Friday, August 12, 2011

Duchess Harris: Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help

the help, duchess harris, black women, black scholars

by Professor Duchess Harris, PhD, JD

I did not attend Wednesday’s movie release of “The Help” from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.  Why, you ask? Because I read the book.

Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an advance screening of the movie and referred to it as  “…a story of female grit and solidarity — of strength through sisterhood.”  He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” What neither Bruni nor Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.

I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of the criticism it has received.  I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are.  The novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old, social climbing Miss Leefolt.  The plot unfolds when her “friend” and the novel’s antagonist, Miss Hilly, the President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League, announces that she will support legislation for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)

We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea.  By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt’s maid Aibleen, “Do you ever wish you could…change things?”  This lays the groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black female domestics in Jackson.

The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her.  But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch).  As a Black female reader, I ended up feeling like one of “the help,” forced to tend to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness over the loss of her maid (whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her social trials regarding a clearly racist “Jim Crow” bill.

What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter.  This character is not a true white civil rights activist like the historical figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965), a mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.  Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone and that she is “stuck” with her parents.  She remarks, “I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.” (81) Constantine is Miss Skeeter’s Black maid, and it’s pretty transparent that Stockett is writing about herself.  We learn this in the novel’s epilogue, “Too Little, Too Late:  Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.”

“My parents divorced when I was six.   Demetrie became even more important then.  When my mother went on one of her frequent trips[…] I’d cry and cry on Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad I’d get a fever from it.” (p. 527)

“I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.  It never occurred to us to ask.  It was everyday life.  It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.  I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She died when I was sixteen.  I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be.  And that is why I wrote this book.” (p. 530)

It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for understanding.  And the result is that The Help isn’t for Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another novel by and for white women.

But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous.  Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through.  Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s.  Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.

So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her.  She is depicted as a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave.  But in reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind.  In my experience, the Skeeters of the world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.

In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the second wave.  For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by middle-class white women.  Black women have asserted their voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the 2008 Presidential election.

It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry) surrounding Steinem’sNew York Times op-ed about then-Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, I’m troubled that our popular culture obsession is with the “largely fictional” book,The Help.  Sounds like an opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some serious deconstructionist critical analysis.

Or maybe not.

Once again, it seems that the sisters who make up the “sisterhood” are left to fend for themselves, while second wave feminists like writer Laura Miller give a tepid analysis of the legal controversy surrounding the novel.

In February, Ablene Cooper, an African-American maid and babysitter working in Jackson, Miss., where “The Help” is set, filed suit against Stockett. Cooper accused Stockett of causing her to “experience severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and outrage” by appropriating “her identity for an unpermitted use and holding her to the public eye in a false light.”  In her article, “The Dirty Secrets of The Help,” Laura Miller writes:

“Cooper’s lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on an otherwise glowing portrait.”

Here’s one of those “tiny scratches” posted on

“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor,” Aibileen says in the book. “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”

Laura Miller sees no problem with this, and focuses more on the depiction of the white women in the text:

“Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone would feel “outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress” at being identified with the heroic Aibleen, her employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain, status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League, Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate “colored” bathroom to her garage. She does this partly to impress Miss Hilly, the League’s alpha Mean Girl (and the novel’s villain), but she also talks obsessively about the “different kinds of diseases” that “they” carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter, speaking wistfully of a vacation when “I hardly had to see [her] at all.” Like all of the white women in the novel (except the journalist writing the maids’ stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful — and her maid has almost the same name as Stockett’s sister-in-law’s maid. Fancy that!”

Of course, Miller insinuates that the real life Aibleen lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that Stockett’s sister-in-law surely coerced her.

I have never met the real-life Aibleen, but if she went to the grocery store yesterday, she would have seen that The Republic of Teaintroduced its new limited-edition The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, and despite her educational background, she would have understood that she won’t get a cent of the royalties.  According to the website, The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, is inspired by Aibleen’s best friend Minny’s famous caramel cake. The tea is being marketed to drink with friends in celebration of a movie where a “remarkable sisterhood emerges.”

What no one wants to acknowledge is that the fictionalized Skeeter leaves the Black domestics in the South—similar to the white freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement.  In real life, after appropriating the voice of working class Black women, profiting, and not settling out of court, Kathryn Stockett admits in a Barnes and Noble audio interview that even her own maid was not fond of the novel:  “My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home for her,” Sockett reports seven minutes and 35 seconds into the 10 minute interview with Steve Bertrand.  So, in the end, The Help and the lawsuit are about white women who don’t want true sisterhood.  They just want Help.

Duchess Harris, Ph.D., J.D., is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College, and an Adjunct Professor of Race and the Law at William Mitchell College of Law. She is author ofBlack Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama, and co-editor with Bruce D. Baum of Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity.  You can follow her blog, which cross-posts with the Star Tribune, Race-Talk, and the Huffington Post.


goodgiant said...

Well said Dr. Harris. I believe you hit the nail on the head in dissecting the true concept behind such an idea. Tyler Perry gave a different view of the movie (not the book) saying that it was "worth taking in." In my personal opinion I believe such a movie, in this context is "timely" being that there's an exceptionally high number of immigrants in the US today, (growing by the day), while our numbers are falling. This movie will undoubtedly shine even more negative light on our existence in these perilous times situated in this part of the diaspora. In other words, based on how the media has worked against our interest moreso than not, just on the title, poster and reviews I'm sure their motive is to "degrade." And by the way... could we be related??? May Amin continue to bless you until we meet again...

WizardG said...

You are brilliant, beautiful, and quite "black". I'm at once fascinated and overwhelmed by your picture and your thoughts through your writing.

I will neither read the book nor watch the movie. That is unless there is nothing better to do. Thank you Duchess. Love forever, Me.

Leslie said...

I agree with many of your sentiments written in your article. I have neither seen the movie nor read the book. I have just ordered: Coming of Age in Mississippi from Amazon. I'm looking forward to reading this book instead. Take care, Leslie

Ali McBride said...

This was a very well written article on the heels of the interview I just heard on New York radio station WBAI with critic and writer Harry Allen interviewing Martha Southgate, the author of "The Taste of Salt" a novel about an African-American female Marine Biologist in contemporary times...imagine that? The narrative seems to always be the same, we play the backdrop, background music or "The Help" as usual. Business as usual...NEXT!

Unknown said...

Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. I ask the readers to make up their own minds, based upon their own experiences and views. Please don't be so willing to thrown in with and follow, sheep-like, the views of someone else even if they "look good" and have a few letters after their name. One of our greatest human failings is the way we surrender our own instincts, feeling they're not equal to the thoughts of someone who has a college degree or two. I know some Ph.Ds who can't change a light bulb! Be your own judge! Believe in your ability to make your own decisions. In the end, the folks with the degrees don't know you from Adam, and don't care. It is so sad that the legacy of slavery has left us with so little confidence in our own abilities to decide what is and is not good for us.

J.T. said...

You make an older black man proud of you,because you see this book and movie for just what it is,I just wish more white people could hear your woderful truth,instead of the lie this movie and book try to spread.

Michelle said...

Well, as an African American woman, with just a BA, whose also unemployed and about to lose her home, I choose NOT to read the book nor support the movie. Thank you Dr. Harris for so eloquently stating what many are "afraid to express" & what really quite frankly needed to said.


Michelle said...

Well, as an African American woman, with just a BA, whose also unemployed and about to lose her home, I choose NOT to read the book nor support the movie. Thank you Dr. Harris for so eloquently stating what many are "afraid to express" & what really quite frankly needed to be said.


Skywalker Payne said...

Thanks you. You very well expressed my initial gut feeling when I saw the first commercial about this movie. I, am a writer and have written a screenplay about a courageous young black girl and can't even get black producers in it. This film is an example of the dismal state of mass media. At least many black people are standing up and calling this film for what it is an insult to black history and 21st century black Americans.

The Talk Diva said...

Dr. Harris,
I knew there was a reason the whole concept of this book and film did not appeal to me. I have not read the book, but gleaning the premise from the trailer I surmised that it was another story about black people being told by white people. We do not need to do that. We have brilliant writers and filmmakers who can do this. It's like any movie about Africa always seems to have a white central character. It always disgusts me that out of entire continent of mostly black people, their story can't be told unless it's secondary to the story of a white character. Dr. Harris, I am now a fan.

Anonymous said...

My mother was a maid in the South. She never told her story to me perhaps because she saw the rebelliousness in me as a teen. She passed when I was 17.

However, she never complained; though she was so exhausted at the end of the day. She would arrive home late in the evening; too tired to prepare dinner for her family. It was during this period of time that I began to learn how to start the meal, as she gave instructions before dozing off for a short nap.

How sad it is that we have not heard from the "children of the "Help" ( biological, that is) and how it affected their lives.

Anyone care to share? Surely, the children would be in their 50's and 60's by now.

It would be interesting to hear from others who had mothers who worked as maids in the South.

How did that experience impact your family life?

Anonymous said...

I went to see the movie out of curiousity because usually these movies leave alot to be desired and only tell a one sided truth. Growing up in the late sixties and seventies in NJ and having great aunts that were domestics, I understood what the women as maids went through from listening to my great aunts tell us their stories. The movie, of course, lacked depth because it was told from a white woman's perspective and how could they possibly tell our stories. I too did not feel bad for Skeeter because she only "used" the maids to get what she wanted. Her only motive was to get a big writing job in NYC and the maids were a means to an end. As usual, we are seen as pawns for white women to get ahead. Even with advanced degrees, and yes, I have one, we still seem to hit the glass ceiling while someone with less education and experience get ahead. I was not surprised the movie theater was full with only a splattering of us because as stated earlier this movie was really not about us or for us but about a white woman trying to appease her conscious. I understand we need to revisit our past so we don't repeat it in the future, unfortunately this generation is not being taught enough of our history so it is not repeated. We have not come as far as we think we have even with a Black Man in the White House.

The Principal said...

I hold a different view about the novel, The Help. After reading the book and seeing the movie, I see the story as a testament to the how black people, and especially black women took very good care of each other during a very difficult time in history.
The Sisterhood was not so much with the white journalist as it was with the two characters, Aibeleen and Minny. The solidarity that those two displayed was the "stuff" that caused this nation to HAVE to change.
I did not live in Mississippi in 1962, I have never been a Domestic so I dare not say that Ms.Sockett was right or wrong in her portrayal of the maids. I do know human nature and the characters in the book and on the screen were very three-dimensional. The novel was good reading and the movie was very well done. I highly recommend both.

Still Married with Children said...

I am an educated, southern African American female. I read the book when it was first released. I also read and heard criticism about the authors attempt to write in black voice and tell a story from the black perspective. I enjoy reading and look for material with black characters; though not necessarily written by black authors.
I enjoyed the book. While it touches on relevant, historical facts, it is in large part fiction. I accepted it for what it was and commend the author for opening up the conversation about a subject that has never, to my knowledge, been commercially broached. My grandmother was a maid and raised several white kids. I am named after one of them. This story is about the human experience. We, as blacks do not OWN the story or the experience. There is a legitimate white side to a large part of our history in this country. A lot of it painful and horrible but not ALL of it. I saw white kids cry when my grandmother left for the day. Love has no color. I wish there were more African American authors telling our story. There are not enough. I say, stop complaining and pick up a pen and write the story. I will be the first in line to read it.

B. Diann Kirby said...

I don't understand the criticism of this movie, and especially of the book. The story was realistic and I don't know how anyone can call Skeeter the hero of the movie or the book. In the book, Skeeter actually stole the idea for the book from the dead son of one of the maids. In fact, this same maid actually wrote much of the book for which Skeeter took credit. The way I see it, the maids were the real heroes of the movie and the book. As far as the black dialect, there is also a lot of southern dialect in the movie.

Just so you know, I am a 62 year old African American female who was raised in a rural area of North Carolina during the 60s. My mother worked for a local white family as a cook and a maid and a nanny to their children. They treated my mother with kindness and respect. I remember once when I was about 10 years old, the father of this white family came racing into our yard on his truck to apologize to my family because he had heard that one of their white friends had disrespected my father. This was my first revelation that there really were decent white people.

I am not suggesting that my family was immune from the prejudice of that time and place (that still exists today in the south and other areas of the country). Most whites we encountered were as racist as they were perceived to be. However, there were exceptions that restored my faith in human beings and the world. We have to stop generalizing everyone and every race and treat people as the unique individuals that we all are. My mother was a strong, proud, brave, black woman whose grandparents were slaves. She did what she had to do to feed her family but she always demanded respect from everyone, regardless of race. She excelled in spite of the circumstances and accepted bigotry of the times. I can see her behaving like the maids in the book/movie, except for the dialect - she spoke the King's language perfectly. She is gone now but this movie brought back many pleasant memories of how she taught her kids to behave respectfully at all times and to demand respect in return. I see no sugarcoating in that.

Dennis Howell said...

The movie, which I did see this past Saturday, though written from a white perspective, is still a well portrayed story. I't s still part of the American experience, that opens the door for dicussion and contemplation of what it must have been like for Brown Women who supported their families, by working in white households. Let's not's only a movie! My advice to everyone, is to go see the movie and to have discussions with your peers and children. Those women left a rich legacy from which we can stand tall.

Mizz Rose said...

I enjoyed the movie very much. My parents and grandparents worked in white family homes, I was old enough to remember and I never once even thought about racism when we visited their homes. We were always treated with respect. One white family that we visited regularly and the reason that we entered through the back door was because everyone entered through the back door, because the front door was on a steep hill and it was very difficult for anyone to get to the front entrance. We would go there when parties were going on and go straight through to the play area and hang out with the white children until my mother was done working. The white family would let the guests know who we were by name.

Even with the white family that my grandmother worked for we always entered the front because I will never forget there was a swimming pool and palm trees in the middle of the entrance. So all white people were not the same and if these whites were racist I for one never noticed.

When the white family that my parents worked part-time for(my parents also had full time jobs-my Dad factory worker for 40 years, my Mom worked in a studio that advertised furniture)would go on vacation we packed up and moved into their home and had our own vacation away from home for two weeks and we were not excluded from any part of the house.

All I remember about these white people were that they treated my family like we were part of their family and today the children of the white families still makes sure that my Mother is doing okay, my Father passed away but before he passed the family took care of him as well.

The white family that my grandmother worked for helped my mother take care of her when she took ill and passed away.

Of course my family has experience racism from others but I can truly say not from the white families that they worked for many many years. And I thank God everyday for those white people being in our lives. I couldn't have image life without them. AMEN

P.S. Please everyone go and see the movie, sit down and talk about it and let others know what you have or have not experience with racism. It's time for a change and it's up to us to make that change one person at at time. Yes racism is still alive today, but in most cases we can not blame every white person for what happened to our ancestors. We just need to stand proud for what our ancestors did for us,they were strong and very brave. Our ancestors struggles are what makes us who we are today.

Our ancestors would be very very proud of us today and I know they are looking down on us and smiling with all we have done to break through some of the struggles that they were presented with. We are still continuing the struggle that may never end but at least we can't give up the fight.

Let's make this a new day and keep making our ancestors proud of us.

I now have white sister-in-laws, niece's and nephew's and love them unconditional. Amen, Amen and Amen

KimO said...

I like that this book has created a open community dialogue that was not present before. I also went to see the movie to support Black actress doing their craft. (how many movie roles are available to us). but most importantly, as and African-American woman, I use this type of situation to educate my daughter. It open the door for discussion. That is how I share our history in a real context. Until WE put our money together to tell the real story how will our children know?

Anonymous said...

I do not like the movie or the book. It appears to me that a subliminal message is being sent to the White House. You may be there, but this is where you came from. Why publish this kind of trash, now?? There isn’t anything up lifting about it.
People were held hostage in terms of opportunities and used this method of employment as a means to an end.
Discuss about the white employees who are cleaning the homes of children of these womwen.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie. I thought the African American actresses were excellent. They had the emotions and the grit and courage that I believe that our ancestors had. For them to take a stand and do this book was very important. I believe this opens the door for more work to be done on this subject.
I agree with someone who commented that this is a subliminal message to the White House. But that is o.k. White people will always try to tell us that we don't belong and that we are second class citizens. Again, they are wrong. There is greatness in us. There is greatness in all people. "And still I rise....."

sunnichiba said...

I saw the movie over the weekend with my 94 yr old friend who actually spent time as "the help". We both enjoyed the movie and on the way home she shared some of her experiences being a maid. She also said that she would see it again with other friends of hers.

Perhaps we enjoyed the movie because we didn't go expecting it to be a documentary or life changing event.

It's interesting to me that a woman who actually lived through the experience took the movie less personally than many of those who didn't.

Anonymous said...

I'vebeen wondering who is the real life Aibileen writing this story and will she get some of the profits?