“The Help,” a novel about the problems facing black maids in Mississippi in the early 60’s, has become a controversial bellwether about race in the post-racial days of Barak Obama’s presidency.
The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has now been made into a movie that is anything but a summer sleeper. In fact, it has awakened the ire of some militant members of the African-American community who have written some telling remarks about how they feel about one race writing about another.
It is as if, somehow, it is a kind of theft.
The Association of Black Women Historians writes: “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers…[It is a] disappointing resurrection of Mammy–a mythical stereotype…The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”
Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry on the Lawrence O’Donnell show spoke about a troubling cultural trend of whitewashing “black women’s labor exploitation”…“It is another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism…The novel made a lot of people feel good. It was sneaky…social science fiction”
Martha Southgate an award winning novelist who bemoans the state of African-American writers writes: “The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help [Emphasis mine].…to believe that ‘we’re all the same underneath’ is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree…The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least.” 
The actor Wendell Phillips (The Wire, Treme) sees it this way: “The movie represented another case of Hollywood making a movie with black characters so long as they are accompanied by a ‘great white savior.’”
The list goes on.
Some of these African-Americans (at least one, Jamia Wilson, had immigrant maids of her own but did not write of those experiences) appear to be inadvertently racist on their take of this novel and movie. The criticism seems to be that it is a bit uppidity for the white author, Kathyrn Stockett, to write about the black experience.
Those African-Americans who are critical of this work want to own the civil rights movement outright…“ to keep fighting for our stories to be told through our own eyes, not through others’ fantasies.”
Keep in mind that it is a novel and a movie – fiction.
For those who have not read the book nor seen the movie the story is about a young white woman, Skeeter, who was raised by a black maid she dearly loved. Upon returning from college she is exposed to the plight of black maids and sees how desperate their situation really is. In an attempt to expose the problem she writes a book, The Help, in which she recites the horror tales and humorous anecdotes told to her by the maids. Of course, all hell breaks loose.
Apparently the criticism of this work comes from a lack of understanding of who the heroes in this tale really are. Skeeter is not “the great white savior” here. She is the help. The maids, in particular Aibileen and Minny, are the real heroes of this story
Ms. Southgate (quoted above) is correct when she stated that within the civil rights movement the whites were the help but she is wrong when she tries to negate the fact that ‘we’re all the same underneath.’ Black or white, yellow or red we all suffer the same human dilemma. With the exception of sociopaths we all feel compassion. We all recognize injustice when we see it. That is why so many whites marched with Dr. King. They were such help that it made success inevitable.
The performances of both the black and white female leads in this film, by the way, are Oscar worthy and the film is more than just a chick-flick. Go see it and bring along some tissues. When I saw it the theater was only about 1/3 full and there was only one African-American in attendance.
Perhaps it is the criticism outlined here that is dissuading African-Americans from sharing this experience and that truly is a shame because The Help opens up our racial history to healthy discussions.
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