Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Glossy Version of Being The Help

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 534
ISBN: 978-0-425-24513-2

As a reader, I tend not to jump on the current band wagon. I tried reading Oprah's picks, and tend to dislike most of them. Actually, despise is a more accurate word for several - as I threw a few across the room in frustration of the inane writing or plot (or lack thereof). If it is on the New YorkTimes bestseller list, I try to avoid it. Why? I think it is the adolescent willfulness that is still in me - I don't like to be told what to do or read. At the same time, there has only been one person who has understood my taste in books, my brother. He has always found me obscure but great fiction and non-fiction and I delight in his Christmas and birthday presents. However, most other people press books in my hand that they loved and I slog through them at a snail pace; finally giving in to skimming and skipping pages just to say I finished it. When they ask how I liked it, I use the duplicitous tactic of turning the question back on them, so I don't have to tell them how much I disliked it.

When The Help came out as a movie, suddenly I saw the book being read on buses and in coffee shops. Even my mother picked up a copy, which surprised me because she generally doesn't read popular books. She was quite anxious to see the movie, but is one of those people who needs to read the book first. One weekend I popped by mom's house to catch a ride to the airport and found the book waiting for me. Now, airplane time is prime "fun" reading time for me, but I had already been geared up to read Nine Parts of Desire:The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. The cheery yellow movie poster cover of The Help did not entice me to abandon a journalist's experience of living and working with Middle Eastern women during the first Persian Gulf. In fact, the cover led to think of pretty birthday cupcakes, when all I wanted was some solid mash potatoes and gravy.

This week, I began reading The Help. At first I felt a bit like a voyeur. I am a Northerner born and bred, and although I've lived overseas for a long time, I've had few direct racial encounters personally, though I well aware of the racial, social and cultural struggles non-white Americans face every day, and especially black Americans. As a child, I grew up in a typical small town of European descent and hadn't met an African-American until I joined the Army. The overt discrimination I then witnessed was eye-opening, though I continued to enjoy my white privilege through college and into work. It was with this awareness of white privilege that I began reading The Help and wondered how a white author could realistically and accurately portray the voices (even fictional) of the African-American experience from 50 years ago.

The book is narrated by three main characters. Aibileen and Minny are both African-American maids tasked with running the houses and raising the children of two white families in Jackson, Mississippi. Freshly graduating from college, with no husband or career, Skeeter returns to her disappointed parents on a small plantation, to find her childhood maid has been fired and disappeared. As she tries gathering information from the maids of her friends about what happened to her maid, she begins to recognize the cruelty, hypocrisy, and ignorance of her white friends in their treatment of their domestic staff. At first, Skeeter leaps on the opportunity for a good story, "I'd like to write this showing the point of view of the help. The colored women down here . . . They raise a white child and then twenty years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony, that we love them and they love us, yet . . . We don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house . . . Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it." (p. 123).

Both Aibileen and Minny recognize the danger in speaking about their work. Not only could they get fired, but with Jim Crow laws still in force, jail, beatings and lynchings were normal responses to uppity black action. However, with several local black beatings and a murder, plus a local initiative to build black only bathrooms for the domestic help, both women believe this could be an opportunity to have their voices heard. When Skeeter proposes the article to a publisher, the publisher requests a full book of interviews, to capitalize on the soon-to-come march onWashington, DC led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To fill a book, Skeeter requires about a dozen maids to be willing to talk about their work. When one maid is accused of stealing and sent to jail for an excessive amount of time, the several maids agree to participate in the book. It is at this time Skeeter finally realizes the danger she has put herself and, especially the women, in. Particularly, the maid of the town's queen-bee, Hilly, who has a vendetta to create a fully separate but equal society because she feels strongly that "they are not us." The book is jointly edited by Skeeter and Aibileen with all names changed. The initial publication of a few thousand copies did not fulfill the demand, once the book was talked about on TV.

SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't read the book, and don't want to know the ending, skip the next paragraph.

In the end, Hilly recognizes the book is set in her town (though she can't admit is because of the Terrible Awful) and tries to have all the maids involved fired. However, a few of her white friends refuse, because of what they believe is a positive relationship with their maid. But, Aibileen is fired, which pushes her into considering doing something new and Skeeter gets a job in New York.

On the whole, this is a redemption and coming of age story for Skeeter (and the author), who feels guilty for the way her family treated their own maid. Both Aibileen and Minny allow Skeeter to leave Jackson with a sense of having accomplished something. However, the two women must continue to face the daily disrespect, discrimination and degradation of being black in America. I think one of the most powerful parts of the story is Aibileen's determination to re-educate Mae Mobley, the white toddler she is raising. Aibileen tells Mae Mobley secret stories about how people are people no matter what color their outsides are. Although this may seem like an obvious statement, discrimination and hatred are not inherent, they are taught and reinforced by the people around us. However, that also means that respect and love can be taught and model to counteract the evil actions of bigotry.

Association of Black Women Historians issued an open statement regarding many issues concerning the book and movie including the use of dialect, trivialization of the black experience, and lack of attention to the issues of the Civil Rights movement. It is a worthwhile read.  There are several other critiques of the book also, many which are justified.  The Help is marketed as a "beach read" but the actual experiences of the women who had to endure the constant degradation deserves more than a cheery cupcake cover. Although my breath was taken away by some of the ignorant and hurtful comments made by some of the white characters to and about the black characters, I would guess that was only the tip of the ice-burg of reality. And, like all beach reads, the story ends happily for all involved, wrapped-up like a 30 minute sitcom, which does not reflect the prevalence of modern discrimination.

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