Why "The Help" Hasn't Helped

From thoughts on “miscegenation” to affirmative action, whites and blacks have often differed in their general opinions about race. These disagreements have historically bled into the entertainment industry as well (e.g. Gone with the Wind, minstrel shows). Even now in 2011, blacks and whites still seem to talk past one another when it comes to race, as has become most recently evident in the criticism surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Rather than help blacks and whites come to a greater understanding through story-telling, the film (and the novel) has revealed the fundamentally poor job our society continues to do in discussing and dismantling racial injustice.

The Help is about two black domestic workers named Aibileen and Minny and a writer named Skeeter in 1960s Mississippi. The 2011 film adaptation of Stockett’s 2009 novel has grossed more than $120 million this year and has been billed as “a timeless and universal story about the ability to create change.” While a good number of black critics have lambasted the story, the general (mostly white) American public (and critics) seem to be either unfazed by or in support of it. Though it is impossible speak for all blacks or whites, one thing is clear: Most media criticism has been led by blacks and black organizations like the Association of Black Historians.

Compounded with the criticism of black intellectuals is that of a modern-day black domestic worker named Ablene Cooper (not to be confused with the fictional Aibileen Clark). Cooper, who is Stockett’s brother’s domestic worker, alleges that Stockett used her “likeness” in the story without her permission. Unlike in the feel-good story of The Help, this black domestic worker doesn’t want her story to be told by this white author.

How ironic. And perhaps, how tragic. Stockett has written a novel about the importance of using stories to dismantle racial inequality; yet, her very story has become mired in criticism from the same people it purports to elevate. What’s worse is that Stockett seems neither bothered by nor aware of such irony. About Cooper, Stockett states: “I don’t know this person. […] I’ve met her, like, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ You could probably add it up to 15 to 20 seconds of hellos.”

The difficulty here is that many white Americans, including Stockett (the author) and Skeeter (the fictional author), do not see racism the way in which many black Americans perceive it. 

On both the real and the fictional levels, both Stockett and Skeeter stumble into projects against racial injustice, whereas most black Americans are born with such a burden. About writing the novel, Stockett states in an interview with Time that she started writing the book not because she wanted to write a story about racial inequality, but because she was “really homesick […] So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up.” And like Stockett, Skeeter also stumbles into learning about racial injustice. Her story about the domestics can be seen as a chance for her to become an editor in New York as much as it can be seen as a project against racism.

Whereas a white person can often deal with race when and how it suits him or her, a black person must understand and navigate race as a means of survival. Such a reality is evinced in an NPR interview with Stockett in which she responds to the criticism around her story. She says, “I guess if I'm forced to find a good side, I'm glad that people are talking about an issue that hasn't really been discussed all that much.” Hasn’t been discussed that much? Stockett’s unawareness of the historical, literary, and social discussion of these issues reveals the naïveté with which she has had the privilege of approaching race relations.

While The Help does not do much to help our society become more racially just (and some may argue that it does just the opposite), the story reminds us of the role stories play in shaping our understanding of the world and, in turn, the way we dismantle or uphold structures of inequality. The fracas surrounding this story is good, even if the story itself is not. 

Photo Credit: Sean Davis