Interpreting The Help or How to avoid being racist in the way we’re being not-racist


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!)

The-help

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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8 replies
  1. Katy Hyman
    Katy Hyman says:

    Very thoughtful and helpful, thank you. I have this on my nightstand to read and I’m grateful to have your voice as I begin it.

    Reply
  2. Bishop CD Miller
    Bishop CD Miller says:

    Thanks so much for posting! I posted last week on FB had anyone read The Help!?! Kathryn Stockett wonders if she crossed the line with voicing as black women. Yes, she has and now that she has successfully sought to sit on both sides of the fence what will she do with the profits!?! Honestly, if a black woman wrote this book would she have been given the same publishing opportunity!?! “Gretchen” really speaks truth and gets kick out of the line up of stories…”Just another white women making money on our stories!” Are blonde’s having more fun here Ms. Stockett?—not sure this manuscript would have had “level at Calvary’s landing” consideration if it were written by a black woman. Yes, very well written and well crafted editing…definitely… “Skeeter uses Aibieleen” and really moves on to her dreams and goals…can’t help but regard Ms. Stockett has done the same—a great read…but wonder if A Rose By Any Other Name is here…soul food joints and back of the church catering flounder everyday but take the same fried chicken and call it Cajun, hot sauce bottle collections and Bayou graphics you have a 5 star restaurant review…wonder if a black women had written it would the chance have been given…I ask Susan Ramer—wonder if agent, Susan Ramer will represent my memoir…wonder….hmn…..”ain’t mad”–just wondering…I charge Kathryn Stockett with mission and advocacy since she crossed the bondary line and knows the price of admission to be black and white–high class and no class…”So Ms. Stockett what will you do with what you know past spending your royalties from using the voice and backs of black women.” WOW! Do I need “Elaine Steiner,Chief Editor Harper and Row” to give me a break like she gave Skeeter…hey I am black and white and Asian…let’s see how many voices they can write in the next script!:) Hey, I am a critical thinker…just pushing the envelope of this review…and Stockett’s end notes where revealing…as interesting as the book…enjoy—looking to the movie—hope black folks are in the line up to make some money on the production! Bishop CD Miller, aka C.D. Holmes-Miller

    Reply
  3. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    This is an excellent reflection of both our faith and this particular book. While I really enjoyed the storytelling, I was more than disappointed when I read Ms. Stockett’s words in the conclusion. It seemed she had missed the entire point that she’d attempted to offer in narrative form. This review uplifts that point beautifully. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Theresa
    Theresa says:

    Thank you for this perspective on the book. My book club (all young African-American females) really struggled with the characters and the “hero halo” of Skeeter. However, we understand that many of our grandmothers will read this book and have a different perspective of these complex relationships. Also, we were troubled by the missing male voice in this book.

    Reply
  5. loumac
    loumac says:

    I have a new blog-crush! Thank you for this amazing post. I found your site after googling “The Help” and “racism”. Your analysis is better than any other I have read. The distinction between ethics and morals, and how it enables privilege (by interpreting inequality as a product of individuals rather than systems), is so insightful.
    I hope you don’t mind if I check in here once in a while – I’m not clergy or even Christian, but am fascinated by scholarly, sociological, feminist, activist, political (etc.) discussions about faith.

    Reply
  6. john
    john says:

    The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.
    The fact that the majority of African Americans feel uncomfortable with the “The Help” whilst the vast majority of white Americans LOVE it (calling for an Oscar and describing it funny, witty etc) shows the reality of race relations in America couldn’t be more different from the rosy veneer that the Obama presidency would have us believe.
    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.
    The book (and the movie) “The Help” is nothing more than a self congratulatory, patronising (and possibly misandric) work of fiction that tells us nothing new, other than panders to old stereotypes.
    A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on, and noe The Help.
    Don’t get me wrong, I fully expect “The Help” to receive at the very least, an Oscar nomination or similar accolade. We’ve been down this road sooo many times before.
    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/05/rewrite-us-history-so-that-white-people.html
    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

    Reply

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