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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

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.

Giveaway Winner: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress

November 28, 2011 2 comments

Black woman in a kitchen.The first giveaway here at Opinions of a Wolf was a success!  (At least there were entrants! Hah!)  The winner via random.org of a gently used copy of Like One of the Family by Alice Childress is *drum-roll*

Hubbit!  He’s been contacted on twitter and provided his mailing address.

Thank you to Hubbit and Rhondareads for entering and supporting black women’s lit!

And a thank you again to Beacon Press for supporting The Real Help Reading Project by providing the book!

Giveaway: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress

November 12, 2011 3 comments

Black woman in kitchen.I’m pleased to be offering up my first ever giveaway!  Out of appreciation to Beacon Press for their generosity in giving both myself and Amy copies of Like One of the Family (review) in support of our The Real Help Reading Project, I’d like to spread the love by passing on the copy to another lucky person!

What You’ll Win: One previously read print copy of Like One of the Family by Alice Childress.  (It did ride around in my purse on the T, so we are not talking pristine, here).

How to Enter: Leave a comment with your email address so I can contact the winner for his/her mailing address!

Rules: US ONLY.  Sorry, I can’t afford to mail anywhere else.  If you have a friend in the States willing to let you use their address, that will work too, though.  The mailing address must be in one of the 50 US states or Puerto Rico, however.  (If you’re an international address, sign up for the same book being given away on Amy’s blog internationally).

Contest Ends: November 26th!  The date of our next The Real Help post ;-)

Enter away!  Spread the word!  Show your love for black women writers and the real experiences of domestic black workers in the 1950s and 1960s!  Thanks!

Book Review: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress (The Real Help Reading Project)

November 12, 2011 4 comments

Black woman in a kitchen.Summary:
Originally published as a serial in African-American papers in the 1950s this series of monologue-style short stories are all in the voice of Mildred–a daytime maid for white families in New York City.  The monologues are all addressed to her best friend and downstairs neighbor, Marge, who is also a maid.  The stories range from encounters with southern relatives of moderately minded employers to picnics threatened by the Ku Klux Klan to more everyday occurrences such as a dance that went bad and missing your boyfriend.  Mildred’s spitfire personality comes through clearly throughout each entry.

Review:
With completion of this book, Amy and I are officially halfway through our The Real Help Reading Project!  This book is our first piece of fiction to directly foray into the time era and relationships depicted in The Help, whereas the rest have shown the slave culture and racial issues leading up to that time period.  I’m glad we got the historical context from our previous reads before tackling this one written during the Civil Rights era by an author who periodically worked as a maid herself.

The introduction by Trudier Harris is not to be missed.  She provides excellent biographical details of Alice Childress, who was not only a black writer of fiction, but also wrote and performed in plays.  I am very glad I took the time to read the introduction and get some context to the author.  Harris points out that in real life some of the things the character Mildred says to her employers would at the very least have gotten her fired, so to a certain extent the situations are a bit of fantasy relief for black domestic workers.  Mildred says what they wish they could say.  Since we know Childress was a domestic worker herself, this certainly makes sense.  I would hazard a guess that at least a few of the stories were real life situations that happened to her reworked so she got to actually say her mind without risking her livelihood.  I love the concept of this for the basis of a series of short stories.

More than any other work we’ve read, Like One of the Family demonstrates the complexities of living in a forcibly segregated society.  Mildred on the one hand works in close contact with white people and subway signs encourage everyone in New York City to respect everyone else, and yet her personal life is segregated.  Mildred frequently points out how she can come into someone else’s home to work, but it wouldn’t be acceptable in society for that person to visit her as a friend or vice versa.

Another issue that Childress demonstrates with skill is how a segregated, racist society causes both black and white people to regard each other with undue suspicion.  In one story Mildred’s employer asks her if it’s too hot for a dress Mildred already ironed for her and ponders another one.  Mildred assumes that if she agrees with her employer that it’s too hot for the first dress, she’ll have to stay late to iron.  Her employer instead of getting angry realizes that Mildred has been mistreated this way before and takes it upon herself to reassure Mildred that she herself is perfectly capable of ironing her own dresses and will not keep Mildred longer than their agreed upon quitting time.  Of course, Mildred sometimes is the one who must hold her temper and calm irrational fears.  In one particularly moving section she encounters a white maid in their respective employers’ shared washroom.  The woman is afraid to touch Mildred, and it takes Mildred holding her temper and carefully explaining that they are more similar than different before the woman realizes how much more she has in common with Mildred than with her white employer.  These types of scenes show that the Civil Rights movement required bravery in close, one-on-one settings in addition to the more obvious street demonstrations and sit-ins.

Of course the stories also highlight the active attempts at exploitation domestics often encountered.  Mildred herself won’t put up for it, but Childress manages to also make it evident that some people might have to simply to get by.  An example of this sort of exploitation is the woman who upon interviewing Mildred informs her that she will pay her the second and fourth week of every month for two weeks, regardless of whether that month had five weeks in it or not.  What hits home reading these serials all at once that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise is how frequent such a slight was in a domestic’s life during this time period.  Mildred does not just have one story like this.  She has many.

Of course sometimes reading Mildred’s life all at once instead of periodically as it was intended was a bit desensitizing.  Although Mildred had every right to be upset in each situation related, I found myself noticing more and more that Mildred was simply a character for Childress to espouse her views upon the world with.  I quickly checked myself from getting bugged by that, though.  Of course Childress had every right to be upset and did not originally intend this to be a book of Mildred’s life.  Mildred was a vehicle through which to discuss current issues highly relevant to the readers of the paper.  It is important in reading historic work to always keep context in mind.

Taking the stories as a whole, I believe they show what must have been one of the prime frustrations for those who cared about Civil Rights during that era, whether black or white.  Mildred puts it perfectly:

I’m not upset about what anybody said or did but I’m hoppin’ mad about what they didn’t say or do either! (page 167)

Passivity in changing the system is nearly as bad as actively working to keep the system, and Mildred sees that.  Of course what Mildred highlights is a key conundrum for the black domestic worker of the time–speak up and risk your job or stay silent at a cost to the overall condition of those stuck in the system?  A very tough situation, and I, for one, am glad that many strong men and women of all races took the risk to stand up and change it.

Source:  Copies graciously provided to both Amy and myself by the publisher in support of the project (Be sure to sign up for the giveaway. US only and International).

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you think domestics decided where to draw the line in what they would and would not put up with in employment in white people’s homes?
  • Some of Mildred’s employers seem to be sensitive to the racial and inequality issues and are very kind to Mildred.  Be that as it may, do you think it is/was possible to hire a maid for your home and not have a racist mind-set?
  • Do you think the employers Childress depicts attempting to exploit Mildred were doing so out of racism, a power-trip, or greediness or some combination or all three?
  • Mildred points out multiple times that she feels that the public ads encouraging people to accept each other “in spite of” their differences are still racist.  Do you think this is true?
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