Friday, September 16, 2011

THE HELP, or Comforting Whites

I wasn’t interested in writing about The Help by Kathryn Stockett until the book became all the rage and was made into a movie. I rarely read fiction, but a friend’s book club read it and she loaned me her copy to get my opinion. I enjoyed the quick read, largely because it captured that mixture of devotion and disgust that people have when they clean up after their “betters.” I know this because I’ve been a maid—your devotion is to doing a good job, your disgust is that they actually believe they are better than you.

I assume the book is largely autobiographical, set in the past so Stockett’s Mississippi family and friends wouldn’t be offended. Besides, how could anybody actually write a book about blacks in Mississippi in the 1960s and virtually ignore the civil rights upheavals? Obviously, it was not part of her consciousness. Her brother's black maid sued her so the author has to insist it’s a work of fiction. White families usually don’t have a clue how their black maids feel about them, so it’s clear to me that Stockett listened to some maids, or a maid.

My issue is not with Kathryn Stockett. I am just tired of the same old shit. At age 74 I’ve been watching this black-people-don’t-exist-until-white-people-notice-us for a very long time. When a white person writes about black life, major media and the movie studios suddenly see us. It's Black Like Me all over again. I wrote about actually being a maid in my memoir, The Time and Place That Gave Me Life; nobody cared.

I know why The Help struck a huge responsive chord in America. The popularity of the book and its being so quickly made into a movie is a comforting reminder to Americans of the place black folk should occupy. This reminder is necessary because there's an African American family in the White House and black folks could get the big head and start thinking they are equal to whites. (After President Obama’s election, the first movie about blacks that was wildly popular was Precious. What a hit that was! SIX Academy Award nominations.)

A group of whites didn’t have to get together to decide that The Help is important because the image of faithful black servants is as American as mom, apple pie and the flag. Black folk were kept as slaves four times longer than we’ve been “free.” And for the first hundred years after slavery, most blacks had jobs serving whites; this is the most familiar and therefore most comforting image white Americans have of blacks. As blacks move forward in a quest for full citizenship, this vision of the “good old days” is periodically resurrected to soothe whites. There have been many incarnations of this comforting trope of blacks as servants including Corinna, Corinna, 1994; Driving Miss Daisy, 1989; Imitation of Life, 1959, a remake of the "immortal" 1934 version; the Beulah Show television series, 1950-53; Song of the South, 1946, and the most beloved of all, Gone With the Wind, 1939. As I said, this has been going on for a very long time.

Other than the reassurance it provides, I see no reason to rave about this book/movie once again showing blacks serving whites. Two years after The Help was published, it’s on film. As the presidential campaign revs up next year, it will be up for Academy Awards and the dominant media image will be black servants being used and abused by whites. Ah, so satisfying it almost makes up for having a black man in the White House.