After reading the book "The Help", watching the movie, and now listening to the plethora of commentaries that are streaming in by prominent black intellectuals, I figure I may as well throw in my own 2 cents.
Without a doubt, the book is definitely great literature, and will probably become a classic, being read in classrooms around the country. But also, I believe it adequately depicts the lives of black household domestics during the Jim Crow era in the South. I can say this because I grew up in Southwest Louisiana. I bore witness to own my Grandmother, all of her sisters, and many friends and neighbors who worked as household domestics. So, while some may perceive “The Help” to be degrading and contributing to diminishing the image of black womanhood, I tend to see things slightly different.
In 1923, Mississippi Senator John Williams along with the Virginia chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy proposed a bill to Congress for the erection of a monument “in memory of the faithful, colored mammies of the South” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Rightfully so, this idea enraged blacks, in particular, black women across the country. Civil Rights leader and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. member, Mary Church Terrell wrote that if such a monument were constructed, “there are thousands of colored men and women who will fervently pray that on some stormy night the lightning will strike it and the heavenly elements will send it crashing to the ground.” The backlash of such a thought of the creation of this degrading monument led to massive protests by black people. They argued that instead of the dedication of this insulting structure, “a better memorial would be to extend the full rights of American citizenship to the descendants of the Mammies.” Due to the vociferousness of black community leadership, the bill did not survive on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Today, some critics are making the comparison between Kathryn Stockett’s book “The Help” and that of the 1923 proposed legislation by the Virginia Daughters of the Confederacy and Senator John Williams to the U.S. Congress. The book is actually being equated as a modern-day monument to the “black mammy”. Others are appalled by the notions they claim are being propagated in the book and movie through endless clichés, the “one-dimensional characters”, and even the thought of an educated, liberal white girl attempting to make black women feel a sense of self-worth.
On Twitter, Terry McMillan, best-selling author of books such as “Waiting to Exhale”, “Disappearing Acts”, “Mama” and more recently, “Getting to Happy” tweeted, “when black writers write about black people white folks don't read them. When they write about us: bestsellers.” Tulane Professor, MSNBC contributor, and Columnist for The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, “tweeted” her commentary as she watched the movie. One of her tweets was “hard to tell whether it's the representations of black women or of white women that's most horrible.” In another tweet, she comments that the movie “reduces systematic, violent racism, sexism & labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won w/ cunning spunk.” At one point, Harris-Perry, appearing extremely disgusted with the film tweeted, “I'm not sure I can make it through to the end.....arrggghhhhhh & I read the book. I knew...but the images...” Wow! I know everyone is entitled to their own perspective, but really, did we just watch the same movie?
Then, this really made me ponder over a few things. Had “The Help” been written by a black writer, would it have received the same acclaim granted by whites to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? Would the same negative, resentful sentiments persist by some in the black community if Kathryn Stockett was a black woman? And lastly, is Kathryn Stockett simply being hated on because of the success of her book? Hmm…? They all seem like valid questions to me.
One thing I know for sure is that sometimes the truth hurts, but as Jesus stated, it is the truth that shall “set you free”. With that being said, I whole-heartedly believe that the racist notions of slavery, the Nadir, and the rise of Jim Crow are forever reprehensible stains upon the American political, economic, and societal fabric. I also believe that present attitudes and behaviors regarding race by blacks and whites alike are the lingering psychological affects.
In “The Help”, one of the main characters, Minny, comments “I ... just want things to be better for the kids.” Well, because of the hard work and sacrifice that my own grandmother and countless other women who served as maids across the country endured, though not perfect, things have definitely gotten “better for the kids”. I am a living witness. I am living the life that I am certain my grandmother and many nameless, faceless black women would have wanted for me- highly educated, articulate, successful, productive black woman. This is evident when I return to my neighborhood and community, and I am greeted by the smiling faces of those from my grandmother’s generation who are still living; or, when I hear their comments filled with the pride of my accomplishments. In spite of the tremendous guilt I sometimes feel in knowing how much was sacrificed by so many, somehow, I am assured that my accomplishments are their accomplishments- that their labor as “help” was not in vain.
So before you pass judgment and dub this book and movie out as “liberal white-chick literature”, I suggest that you try not viewing it as an exploitation of the black domestic, but rather as a catalyst of the many voices of proud black women who got up and went to work every day in someone else’s kitchen so that they could place food in their own kitchen.
Again, this is just my 2 cent, and I’m Nic and I’m just saying.