Help!

I was at a literary festival this past week and had the opportunity to meet Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, and hear her speak about her blockbuster book about three Southern women–a young, white, recent college graduate and two African-American housekeepers–set in 1960s Mississippi.

It’s difficult not to like Stockett. She is nice, cute, perky and well-polished, and had the mostly well-to-do audience in Aspen wrapped around her little finger for most of her humorous lecture, which she delivered with a two-beats-per-vowel Southern drawl.

She told stories about having lived in New York for over a decade, about how hard she worked at a New York magazine, how she lived downtown after 9/11, how she was sometimes condescended to for being a Southerner.

She did a reading from her book—the part of one of the black maids—because Octavia, her friend who travels with her during her book tour to read the part of the African-American housekeepers, is off filming the movie being made based on the book. She did a pretty good job. Her book has been a New York Times bestseller for over a year and I assume she has the spiel down pat.

Many of the writers at the festival had read her book already and most endorsed it enthusiastically. I picked it up and read a few lines, written in the voice of one of the black maids, but then closed it quickly and put it back down.

Will I be reading the book? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It makes me uncomfortable. I wasn’t born in the States and wasn’t around for any of the racial trauma of the 1960s and 1970s, but I do know my American history—both the past and the present—and I must say that the idea of a young white Southern woman giving voice to Black women in the particular way that Stockett did leaves me supremely wary. I admit that it could be my own hang-up. And as a writer, I don’t believe in censorship unless what’s at issue is something extreme, like hate speech inciting violence.

My discomfort has sat with me for days now, since I saw her. Most of the reviews I’ve read claim that she has handled the nuances of the characters well, some going so far as to say that her representation of both the white and black characters are “pitch perfect.”

I will leave you with something interesting that I myself didn’t notice but that was pointed out to me by another one of the attendees–a brilliant young writer. Toward the end of her talk, Stockett held up the picture which will be used for the cover of the British version of The Help. It’s a picture she said was found at the Library of Congress of two black women caring for a white child in an old-style stroller. The photograph was said to have been taken in Mississippi in the 1960s. Stockett told the story of how she saw the photo and then called someone in her town to find out who the people in the photo were. Why, that’s just so and so, the person told her, describing exactly who the baby was. Well, my friend wondered, what about the black women? Who were they? And why were they invisible and only relevant in reference to the white baby? It was odd and off-putting to my friend–and to me, once it was pointed out.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the book. Anyone care to throw in their two cents?

13 thoughts on “Help!

  1. Granted, I haven’t read the book, but it was for a reason. Something always rubs me the wrong way about cultural co-opting. And it especially bothers me when white folks make lots of money off telling a story of brown folks that to me, is not thiers to tell. Like sue monk kidds the secret life of bees. God, I hated that book. It enrages me, actually. But of course, I can’t be so mad at the author, but more at the publishing industry.

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  2. I haven’t read “The Help,” although I have read about the book, specifically in the context of “cultural co-opting,” as LaToya so eloquently put it. The issue of co-opting, for me, is distinct from the actual quality of the book. If the girl can write, and be lauded for getting it “pitch-perfect,” then the girl can write. Would we prefer for her to botch the voice of African-American women? And I rather liked Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees; just because a woman of color didn’t tell the tale doesn’t mean the tale wasn’t good. And I’m not sure authors should have a monopoly on stories drawn from their cultural and ethnic background. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I should be barred from telling the story of a Southeast Asian, provided I do the research and get the “pitch” right. Does anyone have a problem with male authors who write in a female voice? I am amazed at Wally Lamb’s talent; dismissing his books because he doesn’t have a vagina strikes me as a literary loss.

    The more pertinent issue is why we’re not telling our stories. Like almost every other facet of American life, I’m sure we’re not getting the opportunity frequently enough. But I wonder if part of it isn’t also numbers. Are enough of us invested in our own stories to tell them, and keep telling them, pushing down the doors until we’re heard? Is this exclusively a tale of black authors being locked out, while white authors go on to make money off of our stories? Are there ways in which we can nurture and produce more talented writers of color, and place pressure on the publishing industry to pick up on that talent?

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    1. I agree with you that quality and co-option are two different issues, yet I generally find them to be one and the same. I don’t know if I knew Kidd was not black when I read the book (it was for a book club), but I remember hating it anyway because I thought it was poorly written. I found the dialogue especially stilted and disingenuous.

      Do you really think that there aren’t black writers trying to tell black stories and the issue is simply one of numbers?? There are so many talented writers out there who will never be published due to lack of opportunity, and I absolutely think that lack of opportunity affects writers of color disproportionately, just like lack of opportunity disproportionately affects people of color in virtually every other profession and industry.

      When was the last time you read a book by a person of color who didn’t write from their own cultural standpoint – do you think it’s because that’s all people of color write, or because of a box we’ve been put in? I agree it’s an interesting question, although I don’t think it’s an either/or answer, but rather a structural answer where one influences the other. If the perception is that a book will only be published if it’s about black people if you are a black author, I would think that would influence what kind of books black people write. Yet if white folks can write about anyone, and know they will be published, then they will. One can try to knock down doors all they want, but at the end of the day book publishing is a business, and struggling writers only want to be struggling for but so long. They also want to be successful. I read certain writing blogs that will tell you that if you want to be a bestseller, don’t have a “girlie” sounding name, only write about certain things, etc. Publishing is a game, and I think the writer’s identity certainly matters when it comes to who’s story gets told and how.

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      1. You throw out a GREAT question about whether people write from their cultural standpoint because that is where they are their most authentic, or whether it’s because they’re placed in a box. I often wonder why I am so interested in race, and often wonder whether I haven’t limited myself by dismissing more “traditional” doctrinal work; just cause I’m black don’t mean I can’t be interested in straight property issues, no? Also, great point about people of color perceiving that they’ll only be published if they write about people of color, but whites perceiving that they can write about anybody.

        I definitely don’t think it’s simply an issue of numbers; that’s why I wondered if it was “part” of the problem. Opportunity is always a problem. But I also wonder whether we’re nurturing our voices enough. It’s no secret that young people across all backgrounds, but especially of color, are not given opportunities to explore literary creativity. And, unfortunately, I know a lot of people of color who would prefer to read awful books by Michael Baisden (sorry if any of you like his work…), than to push themselves into more substantive literary work of authors like Lorraine Carey, etc.

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  3. I sure do miss Michael Baisden on the radio…as awful as his books might be (I’ll never read them because I do suspect they are awful) he sure is entertaining to listen to…

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    1. Meh. I can barely take him on the radio, too. All that screaming he does at the end of each segment (THIS IS GROWN FOLKS’ RADIO!!!!) Why???????? *Turning dial back to NPR* lol

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  4. Hello Mamas,
    I’ve read the book and found that it exceeds expectations. It goes beyond the typical Eminem, Elvis and other kings of cooptation. It even exceeds the pat explanation of the author, who in the afterward claims that the book is really about women “connecting as women.” (that’s a rough paraphrase). What I find powerful about the work is the ways in which it unflinchingly reveals the sharp and delicate contours of white privelige and the quotidian displays of white supremacy.
    I found the following issues pertinent to my reading.
    1) The white protagonist’s alterity within her social environment leads her to be an outsider within her group
    2) The clear investment (consciously and not) in the mainantence of a white supremacist system that is then passed off as natural
    3) The corrupted and corruptible bonds of inimacy, affection, and labor
    4) The degree to which the text itself wrestles with the aforementioned questions.

    I have much more to say about this book on at least two levels. First, there’s the personal. I did not want to read this book, thinking would be another version of the white woman as savior. An older white woman, a quilting friend, told me I would like it and I assured her I would not. She said that the white women do not save the black ones: they all save themselves. That was persuasive and accurate. After reading the book, I passed it on to my mother (who had worked as a domestic as had her own mother) who was really moved by the book.
    On a professional level (professor of African American literature), I was really intrigued by unflinching portrayal (subtle, nuanced, and enraging) of white supremacy, uncharitable charity, and intimacy. It is a book worth reading and discussing in a variety of contexts. Including this forum. I’ve got more to say about this book, but will wait to hear what you all think of it first.
    Best wishes,
    Lisa

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    1. That’s fascinating, Lisa. I’m glad to hear it’s a good book. I suspected it would be since most of my writer friends rave about it. Though my discomfort with the public’s and publishing industry’s greater willingness to give a forum to white writers’ representation of voices of color is no less diminished, I am happy to hear that Kathryn Stockett’s is a powerful portrayal. Good for her.

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  5. Wow, Lisa. Stockett should hire you as a publicist, because THAT review made me want to read the book! *adding book to list of books I’ll never get to before baby graduates from high school* LOL!

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  6. Yes, thank you Lisa, for the review of the book. I still think that to ignore the context in which the art is created is to elevate art, literature, to a pedestal to which it doesn’t belong. It is still unfair, no matter how true the book rings, no matter how authentic it is, that a white woman was able to get such a book published while black authors of similar and exceeding talent languish in the ghetto of African-American shelves in Barnes and Nobles. I do want to read the book, but when I walk in a bookstore, I must admit that I search to find a decent book written by a black or brown author that I can support with my dollars before I buy a book by a white author because I know that unless we support black and brown authors, they will continue to not be published. So while it’s good for Stockett that she’s captured the voices of black women so well and tackled such difficult issues, I cannot say I’m going to rush out and buy the book because Black authors have been tackling these issues for decades without much fanfare.

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