I will not see The Help.
Because of all the “You’ve-got-to-read-about-these-black-women” that was made of it, I did purchase and read Kathryn Stockett’s book. I was skeptical because of the title, and because I learned it was a book by a white woman about black women servants. These details immediately brought to mind thoughts of the movie The Long Walk Home (the 1990 drama starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg) and NBC’s series I’ll Fly Away. Sure, black women servants in those productions were depicted as people of character, intelligence, and dignity. That was supposed to be the useful, redeeming, beneficial, important contribution of those works—and of this year’s The Help.
But for whom is that a contribution?
News flash: I grew up in a black community with black parents. I’ve known all my life that African Americans are people of character, with dignity, intelligence, ambition, hopes and dreams. I suspect that most other black people (and even a few people who are not black) know this, too. That gets at why I won’t see the movie. Since the question of black people’s human-ness (and that’s what discussion of things like the capacity for demonstrating dignity, having and exercising intelligence, having hopes and dreams, experiencing disappointments, etc., point to)—since the question of black people’s human-ness is a non-issue, lurking behind productions like The Long Walk Home, I’ll Fly Away, The Help, and other such works are many racial significations, false messages that seek to reinscribe black people as, essentially, the ‘help’ of the world.
Three such false messages immediately come to mind.
The first false message says: The real agents of the world are white. When I finished reading (actually as I was reading) The Help, I recognized the age-old message that without a white person, in this case a much younger white woman, the truth about who these people are could not be known.
Without the novel’s central character (a young, white, would-be writer named Skeeter), Abilene, Minnie, the other black women of the narrative would never have a voice or an opportunity to present their humanity to the world. This message is false because black women, from a variety of stations in life, have voice and live and demonstrate to the world fulfilled lives every day—without the assistance or interference of white people.
I will not go to see the movie The Help because already I have encountered and regularly encounter enough messages suggesting history is made only by white agency. Twenty years ago, I watched the movie Cry Freedom expecting to see the story of Steve Biko’s tremendous efforts in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime. I left the theater disappointed that the movie had sublimated and transferred Biko’s courage and tenacity to make Donald Wood (a white journalist I’d never heard of) the story’s hero. This is how I experienced the book The Help.
The second false message is this: The really important point of all cultural production and activity is for white agency and dignity to be actualized. The overarching plot of this book presents the narrative of a young white woman finding herself and her voice amidst cliches, circumscriptions, traditions of the South during the 1960s. Against this background, the black women are instrumental in Skeeter’s journey into adulthood. Skeeter’s journey is the more prominent message of the book, and, I suspect, of the film as well. I will not go to see the movie The Help because I do not wish to view yet another production that tells me, a black woman, it is all about whiteness.
This brings me to the third, and most detrimental false message: Black persons—perhaps people of color, generally—exist primarily to serve or enhance the lives of white people.
“Somebody Had To Do the Work”
When I was in seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, I once heard now-deceased United Methodist Bishop Nolan Harmon justify enslavement to his Methodist Polity class by saying that “somebody had to do the work.” (The economic structure of the South depended on farming and 19th-century farming required vast human labor.)
Nolan Harmon was a signatory of the infamous letter from eight Southern white clergy saying Birmingham demonstrations were “unwise and untimely,” which prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The fact that clergy wrote the letter criticizing Birmingham protests demonstrates a significant function of religions (and religious leaders) in social life; religions function as primary aids in structuring and sustaining social systems.
A predominant element of the Western imaginary, the idea that black persons ultimately exist as servants for white life, has long been supported by rhetorical constructions of Christianity. The most obvious examples, of course, were rituals such as catechisms about the necessity for [black] servants to obey [white] masters.
Less obvious examples include contemporary statements pairing assertions that the United States is a Christian nation with political opposition to universal health coverage, social justice, entitlement spending, and a whole array of benefits to all US citizenry.The subtext of these assertions is that such social benefits burden “real [read white] Americans” with taking care of those “other [read colored] people” living within the US borders. US airwaves present ample evidence of this as purveyors of ideas about the so-called “real American way” or the “really Christian moral order” daily decry all programs that enhance our common life as they advocate states rights and individualism.
That these assertions have reached a fever pitch since election of Barack Obama is especially telling. The false message of this talk: “Real [read white] Americans should not have to accommodate their experiences of US citizenship to accommodate those other [read colored] peoples.”
Honest Work, Grossly Undercompensated
In many ways, Stockett’s representation of black women servants has affinities with Nolan Harmon’s statement about enslavement. Both are uncensored matter-of-fact assertions suggesting no need to interrogate a social order that dehumanizes persons based on skin pigmentation.
Harmon’s unreflected remark about enslavement revealed the view that the true, Christianized order of things included black persons functioning as media for enhancing white life. Stockett’s thoughtlessness (or intention?) in avoiding the issue of the instrumentality of black lives—especially in a novel published in 2011—suggests affirmation of this order of things. The runaway success of the book (on the NY Times bestsellers list for 25 weeks) and the early buzz on the movie (including much talk of “Oscar-worthy” performances) proves the power of these ideas and images in the popular imagination.
Now, I do agree that all honest work has dignity. However, the reality is that persons in service work, especially service work in US homes, generally are grossly undercompensated. This undercompensation often occurs because their social or legal status makes them easy targets for exploitation. There is honor and dignity in their work to support themselves and their families, but the structure that allows their undercompensation dishonors such persons, marking them as “the help” for, and outsiders to a culture and social system of which they are a part. That such persons in the United States are overwhelmingly people of color adds to the complexity of this situation.
The Help is being framed as one among the many narratives which from time to time depict black people as innocuous, or that seek to redeem black people as “noble savages,” or that suggest black people have character, dignity, intelligence, and ambitions, and so on ad nauseum. But I will not go to the movie because the ultimate message is that black people are “the help,” and some essence of their beingness makes them fit to be “the help.”
What I will do instead is write this rant and hope real US citizens, real patriots will oppose, whenever and wherever possible, the falsehood that “we the people” means anything other than including, enabling, and privileging all of us.