How The Help Helps

Post Date: August 19th, 2011

“I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, and so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.”

— Author Kathryn Stockett on writing THE HELP

It was 2004 and I was teaching 10th graders. One white male, 15 years of age, informed me in no uncertain terms that racism was over, kaput, and certainly not worthy of discussion.

The next day I came in and drew a timeline on the board: a civil rights timeline.

It featured the highs and lows of the Movement’s struggles from 1900 through 2004. Among many other events, it included the scary fact lynchings continued unabated throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the happy fact that our armed forces, our lunch counters, and our schools desegregated in the second half.

Then I asked students: when were you born? When were your parents born? Your grandparents? We filled out the timeline with these happy events. I also included my and my family’s births.

Then I gave students a recap. “So, (insert name of student who thinks racism is nonexistent), when your parents were in grade school, our schools were desegregating. So, when I was born, Dr. King was shot…” And on, and on, and on.

The argumentative student suddenly had very little to say when he saw his life and ancestry coinciding with the indisputable events of history. That he and his family were not so far removed from relatively recent events that shook our nation’s segregated society to its core.

It’s for this reason I can’t help but like The Help. It reminds us we have a complicated, painful history, and that past doesn’t go away simply because of someone’s opinion it no longer matters.

I also appreciate how well author Kathryn Stockett walks in someone else’s shoes. She crafts the characters of black Aibileen and Minny as deftly as she does white Skeeter and Hilly. Every character is complex, flawed, and full of possibility and surprise.

Yet she has obviously spent sleepless nights full of guilt for making this choice.

I’ve meditated on this topic in a former post, A Right to Write? I’ve been challenged by others when I wrote from the perspective of an African-American woman. As one wise friend put it to me,

“(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn’t (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation – or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.” 

I am a white woman saying I find Aibileen and Minny complex. Is that because my lens only allows certain options for black women, and Stockett’s characters happened to fit just so into my view?

No doubt will I be challenged again when (I say when, not if) my novel HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is published. In my novel a white girl and a black girl befriend one another in 2010. I’d like to think that’s not such a rare event, but in Chapel Hill, NC, I wouldn’t call it “common.” Let’s try “possible,”which is better than “unlikely” but not as good as “common.”

I’ll admit that THE HELP frustrated me sometimes. I don’t know if the writing felt weak in places due to structural flaws or more because of issues with character development, but I did want to ask if Skeeter really was that clueless about the danger she embraced. Maybe I should chalk her obliviousness up to youthful idealism and the absolutely distinct worlds blacks and whites lived in back then, that she would rush so headlong into an expose of abuse of black domestics that was rampant in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi society.

Then I remember what I used to be like, embarking on my first years of teaching, assuming as a young white woman in a diverse school that all my students were similar and that together, we could easily learn and grow. That I could treat all students exactly the same (my same, remember) and expect the same results. I also remember the boy I began this post with, the one who couldn’t see that our society still has any true inequality whatsoever, and that if any does exist, it’s merely because of some lack the will, drive, and sweat. Like it or not, we who are white walk in a world where we are the background, the default, the mainstream. As author Marcia Mount Shoop writes in her post, “Waking Up White,” those of us who are Caucasians aren’t truly ready to deal with our race:

We don’t have time to think about and talk about whiteness.  We’ve got better things to do; and perhaps, less disruptive things to do.  It is more comfortable to reach out to the people who are less fortunate to us than for white middle/upper class people to name how we are complicit in the systems of racism. 

Indeed, whiteness is an intimidating thing to think about in this country.  If we think about whiteness, that means we have to think about blackness, too. More to the point, if we think about whiteness then we have to think about how we benefit from the racism that whiteness helped to create.”

In my story, a black girl named Tanay talks about how white people always need to be “the entree.” If you’re always the star of the show, and that’s your norm, and as that celebrity you are relatively safe and secure in your societal status, why would you meditate on the race that brought you that privilege?

Class must inevitably be part of this discussion, too. The boy who questioned racism in today’s society was sitting in the classroom of an upper middle-class, suburban school, and I, his teacher, am the product of a similar background. Just like Skeeter.

Stockett writes an apology and an explanation at the close of THE HELP. She titles it, “Too Little, Too Late.” I disagree. Every story is something, an effort to tell our truths and bring struggles to the light. You tried, Stockett, and you succeeded in reminding us of past anguish and horror. Skeeter would be 70 today, and last time I checked, that’s still within the realm of white women’s life expectancy. That past is not yet dead.

Aibileen and Minny with worse odds against them–the stress of potential violence, the humiliation from employers, unchecked racism, and poverty, would not be so likely to make it to 70. They might not still be alive, but their children would be. Their past is not yet dead.

Stockett seems well aware she rode into this publishing fray on the same horse of benefits I can claim, too: enough food and safety to grow up confident, enough love to grow up happy, and enough belief in self, that one’s words should be heard and can indeed help. How about time to write?

Of course there’s an amazing family in my back story and so many other heroes who light my way; I don’t discount these facts. Yet I will not ignore that particular intersection of race and class helping Stockett and me get here, or wherever we believe we deserve to go. We had lots of help along the way.

 P.S. I’m headed to see the movie this weekend and even more intrigued to see another way of telling this story after some very interesting reviews by Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman–“Is The Help a condescending movie for white liberals?” and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s assessment (MSNBC interview and tweets while watching the movie).

Writing and Discussion Prompts:

— Does THE HELP help? Why or why not?
— Does Stockett walk well in others’ shoes? Where does she succeed? Where does she miss the mark?
— When you have used the word “racism” in a sentence recently, how did you use it? Record that sentence, then define racism.
— What events in American history to you illustrate the story of racism in the United States?
— In his interview of Professor Harris-Perry, Lawrence O’Donnell asks about artistic judgment. As a work of art, does THE HELP offer us redemption, realism, and art? What criteria do you use when judging literary works?
— Are some points of view off limits for certain groups? Or should we all write from any point of view?
— What points of view do you need to understand better? Which points of view do you not want to understand better? Which ones will you trying walking in?


  1. Jenna Cooper says:

    I can understand where some people come from, demanding whether a white person can be in the head of a minority, but I think that they need a broader perspective on life. If the book is reminding us of the dark parts of our past, and if they treat the minority characters with respect, I don’t understand what the problem is. If you read something and not think about the skin color of the author, and enjoy it, and find it unoffensive, then I think the author did a good job–whatever her ethnicity might be.
    And, really, writers rarely write an MC that is exactly like them or in the same situation.

  2. Hi, Jenna,

    I agree that good writing is exercise in empathy building…gaining a broader perspective…and well-intentioned efforts should be lauded when the rendering is artful, respectful, and redemptive. I think where pundits such as Professor Harris-Perry have an issue is the fact that whites continue to get the limelight for walking in others’ perspectives, have greater access to publishing and creating the historical records, and also often add a character such as a Skeeter. If I dare speak for the Professor, I wonder if she’d prefer the rarity of Skeeter not be included in this story, that a black woman write The Help and that the story be about how a group of domestics find a way to write an expose without the help of whites. That would be quite an interesting story, too. That would also eliminate the efforts at interracial understanding that make the story. Professor Harris-Perry calls the book and movie “ahistorical” and perhaps is looking for “the truth,” not the imaginative flights that fiction offers. As I think like a novelist, I say anything’s permissible but not all things are redemptive. I still find The Help redemptive.


  3. Bob Mustin says:

    Great posts, both. I saw Ms Harris-Perry talk about this book, and while I haven’t read it (the missus has), the issue reminds me of Native American writers (Sherman Alexie the most prominent) saying that whites shouldn’t write ANYTHING about NAs. This, when most of Alexie’s readers, for instance, are whites.
    This isn’t to point fingers or condemn any ethnic group; instead it points up the cross-currents in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. I don’t think these issue will ever leave us – as they fail to dissipate in Great Britain and South Africa.
    I’m with you, Lyn, on this: It provides fodder for writers. And along with Jenna’s thought of treating ethnic groups with respect, I concur. But…I don’t think writers should EVER bow to political correctness at the expense of the truth or portraying life as it really is.

  4. Lyn,

    Thanks for this post and your multi-faceted, complex look at this complex question. I’ve expressed my dislike of this novel/movie without having read or seen it. And my criticism has been based on some of the issues you bring up and a concern about the oversimplification of black women’s struggle by a white author. But, of course, it’s always dangerous to make such statements when I haven’t even read the text! Anyway, I appreciate the many angles of your discussion.


  5. Bob, didn’t know that about Alexie…very interesting. I can see why some writers who harbor great anger for good reason would not be interested in a white POV…considering the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans and the ongoing struggles of certain reservation communities. But hating on other humans because of history–not giving us a chance to discuss these issues–is keeping the same problems alive. Of course, in these discussions, we have to acknowledge power imbalances and how certain dialogues are dominated by those with more status, however earned. (I would be easily cowed by a history prof with a PhD in discussing history, but I can hang with other writers to a certain point.) So I’m conscious of my whiteness–not out of guilt–but out of awareness as I write all this.

    Delia: I think it’s understandable you’d want to shy away from The Help. You were the one to truly explain trope to me–what’s been done before–and Professor Harris-Perry discusses Mississippi Burning as a predecessor, part of this ongoing story of “how white people helped.” The novel and the movie err in this respect in some ways but also creatively confront the issues. I squirmed during some of the movie last night but was also gratified to see a mixed audience and equal appreciation of certain scenes. It struck me that we’ve come so far and yet have so far to go.