Monday, May 23, 2011

Who or What Does THE HELP Help? A brief review

[introducing guest blogger, C. Leigh McInnis.  McInnis has published poetry, fiction, and essays in several journals, magazines, and newspapers, is the author of seven books, the editor and publisher of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and he teaches creative writing and world literature at Jackson State University.  He can be contacted at Psychedelic Literature or C. Leigh McInnis .]

by C. Liegh McInnis

      Okay, so I finally finished the four hundred and forty-four pages that constitute Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  An older African (American) female colleague gave me this book a year ago to thank me for providing a tutorial for a program that she coordinates.  I could not believe that anyone who knew anything about me would give me a book written by a white woman, telling the story of African (American) maids working during the 1960s who collaborate with an aspiring white female writer to tell their stories of working for white women, essentially using African people as backdrop or troping material for her story in the way that Tennessee Williams did more than a few times.  And for eleven months it sat on my shelf, not even in its correct alphabetized-by-authors place as I keep all my books but on the end where miscellaneous books reside.  Even as I heard about the book being a New York Times Bestseller and then, of course, having a movie based on it, I was never once tempted to take it down and see just how much like Gone with the Wind it could be.  Yet when my wife took me to see Jumping the Broom as an apology for dragging me to see the current Madea film (I like Why Did I Get Married?, Family that Preys, and For Colored Girls, but the current one just doesn’t do it for me.), one of the previews was for The Help.  Often, of course, movie trailers lie well, including the best scenes or moments in the promo of a film that is a hour and a half dud.  However, there are some trailers that when one sees them one knows that the studio has put all of its eggs, weight, and budget behind this film.  It is obvious when a film has been given the first-class treatment.  Again, a potential viewer may not be able to tell whether or not the film will be any good, but one can tell how much the studio believes in the film based on the trailer and additional promotion.  It was that reality that said to me, “At some point someone who loves this book and movie will ask you about it; don’t you want to have enough ammunition to dismiss it as more white fantasy with a white female protagonist bonding with African women over the brutality of men, especially African men, saving themselves from the oppression of men, especially African men?”  So nine days ago, I opened to page one. 
      The Help is a well-written book by a well-schooled writer, Kathryn Stockett, who has a wonderful eye for detail (historical and cultural), a flare for imagery (descriptive and symbolic), and a wit that echoes three of my favorite storytellers:  Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Jerry Clower, especially in the notion that a story with interesting and well-developed characters is always more rewarding than a work of fiction that is more concerned with showing the latest “new school” tricks of fiction, especially as it relates to East Coast minimalism.  Further, well-crafted books are books that can be taught on two levels, and The Help achieves this.  It can be used to teach the basic elements of fiction writing, and it can be used to show how creative writing is often crafted to enlighten or impact socio-political condition, proving DuBois to be right that in the final analysis “all art is propaganda” (757).  The Help does not rise to the levels of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or James F. Cooper, but whose work does?  Certainly, not mine.  However, Stockett has mastered the weaving of the personal and communal narrative and the ability to paint the complexities of race rather than to pander to flat, one-dimensional ideologies and characters, which is achieved by her ability to craft characters in a storm of internal and external conflict, for the most part, on both sides of the race line.  When I read any work, I am always trying to discover two elements:  creative techniques that I can use and teach to students, which I have briefly discussed, and a central issue or several issues that can be used in the development of a paper.  Stockett has presented at least twelve issues that can be discussed in a lit crit piece:  the perpetuation of fantasy antebellum society for which whites are willing to lose their humanity to maintain (such as in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury), Christianity as a tool of white supremacy, Christianity as a linguistic battleground for Civil Rights, storytelling as socio-political activism (which includes Aibileen—a maid and co-narrator of the text—as a griot or the creative writer as shepherd and philosopher), the tragedy of an unfulfilled life due to embracing the physical over the metaphysical, African (American) maids as another “Nigger Jim” figure, a general commentary on poor and proper parenting or negligent white mothers having enough money to hide their poor parenting, white supremacy as schizophrenia passed to and manifested in African people as colorism or self-hatred, the manner in which African (American) intellect and culture has existed despite and beyond white culture and oppression as an example of African intellect and culture existing before white culture, the truth and importance of acknowledging African diversity as complex and layered beings (which speaks to their humanity as Margaret Walker does with and for the slaves in Jubilee), the struggle of good-intentioned whites to overcome their own racism, and (of course) the troping or connecting of African oppression with female oppression (allowing the book to be a manifesto on the plight of the female under male oppression).  Each of these themes is well painted through intricate character development and creative plot weaving.
      There seem to be only two flaws, and both can be considered major.  The first issue is the use of faulty or flawed dialect, specifically Stockett’s use of “Law” for “Lawd” as in “Lawd have mercy.”  I have been unable to finish a few books wherein I found flawed or inauthentic dialect, but in this case it does not seem to bother me as much, probably because there are no other glaring dialect issues.  Also, I realize that I am reading a book through a white writer’s eyes (even though the narrative is equally shared by two maids and a recent white female college graduate), and I can accept that to her ears she does not hear the “d” in “Lawd.”  Because there is not an abundance of flaws in the dialect, I am not distracted from the narrative though a few of my friends and colleagues have been too distracted to even finish chapter one.  Secondly, I agree with Ishmael Reed that, in most cases, white feminists use the African male as the face of sexism.  And I cannot help but wonder if this is true in The Help.  While she is clear, vivid, and precise about the horrors of racism that Afro-Southerners endure in the 1960s, Stockett presents two positive adult white males (Skeeter’s father and Celia’s husband) and not one positive adult African male.  There are two male sons of maids that are portrayed in a positive manner, but neither achieves maturity as a sovereign adult male:  one dies in an accident, and one is beaten until he is blind.  In fact, the one African male whom Stockett develops as more than a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement is Leroy, the husband of Minny, and he beats Minny regularly.  Is there not one maid whose husband does not beat her?  Is there not one average African male who is not a threat to his community?  And as a well-skilled craftsman, Stockett appropriates and connects Leroy’s evil with the evil of white male sexism and schizophrenia, especially when Minny and Celia, Minny’s boss, are attacked by an insane, naked white man.  Yet, in combining the two events to develop her theme of universal or female oppression and struggle, Stockett seemingly paints Leroy and all African men with a broader, more stereotypical stroke than white men.  The insane, naked white man in Celia’s backyard is never equated with all other white men.  However, just before the insane, naked white man appears, Stockett has Celia showing concern for Minny’s plight, even attempting to come to Minny’s aid: 

“Minny?” Miss Celia says, eyeing the cut again.  “Are you sure you [cut your forehead] in the bathtub?”  I run the water just to get some noise in the room.  “I told you I did and I did.  Alright?”  She gives me a suspicious look and points her finger at me.  “Alright, but I’m fixing you a cup of coffee and I want you to just take the day off, okay?…You know,” she says kind of low, “You can talk to me about anything, Minny.” (304-305).

During the attack by the insane, naked white man, Stockett connects Minny’s beating from Leroy to the beating that she takes from the insane, naked white man:  “It’s like he knows me, Minny Jackson.  He’s staring with his lip curled like I deserved every bad day I’ve ever lived, every night I haven’t slept, every blow Leroy’s ever given.  Deserved it and more” (305).  And after Celia comes to Minny’s aid, in the similar way that Skeeter, the book’s white co-protagonist, comes to the aid of and provides voice to the maids, Stockett connects, once again, Minny’s beating by Leroy to the beating by the insane, naked white man, but does so in a manner that can be seen as painting the majority of African males with this stereotypical brush:  “‘So what you gone do about it?’  Aibileen asks and I know she means the eye.  We don’t talk about me leaving Leroy.  Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s just not something the colored women do” (310 – 311).  Stockett is careful to have her character use “plenty” rather than most, but the message is received, especially since there are no white women who exist in physically abusive relationships in the novel.  And because her own, childhood maid and caretaker was “married to a mean, abusive drinker,” then that must be the lasting image of African men in her novel.  In fact for all of the fear and potential consequence the African women face from providing stories for the book, it seems that the greatest threat comes from Leroy, as Minny states:  “Look, Aibileen, I ain’t gone lie.  I’m scared Leroy gone kill me if he find out” (429).  And when Leroy discovers that he has been fired from his job because of Minny contributing stories to the book, of course, all black savage Negro hell breaks out:  “Minny panting and heaving.  ‘He throw the kids in the yard and lock me in the bathroom and say he gone light the house on fire with me locked inside!” (437).  Thus, escaping life with Leroy, who by now has become the face of all African men, is as important as escaping white supremacy:  “Still, what’s important is, Minny’s away from Leroy” (439).  Whether Stockett knows it or not, this representation of African domestic violence is just one more use of writing as skin privilege, one more use of writing as a smokescreen to keep hidden the obscene abusive relationships that do exist in “white” marriages and partnerships.  Stokett writes well, but she runs the risk of hopelessly reinforcing ideas of white supremacy, even if she does so unconsciously.  Additionally, those who have profited from reading Dessa Rose, Beloved, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—works that deal with recording someone else’s story—may find that Stockett has consciously or unconsciously used the African male body as a symbol or smokescreen for all evil or merely to placate the supremacy of her white readers.
      As one who has engaged countless books, I have developed the ability to take what is well-done or beneficial from a work and ignore what is poorly done or what is not effective.  For instance, I continue to enjoy two hundred and twenty-one of the two hundred and forty-two pages of African (American) poet and theorist Carl Phillips’ book Coin of the Realm:  Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry.  Not only do I not agree with the twenty-one pages that constitute the chapter “Boon and Burden:  Identity in Contemporary American Poetry,” in which he provides his assessment of the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, I find his attempt to couch his subjective denouncement of the poetry of the Black Arts Movement as objective theory to be thin and flimsy.  However, the rest of the book is a worthwhile read.  In this same manner, Stockett’s painting African men in such broad strokes does not completely destroy the narrative for me.  There was no way to expect a southern white writer, even one self-exiled to New York, to indict solely white men or white culture for the evils of the South.  Besides, the Negro boogeyman still sells as well as sex does.  For chronological and cultural context she evokes the names of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., even as they are moreso flat, one-dimensional symbols of the moment or the meaning of the moment, but there is no adult African male who rises to the humanity and goodness of Skeeter’s father and Celia’s husband.  Still, what saves the narrative is her wonderful use of imagery, her ability to construct complex characters for complex times—especially the manner in which Skeeter is forced to realize and engage her own racist tendencies and sensibilities, the presentation of Aibileen and Minny as intellectual equals to Skeeter—especially their full development into storytellers, the novels biting humor, and the unflinching portrayal of the horrors endured by African people in America, showing the Klan and white southern culture to be equal to the Taliban.  After completing the manuscript, Aibileen and Minny are finally able to impress on Skeeter the seriousness of their endeavor:

The room grows quiet.  It’s dark outside the window.  The post office is already closed so I brought [the manuscript] over to show to Aibileen and Minny one last time before I mail it…“What if they find out?” Aibileen says quietly…We haven’t talked about this in a while…we haven’t really discussed the actual consequences besides the maids losing their jobs.  For the past eight months, all we’ve thought about is just getting it written… “Minny, you got your kids to think about,” Aibileen says…[Skeeter says] “Aibileen, do you really think they’d…hurt us?  I mean, like what’s in the papers?”  Aibileen cocks her head at me, confused.  She wrinkles her forehead like we’ve had a misunderstanding.  “They’d beat us.  They’d come out here with baseball bats.  Maybe they won’t kill us but…’” (365-366).

As Stockett echoes in the postlude, “Too Little, Too Late,” “In The Help there is one line that I truly prize:  ‘Wasn’t that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I’d thought’” (451).  For Stockett, The Help seems to be a commentary and celebration of the “universality” of humanity, especially the plight of women in a sexist world.  And while I agree more with Langston Hughes’s notion of “universality” from his seminal essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” that “universality” is more of a trap or ploy to create within African people an “urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (1267), I can applaud Stockett for attempting to tell her truth, which is another motif of the novel, and for having her protagonist struggle with that truth in much the same manner as Baldwin does in Evidence of Things Not Seen.  Skeeter struggles with her relationship with Minny who is not as placating as Aibileen, and she struggles with just how much truth she tells about her own mother’s relationship with their former maid, Constantine, who was like a mother to her.  Yet, what makes Skeeter heroic is not that she single-handedly saves or leads Aibileen and Minny or becomes the lone wolf against the backlash of her white community but that she continues her journey toward self-discovery as she continues her journey to learn every aspect about the community that has birth and molded her, even when the journey does not promise anything but the truth, which very well may be a truth that will disrupt the foundation of the life she knows.
      The Help is already a New York Times Bestseller and will probably be a summer block buster.  And while I wonder if this same book would be loved if written by an African woman, especially considering that even at so-called liberal MFA and PhD creative writing programs and literary journals white professors and editors are careful not to allow whites to be painted as the sole antagonist in African poetry and fiction, which makes it even more interesting that Stockett does not list Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Ellen Douglas as noteworthy Mississippians in her postlude, there is no denying that Stockett has crafted a well-told story that receives its tension from the layering of characterization and the conflict that Stockett battled as she wrote it:

The Help is fiction, by and large.  Still, as I wrote it, I wondered an awful lot what my family would think of it, and what Demetrie [the maid who helped raise her] would have thought too, even though she was long dead.  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…Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly…I am afraid I have told too much…I am afraid I have told too little…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 in the 1960s.  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 (450-451).

To be clear, I am a Black Nationalist who thinks that Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball only served to limit greatly the number of black-owned businesses as integration has merely meant the perpetuation of African second-class citizenship.  And for those quick to identify the election of President Obama as a great achievement of American integration I assert that he was only elected because Bush II drove the American Titanic into the economic iceberg and that the emergence of the Tea Party has the same historical significance of the emergence of the Klan after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise.  However, the value in Stockett’s writing is that she does not settle for the falsity of “Can’t we all just get along?” but seeks to present difficult questions about the struggle of personal and communal concerns, showing that we all must make difficult decisions of how best to navigate those waters to achieve what is best for oneself, one’s race, and others who seem different than us.  Though not nearly as dense, Stockett uses the historical novel in much the same way as Walker uses Jubilee—to forecast, make commentary, and raise timely questions that the readers will be forced to ignore or answer.  But, even if those questions are ignored, Stockett has fulfilled her artistic responsibility of painting a work that raises these uncomfortable questions.

Works Cited
DuBois, W. E. B.  “The Criteria of Negro Art.”  The Norton Anthology of   African American
            Literature.  Ed.  Henry Louis Gates.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Hughes, Langston.  “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  The Norton Anthology of
            African American Literature.  Ed.  Henry Louis Gates.  New York:  W. W. Norton &
            Company, 1997.

Stockett, Kathryn.  The Help.  New York:  Amy Einhorn Books, 2009.

Note:  Although Margaret Walker Alexander was not a native of Mississippi, she spent thirty years writing and teaching at Jackson State University.  And in the same way that Angela Ball is not a native Mississippian but is noted as an exemplary Mississippi writer, as she should be, so should Alexander be noted as an exemplary Mississippi writer.

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