women. Undoubtedly more of a Minny than a Abileen, with a penchant for fighting — with hands or words. Now, she had gumption. She never talked to me about her time as a maid, but then again a brat whose eyes spilled over with boredom anytime the old days were mentioned wouldn’t have cared about such stories from the woman born in 1915, whose hands picked cotton, arms had fought many a woman and man, a woman who was tough from being called “Black Mare” by her own family for being the darkest skin daughter in the family. Who was also known as “Kidd” for her charm and willingness to take on anything and anyone in her path. Some of the stories stuck.

Recently, my mom retold the tale of how my Granny, upon discovering that for Christmas her employer had purchased a brand new apron for her to wear while serving guests at a Christmas party, packed her bags and headed back to her small town home–that very day–in outrage. I mean, how considerate of Santa: An apron for Christmas. The very action captured the time when these women felt their maids’ whole lives revolved around them and their well-being. Not as human beings with the same needs and desires as their employers.

But my grandmother had dreams beyond domestic service. She was beautiful — a bit feisty with a mind for business. She started her own salon. Upon becoming widowed, relocated to Texas with my mom, where she made a tidy living doing hair and renting the house’s renovated garage as an apartment.

Yes, her story is an important one. As is the fictional Abileen and Minny’s. They represent a whole world of women who have lived in the shadows for so long. I’m glad that Stockett and Hollywood is turning a bit of limelight on their lives. Even if it is dressed up with a cherry on top.


3 Responses to “Appraising “The Help””

  1. The Nile Valley Griot August 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    This peice


  2. The Nile Valley Griot August 22, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Your piece is worthy of being published to a magazine. You should shop it for publication.


    • lcooksmarketer1 August 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

      Hmmmm. . . really? (wheels turning)
      Thanks for the continuous encouragement and support.


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