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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: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

September 10, 2011 16 comments

Girl with head leaning on hand.Summary:
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black.  Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location.  She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.

Discussion:
This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post).  I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving.  It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places.  Anyway.  On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.

The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her.  Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her.  This is what I want to discuss first.

There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black.  She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved.  For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people.  Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.

He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal.  He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard.  He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock.  (page 5)

Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact.  Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal.  She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish.  Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem?  We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object.  It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.”  It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.

Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love.  Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son.  She did not even want her son.  This is understandable given that he was the result of rape.  Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him.  She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone.  It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21.  Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice.  Moinette knows the danger of loving someone.  She quite simply states:

I knew my heart was only meat for another animal.  (page 107)

Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved.  She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom.  Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met.  Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self.  Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.

Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help.  Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women.  She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them.  Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women.  The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young.  After she dies, Moinette says:

I missed her voice.  Her words like embroidery in the air.  She didn’t love me.  But I had heard her voice all my life.  (page 98)

How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie.  Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves.  Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina.  Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.

The Men hunted money and sex.  The women were hunted and captured, even the white women.  (page 230)

Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free.  Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair.  What chance is there for women of any color in this society?

Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is.  Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually.  Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.

Sophia said, “Safer in the cane.  Do your work, nobody look.  Dangerous in the house.”  (page 235)

In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play.  Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.

Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female.  Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path.  Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed.  This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook.  Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist.  Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie.  What were the similarities and differences?
  • How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie?  Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
  • Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
  • How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
  • Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
  • Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
  • How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
  • What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?