We are pleased to share this reflection for your consideration. Remember that even a fictional story can provide an opportunity to examine our thoughts and actions and challenge us to reach for the best that is within us.
By Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, D.Min.
There are not enough positive images of African Americans in mass media and entertainment. Agreed. In fact, the scale is heavily weighted toward depictions of us as criminals, buffoons and whores, of low intellect and moral values. When Black folks are portrayed as being “religious” it is usually an overly simplified, caricature of our belief in God. Sadly, some of the mass media outlets owned by African Americans have not done much to counter these stereotypes or to present more fully and accurately the wide depth and breadth of who we are as people from the African Diaspora. And, a choice few have actually reinforced and propagated long held misperceptions about and distortions of Black women, in particular. To be fair, they have also not done a very good job of portraying Black men.
To make matters worse, many of the books that populate bookstores and online venues about African Americans are little more than tabloid rags in Black face; characters with almost no depth that depict our main concerns in life as getting a man, keeping a man or stealing somebody else’s man. Surely, there is more to our story than this.
In comes The Help, a book about the strange and strained relationships between black and white women in the Jim Crow South. I have to admit that when a friend first told me about the book and I found out that it was written by a white woman, I was skeptical. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth all the while thinking to myself, “Not another white woman saving the Negroes kind of story.” I’ve read that book before and seen that movie and quite frankly, I’m tired of it. But, several months later I decided to borrow the book from the library.
What I found in reading The Help, was not at all what I expected. Rather than another story about someone trying to “save” us, I found a heartwarming tale of three women trying to negotiate lines of division and social morays that not only separated them but tried to define their value as human beings. It seems to me that the author as she describes in the postlude to the book, “Too Little, Too Late,” was trying to navigate a system which she undoubtedly benefitted from but that she also sees as unjust and detrimental to her and those around her who she loves. It is also, I think, a sensitive portrayal of women who were mistreated but who found hope and strength and love in themselves and in one another. These were women trying to make sense of their lives and struggling to fight injustice in subtle ways. It’s a good story that made me wonder anew about my own circumstances and how I might fight the injustices I see in the world around me. It also gave me a sense of pride in the women whose heritage I share because regardless of their job title, these were women who were re-ordering the insanity of the world in which they lived. They were making a difference in spite of the obstacles they faced.
That’s why the controversy over the book upon the release of the movie caught me a little off guard. African-American women did work as maids and some still do. That is the truth. Is it the only thing African-American women did? No, it is not. Does the book cover every aspect of what Black women endured? No, it does not. And, I’m not sure why there was an expectation that it would. It is a fictional story that has many limitations but should not be held to the same standard as a nonfiction work. Indeed, it is not written to tell the totality of everyone’s experience, but it does reflect the experiences of some.
The outrage over the movie left me wondering if this book had been written by an African American, would it have been so controversial. Of course, had an African American written it, there’s a chance it may not have been published. While some of the concerns about the book are legitimate—Black women domestic workers were sexually harassed and faced other injustices, for example—why is there an expectation that this book should have to address the entire history of domestic workers? We do not normally expect other fictional works to do that and I’m not sure why, except that this was a white woman telling a story about Black women, that we would hold this work to a different standard. Parenthetically, need I point out that many books on the Civil Rights Movement barely mention African-American women’s plight as they negotiated racism and sexism in America?
Is it possible that the response to The Help has nothing to do with the words on the pages or the images on the screen so much as it does the race of the woman who wrote it? Is there discomfort and shame when we are confronted with a white woman’s depiction of Black women? Was she making fun of us? Isn’t there something inherently wrong with the oppressor speaking for the oppressed? Or, are we ashamed of who we were before our degrees, big houses, luxury cars, multisyllabic words…and our own maids? We cannot deny that there were Aibileens and Minnys…and Skeeters can we? I feel like I know Aibileen and Minny. The kind of women that do what has to be done and endure, hoping for a better life for the next generation. They are fictional characters but they represent real women—strong women, proud women.
What bothered me most about the criticism is that the objections seem to want to silence the voice and perspective of someone when African American women have worked so hard to find and use their own voice. Ironically, women who have been fighting to give others voice seemed to be silencing someone else’s, perhaps because of the color of her skin. And, that is a shame. When BeBe Moore Campbell wrote “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine” in 1992, she spoke for both white and black folks in the South and yet there were no protests. She did not tell the full story of lynchings in Mississippi with all of its complexities but there were no protests. There were only accolades and commendations. As there should have been. So, how then nearly 20 years later do we seek to silence someone when we’ve fought so hard to find our voice and speak out of our experience? Does Kathryn Stockett not deserve to speak from her own experience, even if it does not fully reflect ours?
Maybe the answer is no. But, I don’t think so. I don’t think Aibileen and Minny were caricatures nor do I think Stockett was making fun of us. I think she was trying to present a version of a truth that she knew and experienced and in a well-told and sometimes humorous story, present the lives of women who found friendship, love and acceptance in an unexpected place—they found it in each other.
At the end of the movie version of The Help, Aibileen says to Skeeter that what they did was important because they were truth-telling. And, no matter who the truth comes from, no matter how it is packaged; it should be told. And then told again and again.