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Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)

September 3, 2011 23 comments

What’s a Reading Project?

I am really excited to be doing my first social justice themed reading project, which is different from a reading challenge.  A reading challenge challenges you to broaden your reading horizons.  A reading project takes a topic that matters to you (or that should matter to you) and creates a reading list about that topic by people who know to help you learn about it, as well as drive discussion on such an important topic.   Now, allow me to explain the genesis of and reasons behind my first reading project.

What Led to the Project

I’ve grown to become good friends with Amy of Amy Reads over the past year, and when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help blew up in literary circles then became a movie, well, both of our ires got up.  We discussed back and forth the issues via gchat, tumblr, and twitter, sending articles and mini-rants to each other and just generally being peeved that so much of the population got swept up into something so offensive to both black and white women in 2011 for goodness sake.

Let me explain to you in my own words my problem with The Help.  Stockett is a white woman who grew up in the south with black maids.  She claims that when her maid died she felt regret at never having gotten to know her as a real person, so she decided to write this fiction book about black maids in her home state in the 1960s.  Right away, I was offended that her instinct was to write a fictional account instead of, oh I dunno, maybe making an effort to fight racism by befriending black people?

For those who don’t know, The Help is about a college educated white woman who comes home and interviews the black maids in her town and publishes their stories.  I cannot really wrap my mind around the thought that Stockett thought of doing a project like this, but instead of being an editor of a collection of memoirs and real-life scenarios by black domestic workers she chose to fictionalize the whole process.

This leads me to one of my largest points.  The Help is Stockett living in a fantasy land version of history.  One of the first things you learn as a history major is to NOT romanticize the past.  You have to get up close and personal with how ugly it truly was.  Shows like Leave It To Beaver completely leave out real issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc…  This is what Stockett is repeating.  She regrets her relationship with her own black maid, so she writes a truly mary-sue style book wherein a college educated white woman gets to know the black female domestic workers and comes to their aid.  This isn’t reality.  This isn’t a harmless feel-good book/movie.  It’s Stockett’s fantasy method of dealing with the racism she grew up with.  Why not instead have written a book about a white woman who goes to college in the north and comes to regret the racism she was raised with?  Who confronts the fact that she spent more time being cared for by a black woman than her own mother?  That would have been real.  That would have been something respectful to talk about.  Instead, though, she chose to write a fantasy version of the 1960s American South where the racism really isn’t so bad and a white female activist isn’t put into any danger by her activism.

The whole thing is offensive.  It’s offensive to black and white women.  It’s offensive to black domestic workers of the past and present.  It’s offensive to white women who faced real danger and estrangement from their families protesting racism.  It’s offensive to the black people who stood up for themselves and fought racism without any white people coming along and telling them they should.  And yet people are happily taking the blue pill and revising history.

Thankfully, not everyone is doing that.  Slowly Amy and I started to see similar reactions to our own throughout the web.  Here are just a few examples:

Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of “ambiguity and complexity” with which our “cowardly nation” is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us.  (Shakesville)

The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and where “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in.  (Roxanne Gay)

And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers.
  (Kimberley Engonmwan)

It’s frustrating because in these narratives—written by privileged Whites—Black people are always passive. Things are done to them or for them, but they are never the agents of their own liberation. (And sorry, but no, telling the Nice White Lady about your shitty boss isn’t being an agent of your own liberation—not when Black women were actually organizing against Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and violence, and the intimidation of Black voters.)  (Feministe)

What really pushed it over the edge for me, though, and got me going from stewing to activisting (that is a word because I say so) was when someone tweeted a link to the American Black Women Historian’s response to The Help that is not only eloquently put, but also includes a suggested reading list at the end.  The reading list got my wheels turning and next thing I knew I was emailing Amy to suggest we do something with that list.

What the Project Is

There are 10 books on the suggested reading list, 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction.  For the next five months we will be hosting a project to read one fiction and one nonfiction book and discuss the content and issues raised.  One blogger will host each book.  For the first month, Amy will be hosting the nonfiction book, and I will be hosting the fiction book.  Other bloggers with an interest in the project are welcome to host! Just email me and (opinionsofawolf [at] gmail [dot] com) and Amy (amy.mckie [at] gmail [dot] com) to let us know your interest and what book you might like to host the discussion for.

The fiction book will be discussed on the second Saturday of the month, and the nonfiction book will be discussed on the fourth Saturday of the month.  The first Saturday of the month will wrap-up the previous month’s discussions and announce the next two books.

So next Saturday I will be discussing A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight.  Please come join in the discussion!  You don’t have to read the book to engage in the discussion, but I highly encourage you to do so.

On the 24th, Amy will be discussing Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones.

We encourage you to join in with us on the project to stop letting people revise history.  Get to know the facts behind the history of black domestic workers in the United States and read fictionalized accounts of the experiences written black writers, all recommended by educated historians.

Books of the Project

Fiction:
Like One of The Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life
, Alice Childress
The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam
 by Barbara Neeley
The Street
by Ann Petry 
A Million Nightingales
 by Susan Straight

Non-Fiction:
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household 
by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War
by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present
by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi
by Anne Moody

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