Friday, July 15, 2011

The Help hurts Black women say critics

In this year of 2011 that observes the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War—in which Black people were freed from physical bondage—there is another conflict of widening influence brewing in the land. The conflict can be understood in the mission of a grassroot movement started by colleague of mine that focuses on Black people’s “emotional emancipation” from what she calls “the lie of Black inferiority.” 

A similar movement to expose an inferred premise of Black inferiority surrounds the novel, The Help (2009), as well as its first time author Kathryn Stockett. The movie version of The Help features Black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and opens nationwide in early August. Some critics of the book also view the forthcoming movie with skepticism.
The Help 
If you have strong views about The Hel--the book or movie--or issues related to it, you can voice your opinions in an all-day online forum, tomorrow, Saturday, July 16 at the hashtag, #100voicesrespondtothehelp.   
How did the novel come to be the center of this public examination when it was published to high praise?
For example, author Kathryn Stockett’s official website cites a starred review from Library Journal: 
A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, black maids raised white children and ran households but were paid poorly, often had to use separate toilets from the family…  . In Stockett's narrative, Miss Skeeter, a young white woman, is a naive, aspiring writer who wants to create a series of interviews with local black maids. ... Tension pervades the novel as its event are told by [Skeeter, and the two Black women Aibileene and Minnie.”]
and The Help received warm praise from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
 "Powerful...[Stockett's] attention to historical detail, dialect and characterization create a beautiful portrait of a fragmenting world...This heartbreaking story is a stunning debut from a gifted talent."

Despite high praise and its bestselling status, The Help is obviously not without dissenters. They  challenge the novel’s authenticity, the credibility of the author’s research, and more broadly, the marginalization of the Black women by Hollywood.  
Two of the leading critics of The Help appearing in my Twitter timeline recently are Kwanda Scott, (whose Twitter user name is @AmethystNite); on Twitter, she identifies herself as “Black feminist intellectual aspiring to become a wife, mother, and PhD student… .”
The other consistent dissenting voice appearing on my Twitter page identifies herself, appropriately, by the user name @CriticofTheHelp. Her profile reads that she is an “avid reader & one who believes fight for equality is not over.”
@CriticofTheHelp began her intrepid critique of The Help in an open dialogue on about a year ago. She also voices her views at the Help and on her blog, On her blog, she declined an inquiry about revealing her name and asked to be called, “Onyx.”
Besides an apparent affinity for the names of gemstones, Kwanda Scott (@AmethystNite) and Onyx also share a penchant for using social media to voice their dissent about The Help. They connect with others, promote a critical analysis of issues in the novel and those related issues about how minorities are still marginalized in popular media. Tomorrow, Saturday, July 16, they will lead the all-day forum on Twitter inviting comments about The Help at the hashtag, #100voicesrespondtothehelp.   .
In an email to me, “Onyx” said the hope of Saturday’s forum is “to be the critical discussion on The Help that was never held.” The discussion, she said, will include “diverse voices” and people across various professions who have been invited to comment. The conversation will be larger in scope than just about the novel and address issues including “the perception of women and minorities in publishing and film.”
The evidence of how seriously they take the forum is the date they agreed on for the event; July 16 is the birthday of Ida B. Wells, the influential journalist and fiery anti-lynching advocate who campaigned for social justice in public forums and writings such as her investigation of lynching in the South, Red Record. “She’s our inspiration,” Kwanda said.
Using Ida B. Wells as an inspiration, Kwanda and Onyx are 21st century crusaders for justice waging a campaign decrying the distorted images of Black women and minorities that they feel are revived in The Help.
Relying on an old-school technology—the land line telephone—I asked Kwanda Scott this week what is the danger of a book like The Help?
Lack of Authenticity
After reading the first few pages of The Help, Kwanda said she felt that “it was so jarring.” The dialect lacked authenticity. As an example, she read from the first page of the book: "I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime."  My grandmother did not speak like that, Kwanda said. 
“And I am a migration girl,” Kwanda said, noting the deep roots she has maintained with her family in Alabama and Tennessee, even though her grandmother moved her family from the South to Chicago years ago.  
“This [dialect] is not my auntie or my grandma,” Kwanda said. As I read I thought, “I am the only one who feels this way?”

The Author’s Credibility
Kwanda and others have concerns about the author’s credibility because of factual errors such as a reference in the novel that Mississippi Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was bludgeoned to death; a character who refers to her color as blacker than a roach or distorted dialect.
“Stockett didn’t even care to do a good job at this,” Kwanda said, noting that Stockett admitted that she based some portrayals of the Black women on her family’s maid who has since passes away. However, Kwanda said that Stockett did not seek out the maid’s family in order to make her portrayal true to the departed women’s views of herself. Its been reported that the family of a Black woman whom Stockett used as a model for one of the novel’s characters is suing Stockett. Kwanda voiced concern that Stockett did not do due diligence in researching the novel. She feels the prevailing attitude is that “its “okay” when White people get it wrong when they talk about Black people.
These characters are not inspirational. If we want inspiration, Kwanda said, we can find other books about life in Mississippi. "Read Anne Moody’s memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi; let’s look at Fannie Lou Hamer and get some inspiration if we need inspiration," she said. 
Characters lack complexity
Another issue is complex characters. Kwanda said that Stockett could have grounded the story “in the nuances” of Black culture to capture the complexity of the women she portrayed. Instead, Kwanda balks at the depiction of one of the Black women, Aibileene, who is asked if she knew as a little girl growing up that she would be a maid. Aibileene, played by Viola Davis, answers, “Yes ma’am, I did.” 
Part of the risk with this kind of portrayal suggests “this is how it really was,” and the danger is that Black women can end up taking on these values as a guide to how to live their lives, Kwanda said. She identified this portrayal as a “mammification” of Black women, pointing to sources (The Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, for example) that explain how this phenomenon has operated in American society.

Indeed, I have to ask why we would accept this subservient domicile attitude celebrated in the fiction and movies by a class and race that benefits from our subservience? It’s a double price to pay. As a friend said to me today, “it’s bad enough when White folks do things at my expense, but then they get the profit from it, as well.”

These distorted perceptions could “enter the public consciousness and counteract [strong positive Black women such as First Lady] Michele Obama, Kwanda said.  

The portrayals smack of patronizing
“There is “an unconscious color-blind ideal” that is at play as well, Kwanda said. The ideal says that if [President] Barack Obama or Oprah made it, then every [Black person] can. “On the surface it sounds inspirational, like people are rooting for us, but only so far as we distance ourselves from other Blacks,” she said.
The persistent online dissent from Kwanda and Onyx hit a nerve. During the last few months, The Help’s producer Michael Barnathan has participated in an exchange with both women on Facebook and Twitter, admitting there were problems in the novel. “We addressed more then (sic) 1 of your concerns in the movie,” Barnathan wrote, “The screenwriter and the actors brought life and context to the movie that is unique and came from within.” Kwanda wondered if the contributions that Viola Davis and Octavia Spenser made to “correct” characterizations would earn them credit alongside screenwriter Kathryn Stockett.
Ultimately, Kwanda said the book is not critical, complex, and she feels that Stockett was given a pass by readers.
She wrote in an email to me, “Central to my issue with The Help is how some white authors retell and therefore reshape words, actions, and motivations of Black women.  Many still believe the symbol of Sojourner Truth told by racist. It is an eery connection and pattern repeating itself [with the reception to The Help."]


  1. This is a wonderful post. I recently saw Kathryn Sockett at a book promo here in Kansas City. She was asked some very deep questions about her research and interviews with people from this era. She didn't interview anyone. She couldn't answer critical questions. She seemed displaced. I question if she even wrote the book. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hello Kristi,

    Thank you very much for sharing your impressions. I listened to some of the interview Kathryn Stockett did with Katie Couric (accessible online), and I can't say that I was impressed with Stockett's command of her own story. She stalled on some questions, or she just did not answer them directly.
    The forum moderated on #100voicesrespondtothehelp yesterday was an important step in the thorough examination and analysis that should continue with the novel and the forthcoming movie.

  3. A new classic has been born. Kathryn Sockett's "The Help" will live in hearts and minds, be taught in schools, be cherished by readers. The three women who form its core, idealistic Skeeter, loving Aibileen, and sarcastic, sassy Minny, narrate their chapters each in a voice that is distinctive as Minny's caramel cake no one else in Jackson, Mississippi, can duplicate.

  4. Too strong?

    Your post makes me sad. The novel probably is loved and appreciated by many, but I pray that it never makes its way into any school’s curriculum. Young people’s grasp of history is already so tenuous that to introduce this misguided work as a frame of reference would be academic malpractice. However, you are correct in that it is a CLASSIC, a classic example of the stereotyping and disillusionment at the CORE of what remains a DISTINCTIVE American form of storytelling that is DUPLICATED again and again to our detriment.

  5. Pas

    Dont mean to disappoint you