Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Help: Truth, Fiction, and Authenticity

Welcome guest blogger, Susan Monroe. Susan is coordinator of School 29 Literacy Project, based in New Haven, CT.
Guest Blogger: Susan Monroe
Last week we learned that among the personal affects left by civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks is a six-page essay detailing an attempted rape by a white neighbor. Reportedly, Parks’ family refuted the essay as a “story,” but most, including me, have accepted the tale as plausible, factual.

Handwritten page of Rosa Parks' essay
After reading an excerpt, I was struck by the timeliness of a first person account of a black domestic. However horrific the content, I welcomed this authentic voice speaking from the past, and I accept it as an important artifact in the chronicle of oppression and sexual exploitation that is tied to race and class.

At the time the essay was written, Parks worked as a maid for a white family and like other women in that position was not only vulnerable to social and economic oppression but also to sexual aggression for the sake of survival. The previously unknown account illustrates how the shame of sexual exploitation can suppress self-expression in the form of outrage, dignity and agency, in sum, how shame can suppress retaliation. It seems fair to assume that Parks recorded the incident, held onto the essay, but felt too vulnerable to share it.  Writing out her experience may represent the only form of agency Parks felt was available to her without entrusting herself and the experience to public record. In response to learning about the essay, a friend announced to me,  “I believe Rosa Parks was a writer.”  She was.

Why am I posting this on Now Rise’s book blog? What does all of this have to do with books? Rosa Parks did not write an autobiography but took part in several “as told to” memoirs, most notably Rosa Parks: My Story, 1999, with Jim Haskins, but in just a few days a film based on Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, The Help (2009), will open in theaters. The book has been wildly popular but not without controversy.  I imagine the film will be, too. I have read The Help prompted by a desire to take part in the discussion surrounding it, and I eviscerated, er, uh, discussed it for it’s scandalously bad editing that robs Black southern dialect of any hint of poetry, music or suggestion of literacy of its speakers—dialect so badly written and imagined that a reader might not know whether to laugh or cry upon reading it (that is, if she can read it), dialect so badly written that it brings into questions the literacy of the writer, not that of the maids whose  speech patterns she attempts to imitate. Had Stockett or her editors ever read an artistic or poetic attempt at Black dialect?  And to whom is Aibileen speaking? We never know.
The Help

That aside (and that is a major pass), The Help has been chided for its lack of authenticity. In short, socially and politically conscious readers have noted that The Help is yet another book, film, etc., that places a white protagonist, power and privilege, at the center of and as the impetus for black political awakening and change. In this case, Stockett places Skeeter, a young white woman, as civil rights catalyst among a group of black maids in a fictional Mississippi town. In the world of The Help, the civil rights movement lurks murkily in the background although characters live in the midst of Medgar Evers’ bloody murder and the ever-emerging political power of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Somehow the maids that Skeeter engages are not impassioned by these happenings. While others are participating in sit-ins, being arrested and beaten, the maids in this community place their bets on an anonymously published book to bring about change.

With this scenario, Stockett unwittingly captures a complexity and paradox of race relations. The Help robs black women (black people) of their own social and political agency (a common device now practically a trope) while simultaneously servings as a testament to people who allow themselves to be exploited this way. The maids’ complicity in helping Skeeter is, in fact, the most authentic aspect of book. However, from a critical standpoint, I am most concerned with the notion of agency, especially in light of Rosa Parks’ found essay and from the standpoint of African American literary expression. I’ll leave the novel’s treatment of nascent modern feminism on the heels of the civil rights movement for another writer. 

What pains me is this. Aibileen, the maid whose voice begins the novel is a woman known for the power of her prayers, which she composes in a notebook. Aibileen (also the unacknowledged source for a housekeeping column Skeeter is hired to write for a local newspaper) takes the initiative to write out her narrative for her portion of Skeeter’s book. Oddly enough, given her propensity for writing, Aibileen has the most severely written dialogue in the novel. “Law,” she remarks again and again in Stockett’s crude rendering of black speech—that’s  “Lawd” or “Lord” for the rest of us. This treatment of Aibileen’s language is important since it potentially signals how the reader of The Help may perceive her writing. Skeeter says that she cleans up Aibileen’s writing, but does Aibileen write as badly as her speech has been rendered? If so, what are we to make of its value? Her intellect?

But what, you might ask, from the perspective of the novelist could be better than placing a pen in the hands of one of the maids? I would answer not giving that maid something authentic to say. Like Aibileen, Rosa Parks was a writer and recorder of authentic experiences, for instance, in her capacity as secretary to civil rights organizations. Her surviving essay about a near rape has entered and forever redirected the discourse surrounding black servitude by validating what many of have already known to be true. Given this reality, what would a maid in The Help's fictional Jacksonville, Mississippi write about? What would a personal narrative be?
By her own account, Kathryn Stockett had difficulty finding a publisher for The Help; she has said that at least 60 publishers rejected the novel and that those who eventually did publish the book knew nothing about Jim Crow law.
I just wish that if in the time it took to have her novel published Kathryn Stockett had made room for Aibileen to truly speak.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this engaging and important piece. I really appreciated the way you were able to take us through the nuances of the issues about expression, suppression, and exploitation. Keep writing.