Lately the women I respect in my life, my mother, my grandmother, etc., have been telling me I should read The Help. Put down all those long science-fiction and fantasy novels, they say, and get some “real world.” Read The Help. It is such a great book! And I say I will but that I have a fairly long list of books in my Kindle waiting to be read, so I’ll get to it eventually. But, really, I probably won’t.
Because, here’s the thing, I find the whole idea of The Help a little terrible and, well, racist. And since nobody wants to hear me say or explain my feelings in a short phone call or a Skype conversation, I figured I’d put them all out on my blog, so any and all awkward conversations could be avoided in the future.
I currently work for a prominent African American artist who grew up in Greensboro during the 1960s. She lived in the projects and witnessed the KKK murder several people at a civil rights rally right outside of her house. Her mother was a maid. When I mentioned to her that my mother told me that I should read The Help and if she had read it, she looked at my like I was crazy and said: “I don’t want to read that shit.”
I don’t want to read that shit. That statement got me thinking.
Because, you see, I had considered reading The Help because I like to stay atop the cultural zeitgeist. Because I think Emma Stone and Viola Davis are great actresses and they were headlining the movie. Because, you know, my mother suggested I should read it. However, the more research I did on the book, the queasier I got. And when the reviews of the film started rolling out, well, I got fairly uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing: the period depicted in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s isn’t all rosy-colored society women and battles over common-use bathrooms like the book makes it out to be. The Civil Rights Movement was very real and very serious and the book and film trivialize it. The same goes for the KKK in the South, which The Help just glosses over. People were dying. The Association of Black Women Historians posted a statement indicting the film for white-washing the past, here are a few choice quotes:
“The Help’s representation of [African American] women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.”
“Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect.”
“Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.”
I know what y’all are thinking: you haven’t even read the book or seen the movie, how can you assume any of this is true? Well, I did read the very detailed Wikipedia plot summary of the book (I know, I know, you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia), and I found it a little infuriating and also a little insulting. When the candy-colored posters and trailers for the film started unrolling at movie theaters I felt a sense of dread that this was going to be another pastel-hued nostalgia trip of the good ol’ days in the South. And also I just cannot stand those movies where the righteous white woman is the hero for the black person, who clearly cannot stand on his or her own two feet without the intervention of a white savior (another recent film guilty of this charge is The Blindside **edit** but it was based on a true-story and I’m sure that Hollywood just highlighted the white savior aspect of the whole story).
I am not the most articulate person when it comes to explaining my political or social feelings. I get extremely emotional. I feel that I don’t have all the facts necessary to accurately or adequately support my viewpoint so I stammer and stutter and often fall into an awkward silence. So I guess I will just get to the point: I will not see or read The Help because I think that stories and films of that nature propagate a white-washing of the past and a general feeling of forgetfulness among white readers. I will not see or read The Help because the portrayals of black women are clearly stereotypical and insulting, whereas the white figures are reduced to similarly and falsely harmless stereotypes. I will not see or read The Help because it is a racist tale in the guise of a goodwill story, and I just cannot support that.
So please do not tell me I should see or read The Help. Thanks.