The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.While I didn't read the book, I saw the movie a few weeks ago and came away very much interested in the subject and having picked some historical context from it. But bearing in mind that it was fiction, I wanted to continue the discussion with real people and I've also read a lot of articles which was how I came to hear of the ABWH's statement.
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.One of the most powerful scenes in the movie for me was of one morning in the black community when they were on their way to work, almost all the women wore the uniform of maids, and the man seemed to be mainly casual laborers. One of the main black characters had lost her job because of a racist white boss, and had to pull her daughter out of school to work and make money. In the scene, she was putting her 13/14 years old daughter through the do's and don'ts of servitude, it was heart-breaking. On another note, the ABWH point out that;
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.In a discussion with Atala (I went to see the movie with a meetup group so he missed it), he remarked on this particular point and how easy it was for people to then say, "I'm not like that individual", thus discounting the ability of such a work to provoke deep soul searching and public discourse. The ABWH concludes;
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.While I accept The Help as fiction, there is still that power that writers have to influence their society, and maybe Kathryn Stockett should have been more cultural sensitive. That said, one big lesson I took from the movie was that more people should tell their stories. Nobody can write your history the way you can, and the author of The help has done her bit, the rest is left for us.
Have you read the book or seen the movie? What did you think?
PS, maybe one day I'll write about how the movie reminded me so much of the house-help culture in Nigeria.