Editor's Note: This installment of The Jesus Review marks the first in our month-long, publication-wide focus on diversity. Its subject, the bestselling debut novel from Kathryn Stockett, has been a book group staple for over a year. The Help tells a story of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, but its subject matter, and its immense popularity, is well worth exploring from a young clergywoman perspective (so you'll know what to say when a friend or congregant foists it on you!)
Almost two decades ago, a television show came on the air and lasted for a season or two before being kicked over to PBS for re-runs. It was called I’ll Fly Away. The thing that made me suck in my breath about the show was that the black maid in the South did everything I had seen in other television shows about Blacks and Whites in the south—cleaning, cooking, comforting the children during hard times. The thing that this show illustrated, however, was that job cost her time with her own family, and that she was aware of this cost and not absolutely delighted to be raising someone else’s children instead of her own. Her relationship with the white family is transactional, and while she cares about them, they are not the center of her world; they are her job, a job that by its very nature is built on inequity, even with a family who seek to be non-racist. For all of its efforts to illustrate a complex life experience, The Help misses the mark on this point—which is, I suspect, exactly what makes it so much more appealing to folks.
For people who haven’t been consistently on the receiving end of discrimination but who want the world to be a place of equality and dignity for all people, there is something seductive about the stories that show a certain amount of mutual benefit in transactions between the haves and the have-nots, with a smattering of wicked stepmother-type characters to let us know that bad things happened, but because of a few bad people. The book The Help will hold a great deal of appeal for this demographic, who make up a big chunk of a lot of our churches. God help us.
This is a challenge we see in churches all the time; it’s one of the things preachers grapple with as they scour the Gospels searching for a good Word. The old adage goes: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But it’s harder than it looks. From where I sit, Jesus cared a fair bit for the wellbeing of individuals and how they treated one another (morals). On the flip side, he didn't seem to consider morals to be a substitute for systems that guaranteed people being treated equally (ethics) hence his regular reflections on the portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of freeing the captives. The prophets were less interested in just treating individual captives nicely. The fact that Jesus actually highlighted systems of oppression (from the moneychangers in the temple who marginalized the poor people’s gifts to God to his subtle critique of the Roman bread distribution program when he fed the 5,000) might have been part of why he was killed so ignobly. His teachings, his lifestyle, and even his miracles felt like an indictment to people who tried to live good, quiet, non-disruptive lives while being as kind to others as they could. Likewise today, the challenge of living amidst privilege can be that Jesus' teachings are incredibly indicting to our own lives, which is part of what makes stories focused on morals so much more inviting, and so much more tempting, than stories focused on ethics.
The Help focuses on a particular set of relationships in a culture that is both very close and far removed from the one in which most of us were raised, and raises questions for Christians about the intersection, and divergence, of ethics and morals. As an immigrant to this country at a young age, I have only experienced the world portrayed in this story through books, movies and the personal stories of friends who grew up in the South before the civil rights era really took off. This makes it pretty hard for me to judge The Help. A friend of mine shares a story about his mother growing up in North Carolina with two servants named George and Mammie. When he asked his mother what they had been paid, his mother had responded, “We fed them and clothed them and gave them a place to live; that was enough for them,” in a tone that suggested he wouldn’t understand how deeply the relationship went which allowed them not to pay minimum wage. In the church, we often see such confusion around issues of compassion or charity over and against work for justice. How are we to know what feelings and forces are at work in any given relationship, especially strange and complex ones?
The book’s author touches on this in her closing remarks: “I was truly grateful to read Howel Raines’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “Grady’s Gift”:
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.
If Stockett had consistently remembered those principles, her three major narrative characters wouldn’t have felt so contrived and slightly caricature-like (as they did to me), and in particular her educated white character wouldn’t have done so much of the ethical heavy lifting, seeming to rise naturally above the culture in which she was raised even before becoming aware of working conditions as she and the other two narrators write a novel about the life of southern black domestic help. It should be noted that both of these narrators are domestics, and both are written in dialect, whereas Skeeter (barring her nickname) is not. Skeeter is meant, I can’t help but feel, to be a proxy for the reader, and perhaps for the writer herself.
The relative cleanness of the characters—the white heroine is uncomplicated in her loyalty to black domestics, the matronly black domestic has unadulterated love of the white babies she raises regardless of her treatment by their parents, the “angry” black domestic who smarts off and has to find new work regularly finally cares for a woman with poor white roots who doesn’t see racial divides and learns to accept the authenticity of good white people—is both the appeal and challenge of this book for the women gathering to read it. It is my sincere prayer that pastors inviting their congregations or women’s groups to engage this book would seriously look at pairing it with articles about Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Lee Bolden, or possibly even Esther Cooper’s masters thesis on black domestic workers in the 1940s, if the congregation can forgive the communist sympathies of the link provided here. (And it’s certainly worth asking why black domestic workers in the 1940s might have found the promises of communism appealing.) Another interesting source might be the anthropological book All Our Kin, which discusses the situation of African American women in the 1960s, summarized here.
All in all, the tidiness of The Help need not stop it from being a useful book. If people read it with the awareness that it comes from a woman who lived its story as a young white woman raised by a kind African American domestic worker whom she loved deeply, if people read it with the awareness that as a result, she has a great deal invested in a slightly more heroic white female character, and if people read it realizing that there are other ways of telling the same story (and one woman writing three characters’ perspectives does not mean the book really has three perspectives), it can lead to rich and deep conversation about the lived experience and complexity of racism that continues to shape us today—that, in fact, draws some people to this exact type of story (and Glory, and Driving Miss Daisy, and Long Walk Home) while it repels many of us who have lived with systemic racism and are hurt by it just as much as by the actions of racist individuals.
The one tragedy of The Help is that (as one of the characters says) we’ve already heard about the Gone With The Wind description of happy and contented slaves; it’s time for Black people to tell their own stories. Ironically, this book doesn’t accomplish that task set for it by the characters inside. Nonetheless, engaging additional stories might help church members begin thinking more deeply about why this story is only the beginning of the real story of race in America, in the 1960s and today.
Cover image from The Help used under a Creative Commons License.
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