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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books.  I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II.  The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement.  It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them.  So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what.  I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings.  I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong.  And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful.  But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.

Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now.  I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help.  But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.

In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman.  In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery.  We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men.  This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home.  We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery.  This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants.  This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.

The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era.  It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more.  Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools.  In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid.  For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not.  This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas.  This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home.  For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right.  Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.

Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list.  It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation.  Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand.  It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such.  Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out.  This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.

The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.  I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it.  Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s.  This read demonstrated two key things.  First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women.  Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true.  Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them.  Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.

Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred.  Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that.  I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project.  The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism.  This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after.  This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible.  The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women.  This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.

We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature.  This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair.  She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow.  Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large.  The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives.  It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.

Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project.  It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche.  Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy.  I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released.  It is such a clever mystery novel.

Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis,  which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter.  This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.

So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now?  I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy.  It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all.  And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages.  It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them.  It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.

Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list.  So what are my recommendations?

If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam.  It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.

If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.

If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.

Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.

I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list.  I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read.  I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you.  Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues.  The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands.  I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project.  We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.

What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read.  Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.”  You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.

Book Review: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 4 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?

Friday Fun! (Freelance Editing, Reading Projects, and United States of Tara)

January 27, 2012 8 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Gosh, things have been hopping here this January, haven’t they?  I’m not sure why my reading has reached such a nice, steady rhythm, but I’m certainly enjoying it. 🙂

A quick announcement.  I’ve decided to start freelance editing.  If you’re at all interested, please check out the dedicated page for more details.  You all know that I’m a trustworthy, hard-working, smart gal, so I’d also appreciate it tons if you’d help spread the news.  Thanks!

I was super-pleased at the extent of conversation and interaction that the first book for the Diet for a New America Reading Project saw.  Thanks guys!  Next month is The China Study, and I do hope as many of you as can will join in with me.  This book is very much less about the US specifically and more about the best diet for human beings in general based on a ground-breaking scientific study.

Tomorrow is the discussion of the penultimate book in The Real Help Reading Project–Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  It’s hard to believe the project is almost over!  Time flies when you’re learning and growing with a friend. 🙂

On Wednesday I was home sick, and you know how sometimes when you’re sick you just don’t have the focus to read.  I therefore poked around my Netflix account and was pleased to see that the final season of United States of Tara was finally up on instant.  The United States of Tara is a Showtime half-hour show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) trying to learn to cope with her disease without creativity-numbing medications so she can be free again to pursue her art.  I was very pleased with the first two seasons that showed the reality of coping with a mental disease, but that did not demonize Tara or bestow sainthood upon her family members.  I thus was really disappointed to see the third season take such a nosedive, and now I’m thinking I’m going to have to remove it from my recommended list.

The thing that made US of Tara so appealing in the first two seasons was that, yes, sometimes Tara did bad things as the result of her illness, but she was fairly good at finding a balance.  She made mistakes like healthy people, just for different reasons.  In season three, though, Tara develops a new alter who is pure evil.  We’re talking stabby, Psycho sound effects, steals babies and tears her own teenage son’s room apart evil.  This alter is an abuser alter–an alter who takes on the whole personality of Tara’s abuser.  Now this is a real thing in DID (source) but the show handles it all wrong.  Yes, the new alter is scary and would be to all of the known alters, Tara, and her family.  However, having the alter kill all of Tara’s other alters then Tara kill the abuser alter is the exact opposite of how healthy healing from DID works.  Healthy healing is either learning to cope with having alters or integration.  Killing your alters and then proceeding to run off to therapy after the fact shrieks of writers who didn’t get their facts straight.  For a show that started off so strongly and well-supported by the Mental Illness Alliance community, I was really disappointed in this.

The other bad message in season three that really bothers me as an advocate is the change in Tara’s family and how they handle things.  Tara basically becomes too much for them to handle, and they all want to ship her off and lock her up.  Ok, some people do need in-patient treatment, and I definitely would have re-entered Tara into real therapy much sooner than her family does to prevent all this drama in the first place, but essentially the family comes to say that Tara isn’t worth it.  Tara is too much to handle.  They’re just gonna go do their thing now.  They even judge Max, Tara’s husband, for refusing to not continue to stick by her.  He insists repeatedly that he’s neither a stupid person nor a saint.  He just loves Tara.  Yet, in the end, the whole family is torn apart, leaving just Max and Tara.

While it is, unfortunately, very true that a lot of people abandon loved ones with a mental illness, one of the positive aspects of this show was that it let people with a mental illness believe that in an enlightened family unit, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Season three kills all that.  The only one who truly loves and advocates for Tara is Max, and everyone else feels pity for him because of it.  Sad stuff.  Definitely not advocate stuff.