Post-Racial in the Segregated South
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.