why i won’t be going to see the help

          i came across kathryn stockett’s book, the help, last year at my local library.  after reading the back cover, i learned the novel was set in the south during the mid-1960s and two of the main characters were black women–i decided it was my kind of book.  i thought it would be j. california cooper“esque”, the kind of book that explores the gender and racial oppression experienced by women of african descent during this country’s jim crow-era.  however, stockett’s no j. california cooper, and i was both intrigued and dismayed by the fact that a white woman had written a book about black women who were domestic “help.”
however,  despite my criticism of novels written by whites, often operating as culture vultures, which proclaim to portray the voices of racial minorities, i read the help with an open-mind.   admittedly, stockett’s wit and literary skill were engaging.  however, the novel was far from the literary masterpiece of the decade and was disturbingly silent on the larger political climate of the time.
          first, i take issue with the fact that both the “fictional plot” and real story behind the novel are parasitic and voyeuristic. in the book, a young-college-educated-white woman, skeeter, decides instead of seeking marriage and membership in social clubs, she wants to be a writer; her first book is a collection of interviews of jackson’s all-black domestic help.   while the book may have been her idea, she simply captures black women’s real-life experiences, and although she “splits” the proceeds from the book with the women, their stories can never be commodified.  ultimately, she latches onto the suffering and pain of generations of black women in order to establish her career as a new york writer and the domestic help are left in jackson to experience segregation and second-class citizenry.
          it seems stockett is the real life skeeter, as a sister is suing her for basing the story on her life as stockett’s brother’s maid.  even if the suit is meritless, stockett has personal accounts from which to base her book as in the afterword she divulges she was reared by a mammy domestic.
second, while i didn’t find the black characters’ voices contrived or stereotypical (at least) i did take issue with them being wholly a-political.  mlk and the civil rights movement is somewhere in the periphery, only spoken about in passing by a fast-talking-jewish-new york-book editor who wants skeeter’s book to “capitalize” on the time period; however, stockett never makes a clear indictment on the structural racism and sexism that forced black women into domestic servitude.  i mean the book is called the help–obviously race, class and gender are at play.
          just because stockett presents skeeter as a white liberal with a notepad who documents the lives of jackson’s domestic workers does not mean she has contextualized the all-black-domestic help’s plight or pain.  i’m most sensitive to this omission because i grew up watching my grandmother clean white women’s kitchens, raise their children and care for their ailing family members.  she earned sub-par wages, off-set by trinkets here and there, but could never have been compensated for the degradation of cleaning a toilet she couldn’t use.
          while i didn’t expect stockett to proselytize or even truly understand the suffering she proclaims to voice, my grandmother deserves a story that casts her experiences as a domestic laborer as the result of an oppressive system, not southern traditions and values.
          i most certainly won’t be going to see the help.

One comment

  1. As an Indian who spent most of his adult life abroad, I can empathize with the feeling of non-white races being hard-done-by in popular media/culture portrayal, of persisting with and strengthening stereotypes. The question is though if art -and artists- have any moral obligation to do anything. Yes, people are informed by art, and yes it would be nice if the information was at least accurate if not redemptive, but art is just art. Its designed for consumption, for mass audiences. And artists too have KPI’s and targets and bills to pay. The best thing to do -as you appear to be doing- is to do your bit to spread the word, take advantage of the democratic possibilities of the internet, act. Good luck on your journey!


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