Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Moving Beyond Mammy: Why I Strongly Disagree With Some Criticisms of The Help

I read Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help two years ago, when it first became a literary sensation. I loved and was astounded by it; it quickly became one of my favorite books of all time, among novels like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Mark Salzman's Lying Awake, and now also Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. It was unexpectedly very personal for me. I grew up in a society where the privileged have help, the help wear uniforms and eat in the kitchen and call their employers their "masters," and in some families the kids are taught "not to get too friendly with the help." I was lucky, though, and had someone like Constantine (portrayed by Cicely Tyson in the photo above): a woman I bonded with who's like a second mom to me, who's now been in our family for forty years and whom I love with all my heart, and who I know loves me with all of hers. Because of her I learned that love transcends a lot of barriers people can try to erect in various situations.

My brief mention of The Help in a blog post from when I first read it in 2009 summarizes the major themes that made me like it so much: "story and story-telling, truth and lies, having a voice and keeping silence and secrets, writing and how it transforms both writer and reader, and the true meaning of dignity and of significance." It's also, one of my friends adds, about "the power you get over your own story when you break the secrets and silence." She and I read it as READERS, I might even venture to say students of literature - but not as scholars of history. For this reason, critics who have blasted both the book and the movie for (supposedly) failing to be true to the historical times in which the novel is set, and for not focusing on Black History and the sufferings endured by Blacks in the South in the 1960's, have irritated me profoundly. The book was not written to be a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. It was written to be the story of the intertwining lives of three very different, complex, and compelling women. Novels are about CHARACTERS and novel writing is and should be entirely focused on who those characters are and how those identities drive what happens to them.

No one should presume to tell an author, "Your character should have done this" or "done that." Only the author knows her characters well enough to know why those characters do what they do; she then opens up their lives to us in moments, and we can get to know those characters, but not with the intimacy and authority to be able to dictate what their actions should have been. Any such criticisms are projections by readers, which may be out of keeping with the characters' identities and completely untrue to the world of the book. And that, right there, is the problem: people with an axe to grind couldn't accept a CREATED world, the world of the novel, but rather wanted it to be the world as THEY would have it or depict it.

I read the Open Statement to Fans of The Help by Ida E. Jones, National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) and a review by journalist and University of Georgia professor Valerie Boyd, who wrote Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston. I sincerely respect the fact that they know much more than most of us about African American history, and I appreciated being educated on perspectives that might not have occurred or been familiar to me, but I couldn't agree with many of the statements they made. Some of them annoyed me because they missed the point, and because by being so ready to criticize the work - perhaps even before reading the book or seeing the film, like some of their commenters, and perhaps because it was not written by a Black woman? - these critics willfully obviated the possibility of appreciating its many gifts.

The ABWH statement asserts, "Portraying the most dangerous racists in the 1960's Mississippi as a group of attractive, well-dressed society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness." What a short-sighted attitude. Stockett clearly did not set out to portray "the most dangerous" racists or write another Mississippi Burning. It's unfair to paint her as intentionally "ignoring" the more violent aspects of the 1960's simply because her novel is about the moments behind closed doors, about diaries and journaling, about words on pieces of paper. I thought that was the very beauty of her novel - that it's about these non-spotlighted things. Does EVERY author who chooses to write about Black women have to have a scene in her novel with a burning cross? Is that a requirement? I thought the special thing about this book WAS its focus on the tiniest moments - it's about the little things that aren't so little. The WHOLE POINT of it is that racism isn't just in KKK violence but ALSO, and perhaps even more insidiously, in the fake smiles of the well-dressed hypocrites and the not-so-hidden sneers of day-to-day interactions.

I also COMPLETELY disagree with the description of any of the characters as "asexual, loyal, contented caretakers of whites." There are no Mammies in Stockett's book - just real-seeming, complex women with courage and heart. Each African-American woman in the book had an identity and a personality. There aren't well-developed male characters, but I think it's because another big POINT of this book is the power and impact of WOMEN's relationships with each other - the focus was, rightly, on Skeeter, Abilene, and Minny.

Many object to the fact that a Black male in the book is an abusive alcoholic. This, too, I find immature: the need for only positive portrayals when a given negative element is important to the story. Do people really think just because African Americans suffered for years, and continue to suffer in many ways still, that there were no wife-beaters among them, as there were among Caucasians, back in the 60's? Do all writers have to walk on egg shells and give terrible traits only to white people in their novels? This kind of reverse racism demonstrates some pretty stunted growth. The literature of my own culture suffers from similar post-colonial tensions. Poor us, it cries; look how the Spaniards raped and enslaved and colonized our people, and after them, the British and the Americans. We have to highlight how evil the white people were, and how long-suffering and noble we are. Give me a break. We have to tell the stories as the stories are - that's what writers DO.

At some point, the literature of a people has to move beyond the need to be perpetually and repeatedly social justice literature. Literature should ultimately be about story first and foremost - story and character. I don't think a story about any group is necessarily obligated to speak for "The Experience" of that group; a writer has to be true to the characters she creates, and those characters may NOT be at all representative in the way historical scholars would understand "representative," whatever that means. I thought the women in The Help were all worth "getting to know" for all their different strengths and faults - a sign of good writing and a story worth reading. In the end I always approach novels as being about the novel's characters, NOT about Black people in Mississippi or Native Americans in New Mexico or Haitians in Haiti. In this particular book, the message of having the courage to tell one's story, to use writing as a way of asserting voice, to paint oppressors of any kind as ultimately ridiculous, and to work together in friendship for justice despite danger, comprised such a valuable STORY that I find politicizing it really unnecessary and unhelpful. The characters are strong, courageous, humorous, imperfect, loyal to EACH OTHER, and different from one another. What's so Mammy about that?

There were many other points made in the aforementioned pieces and the comments they generated that inspired only incredulity and disagreement in me. Boyd's soap-boxy review The Help: a feel-good movie for white people can't even leave the anti-white venom out of its title. If a white person wrote something entitled "A Feel-Good Movie for Black People" there would be a public outcry. I am neither a white person nor a Black person and I certainly did NOT feel good about the pain I read about and saw on the screen, but like one African-American woman journalist who left a comment, I felt very good about the love I saw between women friends and the way the women "ultimately save themselves by telling their stories." Boyd's sweeping generalizations and judgments - that Black people would never confide in white people, that no white person would be remarkable enough to earn Black women's trust, that Skeeter was ONLY motivated by ambition as a writer and not by genuine compassion for the Black women working as domestics in her town, that this novel should have encapsulated the experiences of all maids working in Jackson in the 1960's AND been a portrayal of the larger Civil Rights Movement AND (unrealistically) shown a white woman breaking some kind of mold to confront her only circle of friends with their behavioral ugliness - reveal the bigoted stereotypes and narrow view of white people in her own mind. She's supposed to be this accomplished journalist and scholar - yet she can't rise above what one commenter aptly described as "petty grandstanding."

I honestly think a lot of people out there are just plain SORE that a white woman would DARE tell stories from Black women's point of view AND do such an amazing, vivid, compassionate job. Sour grapes, I say. They need to move beyond judging something for what they WANT it to depict and judge it instead by what the author actually set out to do - get into the small moments, the pouring of tea in kitchens and changing of diapers in the nursery, explore the daily moments and relationships in the lives of three characters: Skeeter, Abilene, and Minny. This is what novels do. They are not Civil Rights documentaries. Stockett didn't want to write a novel about the lynching of innocent, persecuted Black men; she wanted to write about courageous, funny, gifted, strong, inspiring women and their friendships, obstacles, trials and choices. I think her incredible writing and her portrayal of these characters has honored women of all races, and she should be praised and thanked for it.

But please don't be like the intellectually lazy commenters under Boyd's review who don't feel like thinking for themselves and have decided instead, based simply on her tirade or other negative hype, to hate The Help already and not bother to read the book or see the movie. Have a little cultural integrity and responsibility and experience the work for yourself, then decide. It deserves that much, if only because it has us all thinking and talking.


Addendum 8/18/11: for an articulate, balanced, scholarly critical essay on what The Help could have done better, with a concrete and appropriate LITERARY example, check out this wonderful NPR piece by W. Ralph Eubanks: "Eudora Welty's Jackson: The Help in Context." He gracefully avoids undermining his own credibility by not lapsing into shrill, knee-jerk invective and thus successfully invites readers to open their minds and think critically - presumably the desired effect of any good critic.

8/29/11: Another thoughtful critical piece that makes an excellent point.