The “Help” — An Open Letter to the Fans

Cover of "Coming of Age in Mississippi"
Cover of Coming of Age in Mississippi

I was at The Savvy Sister’s Blog and found this very illuminating open letter to the fans of this highly publicized movie, “The Help”  (btw I personally WILL NOT be seeing).
It’s from the Association of Black Women Historians.  It beautifully addresses the historical inadequacies that we KNOW are rife in this movie.  But again, we really should stop expecting our stories and our perspectives to be rendered in these movies, IMHO.

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this
statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping
presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over
three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success
at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a
progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores,
and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically
concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention
given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

During the 1960s,
the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited
black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women
in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s
representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a
mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or
segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented
caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to
ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying
jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most
recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for
the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than
reside in it.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African
American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent
gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for
example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that,
“You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to
the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For
centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community
institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the
validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not
recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male
characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images
are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black
masculinity and manhood.

Furthermore, African American domestic workers
often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the
homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by
Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic
workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The
film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities
turning them into moments of comic relief.

Similarly, the film is
woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists
in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first
Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However,
Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into
the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage
demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the
most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well
dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku
Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual
acts of meanness.

We respect the stellar performances of the African
American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism
of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular
rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a
story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in
white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the
coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of
black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians
finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s
lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

Suggested Reading:

Fiction:

Like one of the Family: Conversations from A
Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress

The Book of the 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 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

Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent
to: ABWHTheHelp@gmail.com

 

A black woman’s positive view of “The Help” by the Sauda Voice  http://www.thesaudavoice.com/the_sauda_voice/2011/08/the-help-is-not-a-modern-day-birth-of-a-nation.html

14 Comments Add yours

  1. A well stated exposé of this movie. Viola Davis was interviewed on the carpet as she entered the premier and she had nothing but good things to say about the film. She also appreciated the public’s favorable response to it.

    There is another site that I like and she addresses this as well. The comments were equally illuminating. As I indicated in a comment…I would see more of theater floor than the movie like one of the described black moviegoers with her white friends.
    http://phillisremastered.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/some-post-mammy-questions-for-today/#comments

    I’ll sit this one out and I won’t order it on Netflix when it’s available—nope not even in the privacy of my home do I want to see this movie. (~_^)

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Whachu doing still up sister? 😉 Yes indeed, I am SO NOT interested in yet another of these rewritings of american history! The industry is working double overtime to ensure that racism remains alive and well, for both white women and men. So now this false history is perpetuated to the new generation of white youth, as well as black and everyone else. Continuing to dumb down white women in particular and all american women in general.
      They fear what would happen if more WHITE youth learn the truth of their american history and want to be on the side of equality, such as many white youth were back in the 60s. It’s interesting how they always show white youth of today the racist white youth of yesterday, but never show them those courageous white youth of yesterday such as the freedom riders who risked their lives for equality!
      Youth of today are being cheated out of their true history, and lulled to sleep with movies like “The Help”.

  2. I have bouts of insomnia–so I check out my favorite sites until the lids get heavy and I can rest. You know that’s a good point about the white youth of the 60’s. There was a program (I can’t remember which one) but they had the original freedom riders on the show and there were quite a few white folks represented and in the audience. There was also footage of those days. I remember them well.

    Take care and peace. I guess I’ll go to bed now. ⊙.☉

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Goodluck with that, sis, your eyes look so wide open. 🙂 Nighty nite!

  3. The revealing of our history carries a confusing task when trying to communicate to the public. I have mixed emotions when these productions are aired and promoted. I only hope that those that benefit from the venture will grow to the realization, that our history still lives in OUR ELDERS, be respectful and sit in quiet comfort, listen, see in the eyes of the last generation of us that KNOW,LIVED and want us to get the true feeling of our past.
    Maurice Copeland, Relentless Honeywell Whistleblower, Powerful …
    Jan 14, 2011 … Maurice Copeland, Relentless Honeywell Whistleblower, Powerful Revolutionary … These warriors fight the good fight, oftentimes alone, …

    nachalooman.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/maurice-copeland-relentles… – Similarto Maurice Copeland, Relentless Honeywell Whistleblower, Powerful …

    1. Anna Renee says:

      “…I only hope that those that benefit from the venture will grow to the realization, that our history still lives in OUR ELDERS…”

      Amen! Hallelujah! Preach, preacha! And other exclamations to convey how much I agree! That’s why I love going on the youth’s blogs and REMINDING them that the elders are not all elderly–and that we have some wisdom they desparately need!

      I don’t wait for them to come to me anymore, I go seeking them out now, and force my hard won wisdom down their throats.

      I’m just sayin.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

    1. Anna Renee says:

      You’re welcome, my dear! And thank YOU, warrior woman!

  5. Mark says:

    This is how brainwashing works… they are re-writing history books to put the period of segregation into a better light… it is well documented at the denial of many in the south regarding slavery … this media manipulation in some ways reflect CURRENT relationship between blacks and whites as urban blacks (along with PWT) more than the climate that existed in the 50’s and 60’s in America…

    …it is of vital importance that America moves away from its sordid past in order to re-indoctrinate the masses… so that the social stratification of its classes can become complete and permanent…

    …and this cannot happen without the complicity of the masses… and as a collective blacks have always been more than willing to go along with wear the lead takes them…

    1. Anna Renee says:

      “…and as a collective blacks have always been more than willing to go along with wear the lead takes them…”

      I’m split on this one. I hear from more youths that DON’T follow the lead at all. In their spirits they may not understand, but they know it’s not the right lead to take. They oftentimes don’t remember to ask the elders which is the best way to go, maybe because they believe that the elders have no understanding of the falacy called “these times”.

      What black youth need to do is study our collective history, especially the period of the sixties and how black folk strategized and planned in order to win the rights that were already ours in the first place.

  6. kekemichel says:

    The Association of Black women Historians have the right, and duty, to write their open letter. It would be more bold to address it to the author, Kathryn Stockett, as well as to the fans of the movie and book. Moreover, requesting her to do an interview, discussion, or panel with the ABWH and their audience members would be a great way to deal with this cultural issue. She actually has a web site and a publicity manager. I hope they did in fact confront the author directly, or are getting around to it. Hopefully, they have directly confronted the screenwriters, movie studio, producers, etc., too. But, yes, it is important to address the masses too because they can make or break a movie. Also, many need to be informed about how to view the movie critically. Most people do not understand how to view movies or read critically, or know when not to view a movie all together!

    While I understand and agree with what the ABWHs say in the open letter, to ask the european author, especially, to understand and appreciate the cultural details of the Black women’s lives is wishful, even though she was born in Jackson, MS, and went to college in Alabama. Another reason why it is wishful is because–that european woman graduated with a degree in English and creative writing, moved to NYC to work in magazine publishing and marketing. She was only interested in writing a best seller–which she did, at the expense of black women’s cultural and historical truths. Her novel ended up #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. She took her life observations of being raised in the South and wrote about it and embellished it. We know, that is what they do with books and movies–especially when they are trying to make money and become famous. Maybe she could have in fact write a culturally accurate book about those three women, but she chose not to do it; again, we know why. So, she needs to be confronted by those Black female historians.

    Far as I am concerned, I will not support such rubbish to make her rich and famous. I feel sorry for the sistas out there who will. I am glad that I do not need an open letter to get me to think critically on something like this. I wonder how many of our people have bought the book and saw the movies, which is based on stereotypes and cultural misinformation, yet not invest in efforts to ensure our cultural integrity, e.g. the MLK Memorial Fund, The United Negro College Fund. In my home town, I heard the Black Community let The Black Holocaust Museum
    close down!!!!! We have to do more and focus on taking care of our own foremost and do not expect non Blacks to do it and tell our stories–especially to any degree of accuracy and compassion. Thanks for posting the article, Sis.
    ~KeKeMichel
    Visit | Comment | Subscribe: http://www.BlackNouveauWoman.wordpress.com

    1. Anna Renee says:

      What galls me sister Kekemichel, is that we will go to see the movie, to assess it’s “validity”, knowing that it’s just another driving Miss Daisy story.

      We know in our hearts that the milk stinks, yet we can’t resist paying our money just to sniff the rot ourselves. Someone telling us it stinks is not enough.

      Or we use our blogs, which should be our voice, not Miss Daisy’s, and discuss the lack of merit of these things, giving this writer untold free publicity! Too many of us can’t seem to see beyond this ploy! All that one needs to do to get free internet publicity is tie their product to black women in a negative way, like using sex to sell refrigerators. Whenever anyone does this, they are assured of becoming well known.

      Everyone wins but us. We expend much useless energy, that doesn’t benefit us in the least.

      What we need to do is help the younger sisters who actually don’t understand what’s happening and believe that the movie is uplifting of black women of that era. I was at Black Girl Long Hair blog (sidebar) and the comments were interesting to say the least. Thankfully, most young sisters know what the deal actually is.

  7. GG says:

    Well, all that being said, what do you expect from an airhead white girl, who was too insulated from real life that she didn’t realize her so-called friends hated her, that her man was in love with another woman, and that her mother was dying of a very serious illness? A totally clueless white woman is a dangerous thing to have around.

    Skeeter, no heroine, is a coward who runs to NY the first chance she gets, leaving Abileen and Minnie to fend for themselves in a KKK-infested town like Jackson, MS! Heroine?! To whom? I read the book after seeing the film, and that’s the impression I got.

    “The Help” should not be considered for an Oscar-not that Oscar is such a good judge of films-but because the story has so many “holes” in it…the characters are so one-dimensional (how could Skeeter survive in Mississippi being that dumb?). If it wins an Oscar, it’s gonna need a new category: “Movies that make white people feel better about being white” or “Movies that take the black woman out of the White House”, or something like that.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Wow GG! I’m not surprised by your assessment of “Skeeter” (what can you expect from a skeeter?) This meme has been done to death and it doesn’t matter what the storyline is.

      My fellow blogger, Abagond calls these type movies “The Mighty Whitey” films and discusses them at his blog. Very interesting too. The movie academy ought to create a category with that name! Ha!
      Anyway, Check him out if you haven’t already.

      http://abagond.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/mighty-whitey/

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