Home > Reading Project > Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)

Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)

What’s a Reading Project?

I am really excited to be doing my first social justice themed reading project, which is different from a reading challenge.  A reading challenge challenges you to broaden your reading horizons.  A reading project takes a topic that matters to you (or that should matter to you) and creates a reading list about that topic by people who know to help you learn about it, as well as drive discussion on such an important topic.   Now, allow me to explain the genesis of and reasons behind my first reading project.

What Led to the Project

I’ve grown to become good friends with Amy of Amy Reads over the past year, and when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help blew up in literary circles then became a movie, well, both of our ires got up.  We discussed back and forth the issues via gchat, tumblr, and twitter, sending articles and mini-rants to each other and just generally being peeved that so much of the population got swept up into something so offensive to both black and white women in 2011 for goodness sake.

Let me explain to you in my own words my problem with The Help.  Stockett is a white woman who grew up in the south with black maids.  She claims that when her maid died she felt regret at never having gotten to know her as a real person, so she decided to write this fiction book about black maids in her home state in the 1960s.  Right away, I was offended that her instinct was to write a fictional account instead of, oh I dunno, maybe making an effort to fight racism by befriending black people?

For those who don’t know, The Help is about a college educated white woman who comes home and interviews the black maids in her town and publishes their stories.  I cannot really wrap my mind around the thought that Stockett thought of doing a project like this, but instead of being an editor of a collection of memoirs and real-life scenarios by black domestic workers she chose to fictionalize the whole process.

This leads me to one of my largest points.  The Help is Stockett living in a fantasy land version of history.  One of the first things you learn as a history major is to NOT romanticize the past.  You have to get up close and personal with how ugly it truly was.  Shows like Leave It To Beaver completely leave out real issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc…  This is what Stockett is repeating.  She regrets her relationship with her own black maid, so she writes a truly mary-sue style book wherein a college educated white woman gets to know the black female domestic workers and comes to their aid.  This isn’t reality.  This isn’t a harmless feel-good book/movie.  It’s Stockett’s fantasy method of dealing with the racism she grew up with.  Why not instead have written a book about a white woman who goes to college in the north and comes to regret the racism she was raised with?  Who confronts the fact that she spent more time being cared for by a black woman than her own mother?  That would have been real.  That would have been something respectful to talk about.  Instead, though, she chose to write a fantasy version of the 1960s American South where the racism really isn’t so bad and a white female activist isn’t put into any danger by her activism.

The whole thing is offensive.  It’s offensive to black and white women.  It’s offensive to black domestic workers of the past and present.  It’s offensive to white women who faced real danger and estrangement from their families protesting racism.  It’s offensive to the black people who stood up for themselves and fought racism without any white people coming along and telling them they should.  And yet people are happily taking the blue pill and revising history.

Thankfully, not everyone is doing that.  Slowly Amy and I started to see similar reactions to our own throughout the web.  Here are just a few examples:

Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of “ambiguity and complexity” with which our “cowardly nation” is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us.  (Shakesville)

The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and where “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in.  (Roxanne Gay)

And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers.
  (Kimberley Engonmwan)

It’s frustrating because in these narratives—written by privileged Whites—Black people are always passive. Things are done to them or for them, but they are never the agents of their own liberation. (And sorry, but no, telling the Nice White Lady about your shitty boss isn’t being an agent of your own liberation—not when Black women were actually organizing against Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and violence, and the intimidation of Black voters.)  (Feministe)

What really pushed it over the edge for me, though, and got me going from stewing to activisting (that is a word because I say so) was when someone tweeted a link to the American Black Women Historian’s response to The Help that is not only eloquently put, but also includes a suggested reading list at the end.  The reading list got my wheels turning and next thing I knew I was emailing Amy to suggest we do something with that list.

What the Project Is

There are 10 books on the suggested reading list, 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction.  For the next five months we will be hosting a project to read one fiction and one nonfiction book and discuss the content and issues raised.  One blogger will host each book.  For the first month, Amy will be hosting the nonfiction book, and I will be hosting the fiction book.  Other bloggers with an interest in the project are welcome to host! Just email me and (opinionsofawolf [at] gmail [dot] com) and Amy (amy.mckie [at] gmail [dot] com) to let us know your interest and what book you might like to host the discussion for.

The fiction book will be discussed on the second Saturday of the month, and the nonfiction book will be discussed on the fourth Saturday of the month.  The first Saturday of the month will wrap-up the previous month’s discussions and announce the next two books.

So next Saturday I will be discussing A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight.  Please come join in the discussion!  You don’t have to read the book to engage in the discussion, but I highly encourage you to do so.

On the 24th, Amy will be discussing Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones.

We encourage you to join in with us on the project to stop letting people revise history.  Get to know the facts behind the history of black domestic workers in the United States and read fictionalized accounts of the experiences written black writers, all recommended by educated historians.

Books of the Project

Fiction:
Like One of The Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life
, Alice Childress
The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam
 by Barbara Neeley
The Street
by Ann Petry 
A Million Nightingales
 by Susan Straight

Non-Fiction:
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household 
by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War
by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present
by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi
by Anne Moody

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  1. September 3, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Yay, thanks for the great idea, I’m looking forward to reading the books.

    • September 6, 2011 at 9:44 am

      Um thanks for joining in with me! You kind of rock.

  2. September 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    My library has two of the non-fiction titles (the ones by Hunter and Jones). I have reserved them and will hopefully be able to participate!

    • September 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      I’M SO EXCITED IRIS 😀 hehe

    • September 6, 2011 at 9:46 am

      I love how many libraries seem to have Jackie Jones’ book. She was my prof in undergrad, hehe.

  3. September 4, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Yay! I’m really excited about this. I recently finished The Help, though I have to say I enjoyed it. I liked it not because I was blind to the race issues or the women’s right issues. I liked it because it fueled my interest in reading about the topic; an interest I should have had years ago, quite honestly.

    I’ll also say that after reading Stockett’s reasoning behind wanting to write the book, I felt sick. She clearly sounded like she was doing this for her own good. I hope, a bit too optimistically, that this book leads others to read the true accounts of what living in this time was actually like.

    • September 6, 2011 at 9:47 am

      I’m glad you’re joining us, Lauren, even more so since you read The Help.

      I also read Stockett’s reasoning, and that was what really distressed me. She claims she did this due to guilt over never really getting to know her black maid when she was growing up, so she wrote a revisionist book instead of…..getting to know black people? Oy.

  4. September 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks to you and Amy for taking this on. My library has several of these books but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up with your reading schedule. I will definitely be reading the posts and discussions about the books.

    And thanks for your thoughts and the well aimed points in your post. It states clearly why I couldn’t finish reading The Help.

    • September 6, 2011 at 9:49 am

      Any level of participation is super-welcome, Gavin! I’m glad to see interest in the project.

  5. September 12, 2011 at 8:22 am

    I must have been under a rock when this was all going into the planning… I want to read some of these books on your list…. do you have all your books and blogs covered for hosting?

    • September 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Hi Sheila! Nope, so far nobody has committed to hosting a book besides myself and Amy. Amy will be hosting Labor of Love later this month, but both of the books scheduled for next month are still available. Check out the schedule here and let us know if you’d be interested in hosting one of the books next month. If neither of those are ones you wanted to read, you can always choose a fiction or nonfiction book for November that we have yet to choose/schedule.

  6. September 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Wolfshowl, you and Amy Reads, what more can I say to thank you for embarking on this project. It’s race and gender and it is vitally important in the struggle to support each other. So a heartfelt thank you from this African woman. I will be following your progress and discussions. All the best.

    • September 14, 2011 at 9:05 am

      Kinna, you are so sweet! Thank you for the support of our project. It means a lot. 🙂

  7. October 13, 2011 at 11:29 am

    I read a Philippa Gregory with my book group several years ago. A terribly inappropriate attempt to explore the historical enslavement of black people in England. It is that experience which has led me to avoid The Help, having previously read remarks conveying sentiments not dissimilar to the ones you express above.

    This is a great idea for a project. Hope you find it rewarding.

    • October 14, 2011 at 9:18 am

      I’m sorry to hear there’s been a similar problem with works set in England, although, alas, not surprised. I am glad that you noticed the issues and have avoided other works with similar ones, though!

      Thus far I am finding the project incredibly rewarding. More so than I ever imagined. I’m already wondering what sort of project to embark upon next to broaden my social justice horizons!

  1. September 3, 2011 at 9:17 am
  2. September 4, 2011 at 8:47 am
  3. September 6, 2011 at 8:53 am
  4. September 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm
  5. September 12, 2011 at 1:08 am
  6. October 13, 2011 at 10:48 am
  7. December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am
  8. February 28, 2012 at 1:01 am

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