Conflicted With The Help

Have you read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help?  I haven’t.  I told my close friend, Maggie, last year when she was reading it that I had my challenges coming to the work.  I asked if she was enjoying it and was happy she said that she was.  She resonated with much of the novel because of her background and because of her experience growing up a white woman in the South.  I celebrated the book.  I loved that she could find the portrayal in it credible when gauged by her own personal story.  But I was off center.

I told Maggie and David and Dawn (we were all together at the time) that my conflict with the novel was with my desire to support and celebrate books in general and fiction in particular with my learned-over-the-years suspicion that my story–that story that I own collectively with all other black folks in this country–can so readily be accepted, supported, purchased, and promoted when it’s written by non-black folks.  I continue to experience that conflict as the movie is now being promoted.

I’m careful not to take these conflicts too far on this blog.  But my conflict is my conflict.  In fact, I’m very thankful for the humility Ms. Stockett exhibits on her website when responding to the question, “Were you nervous that some people might take affront to you…writing in the voice of two African American maids?”  She says,

…I was very worried about what I’d written and the line I’d crossed. And the truth is, I’m still nervous. I’ll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right.

Having not read the novel, conflicted man that I am still, I appreciate the author’s hope.  I share it.  And I also hope that the success of her novel continues to grow in relation to her posture around the issue of telling someone else’s story.  Indeed, novelists always tell another character’s story.  I hope she’s done that well.

That said, the other day I read the comments from Rosetta Ross, a religious studies scholar at Spelman, over at Religion Dispatches.  I share some of her biographical experiences, reactions to The Help, and sentiments about the acceptance of African American culture when its ushered to the wider world through the pen and hands and submission processes of white publishing professionals in this case.  Now, to be clear, I love white folks.  Some of you all are white, and I hope you know I love you.  And I hope you have a comment or two about this, especially if you’ve read the novel or seen the screening.  And still, I’m intrigued by how often and constant black authors or, more pointedly, African American authors, try to tell stories that cannot be accepted and embraced as cultural stories, as stories for the wider reading public.

Dr. Ross identifies three messages from the embrace of The Help.  Three reasons she won’t see the movie.  She says,

The first false message says: The real agents of the world are white….This message is false because black women, from a variety of stations in life, have voices and live and demonstrate to the world fulfilled lives every day—without the assistance or interference of white people.

The second false message is this: The really important point of all cultural production and activity is for white agency and dignity to be actualized. The overarching plot of this book presents the narrative of a young white woman finding herself and her voice amidst cliches, circumscriptions, traditions of the South during the 1960s. Against this background, the black women are instrumental in Skeeter’s journey into adulthood. Skeeter’s journey is the more prominent message of the book, and, I suspect, of the film as well. I will not go to see the movie The Help because I do not wish to view yet another production that tells me, a black woman, it is all about whiteness.

…the third, and most detrimental false message: Black persons—perhaps people of color, generally—exist primarily to serve of enhance the lives of white people….A predominant element of the Western imaginary, the idea that black persons ultimately exist as servants for white life, has long been supported by rhetorical constructions of Christianity. The most obvious examples, of course, were rituals such as catechisms about the necessity for [black] servants to obey [white] masters…

What do you think about Professor Ross’s comments?  Have you noticed some of the biases and patterns she speaks of, some of the messages she’s read and heard in the buzz around the novel and the film?  What experience have you had around hearing your story told through someone else’s lips?

Finally, I hope you read the novel.  One day I may.  I’ve read many representations of black people written under the hand of non-blacks, and this novel may join that shelf.  And, again, my conflicts aside, I can support the work of an author reaching the world with a good story–and upon the great experience my good friend had of the work.  I can easily separate my experience of the novel (or my perspective of the novel as I approach it from a distance) from my hearty suggestion that it should be read by others.

By the way, if you’d like to see Professor Ross’s full essay at RD, click here.

12 thoughts on “Conflicted With The Help

  1. Can I say that I think you should read the book before writing a post about it? There, got that off my chest. Now I can say I agree with your concerns. But, I’m going to respond where I differ just a bit. So yes I agree, “but…”

    I think the book is well written and that the author felt she had a story to tell. We have to try to tell the stories that reside in us even if they are other people’s stories. Because, rarely is someone else’s story just their story.

    When my daughter was a little girl, something terrible happened to her. That is her story to tell. I sometimes tell her story because her story also happened to me–because I’m her mom. Her story changed me, hurt me, destroyed things in me. Changed us–changed what could have been/should have been. That is my part of her story.

    That is what I think the author was trying to tell. Her story from the horror of other people’s story. Does she completely understand their story? No–but she was witness to it and it impacted her life–changed her–changed her could have beens and should have beens.

    Another point in favor of telling our story in light of someone else’s story is that it should mean we’re talking. That we’re trying to understand. That we’re building bridges and tearing down walls of assumptions, presumptions and cliches. When I tell my daughter’s story I hope she knows I know it isn’t all about me. Her story did impact me–change me–change us–but I know it is her story. Still–my part of her story is valid. It is real. While I can learn more about her from her telling of her story–she can also learn more of me by hearing me tell part of her story. Maybe even learn more about herself in how she responds to my remembrances.

    Dr. Ross says in her third point that the book enforces the notion of blacks exist primarily to serve of enhance the lives of white people. That was part of the culture of some of the people back in those days–and no doubt it still exists today in ugly places. But, the book didn’t promote that message–it told the fact of it but didn’t say it was right, good, or try to justify it. None of us exist to enhance other’s lives–though my friends and family do enhance my life–You do too, Michael–in so many ways. It seems each of us should be blessing one another–bringing joy, teaching truth, helping in practical ways.

    It is frightening to tell another person’s story–we know we won’t get it right. Fact is, we hardly tell our own story right. But hopefully, when we share what it was like for me when you were going through stuff, we don’t make it all about me but we find some redemption in the outcome of both our stories cause we’re living in community, impacting each other, broadening the truth we both have lived and wish to learn.

    • Linda, of course, you can say I should see the movie or read the novel before writing a post about it. In my mental world, I’m writing a post more about why I have yet to do those things. And I agree that we should tell stories, even the stories of others. That’s what writers do. Novelists, when they do it right, are telling the stories of their characters. So it’s inherent to fiction that writers are telling the tales of others. But I do think that conflict or concerns come can up when the stories writers (or speakers or pastors or whoever) tell belong to collective others. I think those others can and should be heard and considered in the writing and the telling.

      I’m in complete agreement that stories are rarely owned. They are usually shared. Point of view is essential to your comment there, and you’re right. And yet as a potential reader and movie-goer, I still have reactions and pre-reactions which must be dealt with to get me in the chair. Even Dr. Ross’s point about black folks serving white folks is related to her point of view, her experience as a reader–an inherently subjective episode in her life. She would go toe to toe on her point, I’m sure, and challenge that a fact can be offered, that history can be (re) told without the reader’s experience being justified, without the writer’s world coming through, or, in this case, without the larger cultural matter of power and racism and poverty (and so on) being real and present with the opening of the book.

  2. Great post Mike…I agree with the 3rd point of Dr Ross, the existence of black people to serve. Immediately after seeing a poster for the movie, I knew I would not go see the movie. I made a personal decision that I did not want to see anymore movies about black people serving white people. I understand its a part of our history, it happened. I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies on that topic. Mary J Blige said she was able to see “forgiveness” in the movie, good for her. I’m quite sure there is more to the movie than just black women who are maids…but not enough to make me go see it.

    • Audrey, I think we’re in the same boat. Or on the same dock. There has to be something compelling to read the novel or write the book. I don’t think I have enough yet. I may get there, but my question is, what would be different? How will this not show what I’ve already seen? Where will this go that we haven’t already gone, given my best understanding of the historical consciousness of black USAn people? If there is more to it, it’ll come through the feedback of folks within the communities that I’m listening to. If those messages aren’t there, then the movie or the book is a repetition of what is. And I have a good notion of what is, what has been. I realize that I only have so much credibility talking about work that I haven’t engaged with fully, which is why I’m limiting my observations to my own sentiments on this side of the novel or the movie. If I see it, I’m sure I’ll have more to say. If I read it or see it.

  3. I’ve read Michael’s blog, Dr. Ross’s essay, and now Linda’s comment and I must say I’m now at a place where I’m contemplating reading the book or seeing the movie (I’m more inclined to do the first b/c supporting this Hollywood film adds a whole other level of concerns that should be left for another blog post). Needless to say, I highly value the previously mentioned names as they all deserve the utmost respect for their roles in my life. Linda, I found your words particularily thoughtful and fair.

    The assumption is that we’re validating the author’s or filmmaker’s work when we consume it. Purchasing a book to read is associated with supporting the work, as is purchasing a ticket to see a film. And in some very real cases (real, meaning dollar wise) we are “supporting” when we buy because dollars speak a seductive language to book publishers and Hollywood green lighters. To them, the money means publish more books like this, make more films like that, etc. It’s complicated.

    I am aware of a time when Black men were furious with how Black male characters were portrayed in the classic, The Color Purple, which incidentally, was inspired by a black author’s (Alice Walker) book but directed by a White Jewish man, Steven Spielberg. It was a story that was initially told by a Black woman and then adapted by a White man, and it still received criticism. To Linda’s point, Alice Walker told her story, Spielberg told his, but it all, in some way, came from the same story. And yet Black men still took issue with their portrayal.
    Was the portrayal of Black men unfortunate, yes. But these things did not take away from the fact that it was a great film that resonated well with most Black Americans. The real issue that Black men were responding and reacting to was the lack of positive black images in film and media in general which was, at the time, building its pervading presence. The release of the film served as a forum to voice their outrage, a forum that was nonexistent and, in some ways, still is. The same is true with The Help. In my opinion, Michael, Dr. Ross, and even my critical comments, observations, and feelings, are more in response to book publishers and filmmakers and how they decide to showcase our stories. I agree with Linda that we all have stories to share of the same event and they should all be heard (that of course is necessary to see the larger and more complete picture of an atrocity such as racism in this case). But the scale is unbalanced and teeters more on the side of White voices when it comes to the quantity and loudness of that storytelling voice on the national soapbox.

    Given that, can it be argued that White people should only support The Help? I don’t know. It can be argued (and has been), that Black people don’t need to see it or read it because we lived it. I’m too young to have lived it but my mother, and her mother certainly did and I have heard their story and stories like them over and over. Do we need to see the story of a White woman who tells our story? Maybe, maybe not; I haven’t seen the film or read the book (I’ll let you know). Like I said, it’s complicated but I do think it is at the minimum worth the read at the library so that I can offer deeper criticism.

  4. I just had supper with two very handsome men and we discussed this post for over an hour. Our guest was African American and he was able to help me understand this issue from a much broader perspective than my own. I can understand Michael’s concerns a little bit better, now.

    Our friend, Scott, didn’t diminish the need to hear the white girl’s story of growth in her setting…but he stressed thegreater need for the story to be told–not of a white girl’s transformation and her influence as a good person–but from the granddaughter of one of those maid’s who now is a DR. and is exploring the consequences of her history. That, Scott said, would be a story worth listening too–because it would be a new story–not one that’s been told over and over again to make while folk feel better because they can identify with the nice white girl who was a bit nicer than the rest of the cast and wrestled change into her soul.

    Our conversation reminded me of the book I just read by Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate. In this book, Amy talks a lot about being a writer, a daughter, a spouse and the burden of being an ethnic minority writer and the box people and publishers want to put her in because of her ethnicity. Publishers, critics, professors and students of her writing often demand that her fiction mean more, do more, change and help and inform more than just tell a good story of a mother and a daughter, of a family, of a girl coming of age. Because she is such a good writer, college classes dissect her work, and, she says, assign meaning beyond her intelligence. Both seem like tragedies to her.

    My conversation with Kevin and Scott tonight helped me–Amy’s perspective on her role as a writer and her writing inform me, too. Listening to others share their stories is one of the greatest gifts we can give. Being willing to be messy in the listening and the telling is another huge gift. Saying, “I don’t understand why this story seems so old to you when it doesn’t feel that old to me though I ‘recognize’ the tragedy of it’s unholy timelessness,” gives me a chance to hear why and grow in understanding. So, this is a favor The Help and Michael Washington have done for me. I don’t understand….but my understanding is growing. Thank you.

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