Saturday, November 28, 2009
If you're thinking about holiday gifts these days, and if you ever give books, here's a popular, race-related novel that I recommend against buying -- Kathryn Stockett's The Help. This fictional depiction of Deep-South interracial harmony was one of this year’s bestsellers; it's currently Amazon.com’s seventh bestselling book, with a five-star rating generated by almost 1200 customer reviews.
If you want to give a white reader a book that has anything to do with race, why not instead support non-white writers? Author Carleen Brice’s blog is a great place to look for ideas: White Readers Meet Black Authors. If you have other suggestions, please let us know in a comment.
When a white friend suggested that we read The Help together, I hesitated, like I always do with a new "bestseller." Like Hollywood movies, bestselling fiction almost always sells well by playing up to stereotypes and preconceptions commonly held by middle-class white people; if a novel deeply challenges such notions instead, it almost never makes the bestseller lists. Since I had some free time this week, I decided to see why this white author’s book about black maids in the early-1960s has been pleasing so many readers. I was entertained at times by The Help, and I’m grateful to my friend for suggesting it, but as I said, I can’t recommend it.
The Help is told from the point of view, and in the voices of, three different women living in Jackson, Mississippi. Two of them, Aibileen and Minny, are veteran maids working for relatively wealthy white housewives, while Skeeter is a young white woman on the cusp of becoming such a housewife. Skeeter has other ambitions, though, writerly ones; she draws the two maids into a secret scheme of producing a racially explosive book, consisting of Skeeter’s interviews with black maids who describe and expose the abject conditions of their servitude.
Among the book's many problems, I continually balked at Stockett's efforts with what amounts to literary blackface. Writing in alternating first-person sections, Stockett renders the voices of Aibileen and Minny with mostly complete, mostly grammatical sentences; they’re also tinged with just enough Ebonics-like touches to make them sound "black." I don't know what black maids talked like in the early 1960s, but I’ve read both white Southern readers and black readers of this novel online, and some say that the voices of Aibileen and Minny are accurate, while others say they’re inaccurate. At any rate, I found all the non-standard verbs, and the “a’s” instead of “of’s,” and so on, annoying, especially because Stockett apparently made no attempt to similarly mark the narrative voice of her one white protagonist.
Since Stockett attempted racial and regional ventriloquism with her black narrators, I continually wondered why she didn't do so with her white one, Skeeter. As a product of her time and place, the speech and internal dialogue of a person like Skeeter would likely have some regional features. However, nothing that I could detect in Skeeter’s narration varies much at all from standard American English.
Actually, in this and other ways, Skeeter struck me as anachronistic, a white Southern women more of our time than her own. Maybe that’s why so many white women like this novel -- because they can easily identify with this deregionalized white character? Aside from her relatively standardized English, Skeeter’s thoughts and actions seem too thoroughly uninfected by her white supremacist surroundings. She’s too willing to cross racial lines, and too disgusted with those whites who are infected by white supremacy. In overly stark contrast to most of the other white women around her, she treats "the help" just like she would any other (white) people -- even better, actually. There is one other white woman in the novel who seems similarly at ease with crossing and/or ignoring racial lines. Celia is the child-less, layabout white woman who’s recently hired Minny, and Minny repeatedly feels taken aback by the way this white woman, who has “white trash” roots, treats her like another white woman, instead of a black one.
I found the nearly total abandonment of common white customs and habits by both of these white women in their interactions with black people, during the Jim Crow era in the deep South no less, implausible. As a writer, Skeeter is a stand-in of sorts for Kathryn Stockett, who was also once an aspiring writer living in Jackson, Mississippi. I find it telling that when an interviewer asked Stockett if Skeeter is an autobiographical character, she replied, "Absolutely not. I was never that brave. Frankly, I didn't even question the situation down there. It was just life, and I figured that's how the whole world lived. It wasn't until I was about 30 years old that I started looking back on it."
Exactly. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the thoroughly non-racist Skeeter. I’m not surprised that it took moving away from Mississippi, in terms of both distance and time, for Kathryn Stockett to “question the situation down there,” and I’m certainly glad she’s now “questioning” it. Racist thought and behavior on the part of whites during the Jim Crow era was just the norm back then, so seeing the evil in that, let alone thoroughly resisting it, would likely be very difficult while living in the thick of it, and while enjoying the privileges of membership in the white club.
And so, again, it seems implausible that someone like Skeeter, having been born and raised at that time in Mississippi, would be so completely outside of that norm, so different from other white people. And again, it does seem plausible that Stockett (and perhaps her editors) portrayed her that way so that white readers can more readily see themselves in Skeeter. In this sense, and others, this novel is thoroughly white-framed entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ostensibly liberal sentiments of white consumers.
Unfortunately, then, while The Help is about people who risk their lives to challenge the status quo of their day, the book itself does very little to challenge the status quo of its own day. A particular norm of today that The Help fails to challenge, and instead reinforces, is the tendency of white consumers to favor racially themed entertainment that makes them feel good about the victims of white supremacy, and about the few good white people who resisted it. Ultimately, such entertainment -- from Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawkshank Redemption to Gran Torino and The Blind Side, and many, many more -- also makes white audience members feel good about themselves, which they do when they distinguish themselves from the bad, racist white characters, and when they feel good about the connections that they imagine they’re making with the noble, forgiving, goodhearted characters of color.
Over a decade ago, Benjamin DeMott spelled out the problems with a long parade of such media-generated friendships in his book, The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight about Race. DeMott demonstrated that this seemingly white liberal impulse -- to reach across racial lines toward the common humanity in all races of people – springs from fundamentally conservative sources. When white people see black people as “just like us,” they overlook the institutional and systemic barriers that hinder black lives, leading them to embrace those black people who seem pretty much like friendly white people underneath it all, and to blame those black people who don't seem that way, because they "insist on" living in bad conditions, which they supposedly bring on themselves by failing to pull themselves up by their proverbial (but basically nonexistent) bootstraps.
Such cultural products usually have a character at the center that white readers can identify with, a goodhearted white character. Black people in particular are portrayed in such entertainment as also goodhearted, suffering (but strong), noble, and most important of all, forgiving. These qualities are drawn out of The Help's black characters by a white woman, Skeeter, as she gets to know them through the interview process for her book, which is called, more simply, Help. And although (spoiler alert!) Skeeter publishes the book anonymously, and shares the royalties with her black co-authors, it is her book, since its publication helps her flee Mississippi. Skeeter heads for New York City and leaves Aibileen, Minny and the other maids behind, to continue sorting through the threatening disturbances caused by the publication and popularity of Help.
This novel is only about the black women who are “the help” on its surface. Despite the three-dimensionality of Aibileen and Minny, the real stories are those of the white women -- the cartoonishly evil ones who abuse the help (and their own children, mostly through neglect), and the implausibly innocent ones who humanize the help. In the case of Skeeter, even a good white character ultimately ends up using the help, for her own purposes and advancement, by publishing a self-serving book about them. Not unlike, it seems, Stockett herself.
I made it all the way through The Help, and I was even entertained along the way. I also found the characters and story believable much of the time, despite the mostly cartoonish cast of characters. Nevertheless, I also realized as I read that for all of that to happen -- for the story to work well for me, as an engaging story that I could ride along with and fall into -- I had to suspend my awareness of just how this book's racial dynamics work for most white readers.
Those readers have basically been trained to enjoy cozy, fantasy-driven entertainment about interracial harmony. This training has included a long procession of previous feel-good tales about friendship between goodhearted white folks and forgiving black folks (a tradition that stretches at least as far back as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and also by a white-framed culture in general, which discourages us from seeing that racism remains a problem that is much deeper and more enduring than any personal friendship could ever be.