“The Help”: In Defense of a White Woman Writing about Black Women
Apparently there was an uproar about Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help, about black maids oppressed by their white employees. Now that the movie’s out, the uproar is even louder. Tons of people (both white and black) have claimed the book is racist and historically inaccurate. Ms. Stockett isn’t doing too bad in spite of this—at a nearby speaking engagement, she was charging $65 for admission.
I pose the question, then, that my husband posed to me last night: why is it racist if a white woman writes about black women experiencing racism but not racist if a black woman writes about how white women treated black woman during a time of racism?
As a writer, I say Ms. Stockett is free to express her mind about her “fictionalized” book. (I’ve heard that The Help is really a fictionalized version of true stories from Mississippi.) It’s a novel which means that it’s fiction which means that it doesn’t need to be the most historically accurate book ever.
As a black woman, did The Help offend me? A little. I bristled during the first hundred pages of the book. Then I jumped to the end to see if the author had some kind of Afterword, which she did. I’m not sure I would have continued reading the book had I not read the Afterword. It makes me wonder whether Stockett was a little girl influenced by a black maid who just suddenly disappeared because her racist momma might have fired her and was atoning for her parents’ sins.
There is nothing Sambo-ish or overtly racist about this book. (Maybe the movie is different?) The main black women, Aibileen and Minny, are not idiots. I think Stockett happened to do a very good job of portraying black women who lived in the mundane: they were maids beholden to white employers who didn’t physically abuse them but still mistreated them. So these black women got back at them in a mundane way.
People complain that Skeeter is the white woman who “rescues” these black women. I see Skeeter as part of the majority ruling system that helped to make things right (again) in the a somewhat mundane way. She didn’t lobby Congress or hold hands with Minny and walk down the street in a march. She turned a racist institution upside down by publishing a book about black maids dishing on what it’s like to work in white households. Skeeter would have been nothing without the black maids who shared this information with her so no, they weren’t necessarily beholden to the “white woman” to “rescue” them.
America is a free country last I checked, and Stockett is free to write about black women as she imagines them just as Alice Walker is free to write about white women as she imagines them without being racist. Was there a lot about the civil rights movement that was left out? Heck yes! It’s very much (as Melissa Harris Perry argued against) Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi with a definite focus on the white women in the households. But there’s a lens that focuses in on the maids in those households too.
Black people are rarely (if ever) satisfied when white people write about racially sensitive times such as the early 1960s. White people don’t ever seem to get it right because they don’t seem to “understand” the plight of black people from those eras. But that’s what imaginations are for. And with the millions of black women in America during the 1960s, it leaves a world of possibilities.