The Help: Is it Really Helping?
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is an “inspiring” novel about black maids who work for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Publisher, Amy Einhorn Books said ““It’s really hit a nerve,” said Ms. Einhorn, whose imprint started off with “The Help” as its inaugural title. “People are passionate about this book.” The novel is often used in schools as a tool to teach students about black women during the civil rights movement. However, although The Help is considered to be an anti-racism book, it has many flaws in it’s message. The plot begins with Eugenia or “Skeeter” is a young, white, single writer who was raised by an African-American maid. Skeeter’s mother suffers from cancer, she has just finished college and her mother wants her daughter to get married more than anything else. She gets the opportunity to write for a newspaper’s cleaning section, which she knows nothing about. In turn, Skeeter asks Aibileen, her friend Elizabeth’s maid, to help her with tips for the article. Through working with Aibileen, Skeeter becomes increasingly interested in the lives of black maids and the everyday struggles that they are forced to go through to feed their families. She then decided to write a book from the point of view of the help with Aibileen’s assistance. Her publisher tells her she has to include other maids and get their points of view as well and that’s how we are introduced to Minny. Minny is Aibileen’s very good friend and fellow maid to Skeeter’s horribly misguided and racist friend, Hilly (and later Celia Foote.) Skeeter has to put on a front when she is with her white bridge-club friends who are all now married with children who are being raised by the African-American maids that Skeeter interviews. In the End, Skeeter’s book gets published anonymously and the secrets of Jackson, Mississippi’s homes are published (Stockett). There is not much of a happy ending however, because there was/still has been no solution to racism.
The facet of racism that is addressed within The Help varies. The book addresses Jim Crow Laws, specific racist language, and white guilt. As a personal interpretation, The Help addresses the trials and tribulations of being a working black woman in the South in 1962. The book attempts this by telling the personal stories of black maids whose entire lives are devoted to serving white families. That also does not begin to address the countless number of issues these women faced in their lives at home and even in places like the grocery store. African American women who were enslaved in the 1800s were given the jobs of doing laundry, cleaning living places, and caring for the white and black children. This is very similar to what black maids were doing in 1962 for poverty-level pay (Laurier). It was also made almost impossible for these women to raise their own children and often send the girl’s off to work as a maid in a white home at as young as fourteen, like Minny’s daughter (Stockett).
While the book does its job of inspiring audiences to end racism and reminding them of the uncomfortable fact that is racism, The Help has flaws in it’s message of anti-racism. The book has been accused of not being historically accurate. In this quote from her article, Joanne Laurier of The World Socialist Web Site gives her opinion of the novel’s historical accuracy.
It has to be said that the film is a sanitized version of the book, which itself offers a sanitized view of the period. (Laurier)
I agree with this statement because both the film and the book are proven to be portraying a much fluffier, “happy-go-lucky” version of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. For example, lynchings were incredibly frequent in Mississippi at this time of intense race and class segregation. These historical events, that were actually happening in the south at the time this book was set, were purposefully not in the film or book. In the book, acts of violence against African Americans were explicitly explained in detail and the movie did not include or show these important and very real events. I feel that not showing these events only lies to viewers about what was actually happening (Laurier).
In her article, “The Help: A civil rights era film that ignores the civil rights movement”, Joanne Laurier is talking about the movie (which is similar to the book) and points out various flaws in it’s anti-racism message which are extremely valid. Here is an example from her article.
Film and book purport to deal with the atrocious reality of racism in the South in the 1960s. No such feat is accomplished. Rather a tepid presentation is offered up in a self-satisfied, albeit well-intentioned, manner. (Laurier)
This quote is basically saying that the book fails to achieve the anti-racism message that it is trying to achieve. Further, in Susan Donaldson’s “” A Stake in the Story”: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby, and the Politics of Southern Storytelling.” She strengths Laurier’s point in this quote from her article.
Stockett’s wildly popular novel quite simply appropriates an African American story and turns it into one of white guilt, redemption, reconciliation, and triumph, a transformation that is all too common in white southern storytelling (Donaldson)
However, Joanne Laurier makes a more factual approach when going against The Help and Susan Donaldson looks at it through a societal lens. Donaldson uses a lot of her own opinion and logic to explain how the book relates to the world. Although The Help is considered a tool to dismantle white supremacy in societal terms, both of the authors disagree with that idea and correctly so, in my opinion.
Another point as to why the book is not fully anti-racism is how the book is delivered through Skeeter, a young white woman who we are told to root for right away at the beginning of the book when she is described as a struggling writer, whose mother has cancer, who has yet to find love, and who has compassion and understanding for the black maids of Jackson. From the very beginning, readers already relate to Skeeter and feel sorry for her. It makes me wonder how different the book would have been if the story had been told by a person of color. The book’s immense success could easily be due to this idea expressed through the book of “not all white people are bad.” While that is a true statement, if you look at racism through that lens it is very difficult to come to a solution (Donaldson). Skeeter is Stockett’s safe character and she is the reason the book was so popular. In our current society, it is very hard for a novel that is telling the complete and naked truth about the monstrosity that is racism to be recognized. Skeeter as a main character flows well with the book and still gives the reader the uplifting and inspired feeling that comes with blacks and whites getting along for a greater good (Stockett). The Help’s portrayal of racism lies in the factual events that were happening in the South in 1962. The rage and anger that was occurring in Mississippi at this time was far more life-threatening than the petty school-girl-like drama that is in The Help. There are small moments of violence, which are very jarring however, they are glazed over by the rest of the feel-good moments of late-night giggling and heart-to-hearts held between Skeeter and Aibileen (Laurier).
This feel-good-book-for-white-people is exactly what we don’t need as one of the most the most popular books and movies of our currently racist society. If we continue this way of thinking, we will be left with a society that believes that racism is a thing of the past and not to worry about it. That is why the immense success of The Help is truthfully frightening because America refuses to watch and face the truth of racism time and time again. Overall, The Help is thought of as tool to fight racism to it’s readers and watchers however, it fails to accomplish this.