I came to The Help*, the book, late. Long after the movie was released, and discussed ad nauseum, and had its (somewhat successful) shot at Oscar glory, I have finally found it in myself to read the book. I bought the book a solid year ago, from an airport bookstore, on one of the many trips my old job required me to take. I read a few chapters, stuck my boarding pass stub in it as a makeshift book marker, and hardly looked at it. This weekend, I took it with me on a ‘spring break’ of sorts.
I am surprised by how quickly I’m working through it (may have something to do with the break, and the fact that I now have a job that doesn’t require quite so much travelling) and by how much I’m enjoying it. The book and the movie have been criticised for many things, one of which is the telling of stories from the Jim Crow era by a white voice. In fact, Stockett goes further and uses the voices of two black characters to tell most of the story. This was a move that was (obviously) the subject of much of the criticisms levelled against the book, and to be frank, when I first started the book, I wasn’t crazy about this stylistic choice. It, at first, felt hollow, cheap, and, when she slips into the vernacular English spoken by her African American characters (who are always “memoring something” about “the chilrens”, or experiencing certain things “ever day”) mildly racist.
But if you can get past this stylistic device (which is what I honestly came to experience it, once I got over the initial shock), you’ll find that this book is not really about a white woman telling the stories of black women. Far more than standing as a testament to the horrors of racism, the crimes committed by the South, this book stands as an account of the other voices in this story, the voices of the perpetrators. Now, Stockett hides this well: two of the three main characters are black women, much of the story is told from their perspective. The idea to write up the stories of ‘the help’ is one borrowed from a black character who dies before the events of the book begin. But Skeeter, the character who serves as a fictional stand-in for Stockett, who ends up writing the stories, is very white, and a great deal of the book is dedicated to what Skeeter learns about herself as a white woman as she makes this journey with her unlikely partners. I imagine this is what audiences found offensive about this book, and the movie it inspired: Stockett herself, speaking as Minny, one of her black characters, initially dismisses Skeeter’s concept as “just another white person telling the story of us black folk, which has been happening for hundreds of years”. But about halfway into the book, Aibileen, one of the black women who agrees to take part in the project considers the risk she is taking by doing so, and the possible punishments she could suffer at the hands of the white women she is talking about:
Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick. Miss Hilly wouldn’t pull no pistol on me. Miss Leefolt wouldn’t come burn my house down. No, white womens like to keep their hands clean. They got a shiny set of tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails. They gone take they time with em. First thing a white lady do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you’ll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles. But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say ‘NOTICE OF EVICTION’. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife that’s friends with somebody. You start to panic some then. You still ain’t got no job prospects. Everwhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now, you ain’t got a place to live. Then it starts to come a little faster. If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it. If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail. If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family a her own. But a few days later she come home, say, “Mama? I just got fired.” She look hurt, scared. You got to tell her it’s cause a you. Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby. Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine. They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why you done it. You can’t even remember why. Weeks pass and nothing, no jobs, no money, no house. You hope this is the end of it, that she done enough, she ready to forget. It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realise something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget. And she ain’t gone stop till you dead. (Page 188)
Stuck at the relative beginning of the meat of the plot, this passage stands out as one of the most important in this book. Stockett writes this as Aibileen, but you get the sense that she is one who is realising what white women, women she grew up with, was raised by who are just like her, are capable of doing. The rest of the book is peppered with moments like these. Sometimes they are explicit, like when Aibileen recalls something Skeeter said in her presence about “coloured folk” that Skeeter barely remembers, leaving her wondering how much she’s said about black people in their presence, hardly noticing they’re listening as they serve her and clean up after her. Sometimes they are subtle, like when Minny tells her new boss, an oddly stunned white woman, that, no, they are not friends, and never can be. The book is not about black people and what was done to them. As Nina Simone sang, all those years ago after the Klu Klux Klan shot NAACP secretary Medgar Evers at his home, in front of his children, “Everybody knows about Mississippi – Goddamn!” The events we all know about – Mississippi’s resistance to integration, the murder of Medgar Evers, the sit-ins at the Woolworths counter – those are covered briefly, as background in the book. We all know about Jim Crow, we all know about Mississippi. What we don’t know, Stockett implies, what she didn’t know, are the stories of those quietly complicit, pulling the strings and enforcing quieter violence in their own homes. In short, we don’t know the stories of Southern white women. And that is what this book is about. Through the hateful character, Hilly, who makes it a personal crusade to enforce the use of separate bathrooms by “the help”; through Skeeter’s mother, who whispers to her daughter “You can’t leave a Negro and Nigra alone – it’s not their fault, they can’t help it”; through Skeeter herself, who catches herself slipping into ‘white madam-mode’ and almost bullying a reluctant Aibileen into participating in a project that was originally the idea of Aibileen’s own son, who died at the hands of his white boss (that’s right – she effectively steals a dead black boy’s idea!), we see white women clearly. They are not as loud as the KKK, or as the white male characters who are periodically portrayed beating, blinding, lynching black people, but they are violent in their own right, in the ways in which they are present in the stories Skeeter records.
The Help isn’t about black stories. It is the stories of white women as perpetrators, as complicit in the ugliness of Jim Crow and all the evil it wrought. I am reminded of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whom young Emmett Till was accused of flirting with: on the word of this white woman, a 14 year-old black kid was beaten, tortured and tossed away, as if his life and what it could become didn’t count, and all because he dared to flirt. Stories like the Emmett Till’s are why books like The Help are important: if we are to unearth all the stories of racism, of its victims and all of its perpetrators, obvious and obscure, then we need to hear from all white people. We need to remember all of the brutality, including the brutality that happened away from the media, and that didn’t necessarily involve physical harm. The Help stands as a fascinating, highly recommended attempt at this.
*Stockett, K. The Help. 2009. Penguin.