Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context
On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help. It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books. I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.
Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II. The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement. It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them. So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what. I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings. I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong. And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful. But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.
Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now. I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.
In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman. In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery. We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men. This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home. We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery. This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants. This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.
The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era. It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more. Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools. In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid. For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not. This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas. This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home. For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right. Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.
Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list. It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation. Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand. It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such. Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out. This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.
The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody. I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it. Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s. This read demonstrated two key things. First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women. Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true. Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them. Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.
Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred. Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that. I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project. The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism. This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after. This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible. The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women. This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.
We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature. This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair. She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow. Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large. The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives. It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.
Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely. This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project. It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche. Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy. I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released. It is such a clever mystery novel.
Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter. This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.
So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now? I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy. It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all. And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages. It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them. It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.
Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list. So what are my recommendations?
If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam. It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.
If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.
If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.
If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.
Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.
I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list. I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read. I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you. Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues. The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands. I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project. We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.
What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read. Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.” You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.