Coffee Rhetoric: Help Me Understand The Help

July 17, 2011

Help Me Understand The Help

The media has been buzzing about Kathryn Stockett's book The Help. The story takes place in the 1960's during the Civil Rights Movement and is about a young woman named Skeeter... an aspiring writer who returns home to Jackson, Mississippi after having just graduated from Ole Miss (University of Mississippi). Encouraged to write about disturbs her, Skeeter decides to down-low collect stories from Black maids detailing their experiences working for their affluent, White mistresses who while relying on them, also mistrusts them - (A woman won't even let her maid use the family's bathroom in one instance). Skeeter collects these stories with the help of a domestic named Aibileen and Aibileen's friend Minny. Like many bestsellers that pique Hollywood's interest, Stockett's book has been adapted into a film also titled The Help, due for release this August and starring the underrated and prolific Viola Davis, who plays one of the several domestics.

The general consensus about the book seems to be positive with most people calling its story "uplifting." One commenter on an article's feedback section patronizingly wrote (perhaps without meaning to): "The best book I've read all year. I would welcome any of the maids in my household... especially Aibileen..." But it definitely isn't without its share of controversy. There're a few people who're skeptical about Kathryn Stockett's intentions (for better or worse), the story's theme, and the upcoming film. Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old woman who has worked as a domestic for many years, has filed a lawsuit against Kathryn Stockett, claiming the principal character in The Help appropriates her back-story and likeness; and also uses a variant spelling of her name, without her consent and finds it "emotionally distressing." Another interesting twist is that Cooper has worked and currently still does, for Stockett's brother and his wife (who seem to support Ablene in her suit against Stockett). Cooper claims that Kathryn Stockett never approached her prior to the writing and subsequent publishing of The Help.

The issue of race, especially as it relates to Black women (particularly in the American
south) working for affluent White families... cleaning their homes and raising their children... is still somewhat of a delicate matter, most notably for those who've had to do it for many years for lack of better opportunities and at the risk of their own families. A white person composing these stories about the Black community heightens the skepticism many may feel. Stockett herself has acknowledged the book’s cool reception by people (including some of her own family members) in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I understand that most of us writers are very keen about our surroundings and the people that inhabit it, and so may base ideas and characters off of those elements... but sometimes it's a slippery slope and can come with its share of backlash. Particularly if we aren't careful in how we re-configure those characters we base off of real people, places, and things.

Additionally, most Black people have mentioned being sick and tired of stories and movies featuring Black people being rescued by heroic white people. The August 2011 issue of Essence Magazine features two perspectives on The Help by two Black writers, one of whom enjoyed it as she could "picture the homes, hairdos, and even feel the Delta heat" each time she opened the book and didn't think it reinforced stereotypes, while the other commented that the book "glosses over the reality of African-American triumphs we bled and died for, in order to make a feel-good Hollywood story."

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my own reluctance about books and movies that tell our stories from a third-party, interloper's perspective and I have actually tried reading The Help myself, but couldn't quite make it beyond the first two chapters, as it just failed to sustain my interest. I'm also ambivalent about the upcoming movie. So I'll refrain from formulating an opinion about whether I believe it to be an uplifting read or whether I think it'll be a great movie. I will say that I do enjoy reading compelling and honest Black stories by Black authors and am still reeling from Wench written by Dolan Perkins-Valdez and would love to see more Black films about Black women, made by, well, Black women. It has been a while since I've seen a feature film made by Kasi Lemmons or Julie Dash. I'm still a bit bothered by Tyler Perry's movie adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Wasn't Enough, but I digress; that's a whole other topic.

It'll be interesting to read the reviews once the movie has hit theaters and people have actually seen it. Stories, including the stories of Black women domestic workers, are important. Their lives matter. But I'm not sure I want a white woman from a privileged background co-opting these stories to propel herself to literary fame.