Monday, August 15, 2011
The movie “The Help” is joining the book (of the same name) in near unanimous cultural acclaim for highlighting a fictional 1960s era Civil Rights story about the “relationship” between economically privileged white women, the African American women they employed as domestic help, and the white supremacist cultural dominance that allowed their abuse at the hands of their white employers.
In reading and hearing about the major swoon that white America has taken over this piece of fiction, I naturally wondered whether this feel-good, sugar-coated version of '60's Racial Apartheid would finally create space for a serious conversation regarding ways to repair the damaging impact that the history of Racial Apartheid continues to have on the African American community. I wondered whether white America would finally be able to acknowledge that so many of the benefits they enjoy today were built on the backs of this Apartheid.
"Oh no" a white friend, who has seen the movie and was deeply affected by it, said; "that won't happen; that isn’t what this movie is for or is about."
And there it is. . .
How you view "The Help", of course, depends on your world view lens. And this book -- and now movie -- has exposed how comfortable we are with "history light": touching on the edges of our national tragedy of racial apartheid and needing even that tentative toe dip wrapped in a generous helping of comic relief and a story told through the lens and world view of a "good" white protagonist.
This book and resulting movie -- which puts as its "lead character" individual acts of racial oppression and only as "supporting characters" the white supremacist cultural and structural dominance that supported those individual acts --have already spawned debates that, as much as they straddle racial fault lines, are really about how the narrative of America's history of Racial Apartheid will be (re-) written.
It -- along with other movies of this genre that have made their way into the consciousness of white America -- gives a very skewed view of the role of whites in the Civil Rights Movement, giving the impression of whites’ creating opportunities for and leading and hand-holding scared Black people to opportunities to find their voices, as well as giving the impression of white people being so incensed by racial apartheid that they worked actively and on the front lines, taking the lead in "liberating" Afrikan Descendants from "extremists" white groups like the Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils and even (the book’s main antagonist) Miss Hilly.
And while that framing is a "feel good", affirmative framing for white America, it is also a lie.
There have been many books written about the 1960's Civil Rights Era in recent years, by both African American and white authors, that are more historically accurate. Yet they have not been as enthusiastically and broadly received as this book. Why have they not spawned the massive cultural push and discussion given this book (and now movie)?
Is it because the racial apartheid messaging of this book and movie gives perfect opportunity to inculcate a new (and historically false) narrative about the era into national consciousness for generations who were not there to experience it?
Is it that, by condoning this kind of false messaging as “real”, we successfully backtrack regarding having an honest national conversation regarding the normalized role that Racial Apartheid enjoyed since the country's inception, and of the psychological toll and economic losses incurred by Afrikan Descendants, and the myriad of ways in which the white supremacist system – which was enshrined in law for the majority of this country’s history – still impacts that population today?
Is it that books and movies like this help distort and erase national memory regarding America's legal and structural roles supporting unearned and unfair psychological, economic, educational, career, vocational and other opportunity- and asset-benefits incurred -- and still being enjoyed today -- by whites?
Is it that books and movies like this now frame Racial Apartheid in a way that gives whites a new narrative of their (supposed) primary role in the Era: not as Oppressors who benefited (regardless of whether they were active or passive participants) but as Freedom Fighters with the central role of working for the liberation of Black people?
Because what white person, really, would want to identify with a Hilly when they can think of themselves as a Skeeter? And this is where the embrace of this distorted view of Racial Apartheid, this “history light” tale works as a dangerous cultural tool:
In the book, it was mentioned that Skeeter's father owned a cotton farm.
But see, this is what the book's "history light" approach and new narrative of that era does not mention: cotton was the economic king of the South that built economic assets for the owners of those farms and plantations AS WELL AS economic opportunities and assets for that region; including for those whites who were not active enslavers. And that helped build an entire culture -- such as the one that was the support for all the individual acts of racial apartheid in the book -- that fueled the racial privilege of whites and the racial oppression for African Americans (Afrikan Descendants).
And although the book does not say, I wonder whether that farm that Skeeter's father owned was inherited and whether Skeeter's education -- and the education of her brother, who was in law school -- was financed through the wealth and the access and opportunity that came from ownership of that cotton farm. I wonder whether Skeeter's family line included plantation owners who enslaved Minnie's and Aibileene's ancestors there. We already know that the same culture that fueled the rise of Skeeter’s family and families like hers was the often-insurmountable barrier that denied comparable opportunity and access to those African American families they employed as their domestics.
So if all that comes from the on-going cross country discussions about "The Help" is buy-in to a new “feel good” narrative about the false role of whites in the movement of that era and a glee about Minnie desecrating HER OWN KITCHEN – where her children ate! – to make a Dung Pie for her white employer without any talk of the connections between what happened then, what is going on now, and what society needs to do to repair that generational damage, then I have a HUGE problem with this love affair with “The Help.”
Because this exposes where we are as a country on the history of Racial Apartheid: our lack of willingness to look at hard historical facts and perspectives and our comfort level with feel good lies that hold us all in bondage.
And while I am quite sure that the author did not intend it in this way, how the book ends is the truest statement she made of the historical relationship between African Americans and whites: while the Black "Help" are left waiting for the fallout that threatens their livelihood -- and even their lives -- because of the risks THEY took to write the book that gave Skeeter the opportunity to climb yet another rung on the American ladder of success, climb she does: over their sweat, their tears, their tragedies, their stories, and their bodies to New York to begin the fabulous new career she has always wanted, with a salary that gives her some measure of financial independence.
More than anything else in the book, THAT part of it -- historically – rang very true.*
* The author of "The Help" is being sued by her brother's maid for using her name (in the book, "Aibileene Clark", in real life, Ablene Cooper) and likeness without permission or compensation. As was part of the character "Aibileene's" story in the book, Ms. Cooper has a gold tooth and had an adult son who died just before the birth of her white employer's first child. The author's publisher insists that there is no basis to Ms. Cooper's lawsuit.
** For a non-fictional read, go to http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/80/ "We Are Literally Slaves": An Early Twentieth-Century Black Nanny Sets the Record Straight.