“Show what elements gave rise to the themes of the authors we have studied and their work. Please compare and examine all avenues of society to support your argument.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica states that African-American literature is …the body of literature written by Americans of African descent. Beginning in the pre-Revolutionary War period, African American writers…engaged in a creative…dialog with American letters. The result is a literature rich in expressive subtlety and social insight, offering illuminating assessments of American identities and history”(Andrews, Encyclopedia). In many cases, African-American writers would record their experiences as a slave, escaping from slavery and their efforts in attempting to fight for justice and receiving their due freedom. Because they couldn’t vocally express their true opinions, they often recorded their daily lives into personal journals or diaries written in secrecy. These entries took many forms; poems, novels, short stories, songs, and more. This is how African American literature was established. The strict laws in place prevented the possibility of change that the literature of African-American men and women could bring.
In Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, African American housemaids Aibileen Clark and Minnie Jackson tell their stories about working for white families, and the struggles and conflicts that they face. Skeeter Phelan publishes the stories of these exceptional women anonymously. Having been raised herself by an African American housemaid, Skeeter is a 23-year old white woman who does not agree with society’s ways in the sixties. She disregards the Jim Crow Laws and collaborates with the colored help to write a piece of controversial literature. The stories of Minnie and Aibileen along with twelve other maids from Jackson, Mississippi are published for the world to read.
Similarly, in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Cecil Gaines escapes what could have been a lifetime working in the cotton fields. Cecil becomes a “house negro” at the age of sixteen working at a hotel. After he marries and starts a family, all of his hard work and commitment pays off when he is offered a job as a butler in the White House. Cecil and his wife Gloria have two sons: Louis and Charlie. Louis, the older son, has conflicting views from the rest of his family. As a member of the Black Panther Party, Louis fights against popular society to implement change through the Civil Rights Movement. On the contrary, his younger brother Charlie, a true patriot, is a fallen war hero who dies fighting for his country. Toward the end of the film, Cecil becomes aware of exactly how his job has affected his family; his wife develops a drinking problem, he nearly to permanently disowned Louis, and he loses Charlie to the Vietnam War. Ultimately, after serving eight presidents at the White House, Cecil retires from his 34-year career, in an attempt to reassemble his broken family. He lives to see the first African-American president, Barak Obama, elected into office. Although Cecil and his son have opposing views concerning the advancement of African-Americans in society, Louis’ passion towards the Civil Rights Movement creates a stronger and more united voice and makes it possible for equality to come to fruition.
Most of Cecil’s generation is used to the unjust and racist structure of society and eventually have adapted to it. The majority of the members from older generations of African-Americans are apprehensive to rise up against the whites because they worry they will be killed. This fear prevents them from voicing their beliefs and standing up for what they deem just. In an excerpt from an interview with T. R. Davidson, a man who grew up during the emergence of the Jim Crow Laws, he states:
…as you grow a little older, you begin to feel that you are under siege…you always had to make a special effort…to find out the places where you could go, where you wouldn’t be embarrassed or refused service. So, if you were in a strange place, no matter what part of the country it was, you had to say, “Where do they serve black people?”…or colored people as we were called…Negroes or Colored People…. You always had this thing on your shoulder to take under consideration. (Davidson, PBS)
In saying this, Davidson divulged the reality of the lifestyle they were coerced into living by contrary to the aspirations that he had. Because this generation was accustomed to restraining from boasting their views, they refrained from fighting for justice. Although a change could not be made through the older generation, innovation was sure to come in the subsequent one.
Louis’ generation saw things from a different perspective. The younger generation is brusquer in their efforts to change the ways of society. Louis and some of his classmates at Fisk University join a group, which is led by an activist of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group of college students travels across multiple state lines to participate in sit-ins, freedom rides, and other protests. This example from The Butler is a prime illustration of the palpable existence of generation gaps. Unlike his father, Louis advocates civil rights. He and the other Freedom Riders endure brutal punishments such as copious incarcerations, repulsive and inhumane jeering, and even the imminent risk of death.
In The Help, we get a different glimpse into racism in the sixties. The white families trust their housemaids to cook their meals, clean their homes, and raise their children. But the colored help are forced to use a separate bathroom outside. They live in a world where equality for blacks and whites is utterly inconceivable. Aibileen’s current white baby is named Mae Mobley. She is three years old and the daughter of Elizabeth and Raleigh Leefolt. The parents don’t know how to adequately raise a child, so they hire Aibileen to do it for them. Regardless of the fact that Mae Mobley considers Aibileen to be her “real mom,” Elizabeth ends up firing Aibileen at the end of the film under a false allegation that she stole her silver flatware. An intriguing quote that Aibileen says to Elizabeth following this incident is:
I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain’t a color, disease ain’t the negro side of town. I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in every white child’s life – when they start to think that colored folks are not as good as whites… (Stockett 96)
Aibileen ultimately tells Elizabeth that she doesn’t want Mae Mobley to grow up to be a racist woman like her mother. She wants to disassociate the stereotypes that all colored people are “dirty and spread diseases”. This is Aibileen’s attempt at ending the seemingly unstoppable cycle of events involving a racist mother and her child.
Much like the racism theme, identity themes play a pivotal role in African American Literature. Minnie and Aibileen, as well as the twelve other maids, all confide in Skeeter for one reason: the chance to have their own identity. To have an identity is to be true to yourself. African Americans, more specifically the colored help, want to have control of their own lives and portray their own personalities. These women feel that they cannot amount to anything greater than housemaids. Throughout their entire career, they are “the help” to numerous white families. When Skeeter first approaches Aibileen, Minnie, and the rest of the maids to ask for their help, they are standoffish to the idea. Should they get caught, the repercussions could be severe. They eventually all come around when they realize the benefits that this book could soon provide. Although their names may have been altered, and some distinct details withheld, Skeeter’s book gives them the confidence and audacity to expose who they truly are on the inside.
In The Butler, Louis and Charlie Gaines are the two prominent characters that genuinely fight for their own identities. The mother, Gloria, is a stay-at-home mom, who believes that her husband works too much. Rather than discussing the issue with Cecil and attempting to resolve it, Gloria develops a persistent drinking problem and almost has an affair with the next-door neighbor. Although he is a hardworking man, Cecil does not strive to create his own identity. He is constantly putting his work before himself, and he does not seem to care about the Civil Rights Movement until he retires from the White House and resolves his residual issues with Louis. Charlie grows up and leaves to fight in the Vietnam War to defend the country in which he sees great promise. Louis goes against the wishes of his family and becomes a Freedom Rider and a member of the Black Panther Party. Although these two brothers fight in differing ways, they are both defending their personal beliefs in order to form their identities. The Civil Rights Movement is a key factor in the development of personal identities in The Butler. Although it did take fourteen years to complete, the Civil Rights Movement was the first successful and efficient development that changed our country’s stance on racial discrimination and segregation. As more people learned about the movement, it began to progressively flourish. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and President John F. Kennedy, were primary influences in the Civil Rights Movement, which gave us the progressive country in which we live today.
In addition to hopes for an individualized identity, African-Americans also have personal dreams. The dreams of the characters in both The Butler and The Help are all centralized around the same common ideals. They all want to be respected as people and to receive the equal opportunities as those given to whites. In The Butler, Cecil is being paid considerably less than the white help, even after his twenty years of service. Cecil’s dream is to be paid the fair and just amount that he deserves. Cecil takes action in making this dream become a reality when he respectively confronts his employer and states, “I’m going to have to be paid the same as the white help or I’ll be moving on” (Shmoop, 6). Cecil takes the risk of possibly being fired for speaking out of place. In the end, it benefits all of the colored butlers of the White House, as they receive well overdue and rightfully deserved raises. The housemaids in The Help have dreams that require huge risks as well. The dreams of the help are for their stories to be published. In this, others could empathize with the experience of being an African-American caretaker for white families with the conflicts and affliction that they suffered daily. Not all dreams are easy or risk-free to set out and achieve; this is exemplified in both The Help and The Butler.
In The Help, the train tracks traveling through the middle of town serve as a physical sector dividing the African-Americans and the whites. The depiction of the contrasting socioeconomic statuses of both races is unmistakable. In the white towns, it shows the ornate plantation-style ranches and traditional Georgian style houses complete with the white picket fences and expensive cars in the driveways. We see the adversity of colored communities on the opposing side of the train tracks contrary to the lavish styles of these white communities. The African-American neighborhoods have become completely dilapidated with their rundown yards and weathered siding. In The Butler, they compare more of the interior socioeconomic status differences rather than the exterior. It shows the life inside of the Gaines’ household, and then follows him to his job at the White House. The inside of the family home is modest, yet comfortable. Assuredly, the White House is grand and luxurious. In the White House scenes in this film, they subtly capture the different style changes made by the presidents throughout the years.
Roots of African-American culture develop from aspects through history including religion, food, and family life. The presence of these symbols is prevalent through history, in written literature, and exhibited concurrently in The Butler and The Help. Religion is a fundamental aspect of African-American culture. Although everyone looks to it for their own unique reasons, religion is a prevailing part of society that most people practice. In The Butler, we see the church aid in raising funds for the Freedom Riders and the activists in association with the Civil Rights Movement. The colored women in The Help believe heavily in the church and in God above. They are constantly praying and asking God to bless them. These women use religion as a steady ritual. No matter what is going on, they know that they’ll always have religion to count on. Food serves as a tool to bring families and friends together. In The Help, the women get together with friends for Bridge club. We see the style of eating for whites clearly in this scene. There are very light and delicate foods such as sandwiches and pies. The sad but truthful fact is that the colored housemaids make all the food. In The Butler, we see the impact that food has in African-American life. In the scene when Louis brings his girlfriend home to meet his family, it transpires over dinner. African-Americans, as well as most other races, use the evening meal at the dining table as a common place to be amidst others in whom we care about. Also in this scene, we see one of the largest values in family life: respect. Louis disrespects and insults his father when he says that Cecil should be ashamed for who his hero is. Gloria promptly stands and slaps her son across the face. She says this famous quote: “Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler” (Haygood 118). This quote is one of the most exceptional quotes from the whole movie. It shows the immense significance of respect and honor in the infrastructure of African-American families.
Throughout history, African-Americans have been forced to deal with a number of unjust struggles. They have had to deal with conflicts such as prejudice, stereotypes, and inequality. These themes are prevalent in the films, in literature, and in today’s world. An influential scene in The Butler, is when Charlie bails Louis out of jail, and Charlie tells his brother that he has enlisted in The Army. Louis becomes agitated about his brother’s decision, and Charlie responds with, “You fight your country. I wanna fight for my country” (Haygood 118). This quote is very compelling because it shows how they are both very strong-willed about the ideals they are fighting to endorse. Louis is fighting against the United States because he only sees the indignity and disregard that the country shows African-Americans. Charlie sees the positive ways in which the United States has started to make small yet aspiring changes. Although these two brothers fight in slightly different ways, they both defend their personal beliefs in order to form their own identities. In The Help, the common struggles of racial inequalities, stereotypes, and prejudice are significant. The colored housemaids desire to live a life of equality and freedom without having to constantly fear for their lives.
According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, African-American literature is …the body of literature written by Americans of African descent…engaged in a creative…dialog with American letters”(Andrews, Encyclopedia). Although this is a true definition, these writings deserve undoubtedly more approbation. African-American literature was an aid in the innovation process that molded our current regenerated yet adaptable society. Because of the Civil Rights Movement and the souls of many brave heroes, our society has been changed for the better. It is important that African-American literature continues to be shared because it can teach the generations to come about the true history of our country. Also, it can recognize the courageous men and women who fought and gave up their lives in order to give us the lives we have today.