I mentioned in my Want to Read Wednesday post, I was concerned about reading The Help because I didn’t want it to crush my expectations for it. I was afraid it would be full of character and racial stereotypes. Well, I’m here to report that it totally knocked all those fears out of the park. My consensus is that it was wonderful. Here’s why:
- The characters in this book were honest, had clear identities, and weren’t caricatures of real people. I knew Aibileen. I knew Minny. Celia could pass for one of my relatives.
- Skeeter was flawed. She wasn’t the white person meant to “save” another race from the evils of white culture (watch Avatar and Dances with Wolves for this theme).
- Mae Mobley and Martian Luther King. End of story.
I suddenly feel overwhelmed trying to write down a review that conveys the most important elements of this book. How can I possibly tell you how well it addresses racial tension in Mississippi, the hot-button state of the 1960s? My muscles seized up with worry when Aibileen was kicked off the bus and forced to walk home in the midst of a Klan killing. The tensed up every time Skeeter drove to the “other” side of town to meet with Aibileen to write. My breath was ragged in anticipation wanting to know when Hilly would reach the part of the book about her … and the ill-fated pie.
How can I tell you about the heart-warming moments, the laugh-out-loud moments, of a book that illuminates that women are women, no matter what their color? The genuine love between Aibileen and Mae Mobley? The friendship formed between Celia and Minny? The struggle of two white women and how their maids saved them?
I can’t put those things in words. Perhaps it’s because so many others have written about The Help before me. My friend Jillian at A Room of One’s Own has a particularly wonderful review of this book.
Why isn’t The Help racist?
However, I will talk with you a bit about why I don’t think the book is racist. Like I said earlier, I was worried. I know and have read widely in African American literature from the Jim Crow period. I’m well-educated in American history. I often struggle with whether or not the idea of a white person writing on another culture is acceptable. As a white woman interested in Native American literature, I just can’t bring myself to write a scholarly article on a topic that I’m so interested in because of my race. Because of the actions of my race before I was born. Because how could I possibly add something new to a discussion on Native American literature. I feel the same about my new-found love for African American author, Frances Harper.
I came across the Uncle Remus stories when doing research for my paper on Frances Harper. I had no idea they were written by a white man until I dug a little deeper. Modern critics call the author racist. They say he relies on black stereotypes. Yet, James Weldon Johnson, a well-known African American author from the early 1900s called the Uncle Remus stories a (I’m paraphrasing from his book, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Page 63. I don’t have the book at the moment) significant contribution to African American culture. I asked my professor and she said it was so well-received because the author was a folklorist who made it clear that he was against slavery, against Jim Crow, and for equal rights. In short, his writing was authentic because he wrote down stories as they were told to him.
My question is, why can’t The Help be considered in the same way? Kathryn Stockett makes it clear that she’s writing from a knowledgeable position. She grew up in Mississippi. She had a black maid. She was witness to many, many things. At the very end, she says:
I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family every asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.
I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book. (451)
She admits that as a young child, she wasn’t old enough to ask tough questions. But she’s asking them now. She’s asking us to think about it as well. One of the things she wants us to think about is that all women, no matter the color, are the same. Or, that color is just the paper wrapping on the outside of someone’s true gift. She’s asking us to address our own issues with race (and they are still there, don’t kid yourself). She’s using history to get us to think about what it means to be in someone else’s shoes. To be the outcast. To be the black maid. To be the white trash woman who is ostracized from the community. Even to be Hilly, the racist who claims not to be racist.
Some would argue that simplifying historical events makes it racist. What about the boy who goes blind because he’s beaten for using the wrong bathroom? That isn’t simplified. Stockett just makes local racial issues more important than state/national racial issues. She’s highlighting the little stories. The stories we may not be aware of.
In short, that’s just my perspective on it. I think anything getting us to talk about the country’s racial issues is important. Therefore, I think The Help by Kathryn Stockett is important.
© 2012 – 2014, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.