- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
For 20 years I have read how Black women felt alienated by the second wave of feminism, but because I was born during this time period, I never “felt” it until the 2008 Presidential election.
It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry) surrounding Steinem’s NY Times Op Ed about then-Senator Barack Obama.
This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White.
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. …He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, our popular culture obsession is with the “largely fictional” book, The Help. Sounds like an opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some serious deconstructionist critical analysis.
Or maybe not.
I recently purchased a copy of the New York Times best-selling novel with an open mind despite its criticism. I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are.
The first chapter is in the “voice” of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her. But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race has to focus on the noble white protagonist (in this case, Miss Skeeter, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch) to get us through such dangerous territory.
As a Black female reader, I end up felling like the “help,” tending to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness concerning the loss of her nanny (whom she loved more than her own White momma).
Perhaps the only thing sadder than Kathryn Sockett’s unexamined life is Salon.com’s writer Laura Miller’s analysis of the legal controversy surrounding it. In her article, The Dirty Secrets of The Help, she writes:
“At issue is Aibileen Clark, a character in The Help…Those of use who have read The Help may also wonder why anyone would be “severely” distressed or outraged to be likened to the noble Aibileen. Although poor and uneducated through no fault of her own, Aibileen is intelligent, brave and kind, apparently without significant flaws. Cooper’s lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on an otherwise glowing portrait. The suit further claims that Cooper finds it “highly offensive” to be “portrayed in The Help as an African-American maid in Jackson, Mississippi who is forced to use a segregated toilet in the garage of her white employer.”
Here’s one of those “tiny scratches” posted on ABCnews.com.
“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor,” Aibileen says in the book. “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”
I refuse to waste my own blog space deconstructing everything that is wrong with this, because I have saved the “best” for last:
“Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone would feel “outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress” at being identified with the heroic Aibileen, her employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain, status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League, Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate “colored” bathroom to her garage. She does this partly to impress Miss Hilly, the League’s alpha Mean Girl (and the novel’s villain), but she also talks obsessively about the “different kinds of diseases” that “they” carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter, speaking wistfully of a vacation when “I hardly had to see [her] at all. Like all of the white women in the novel (except the journalist writing the maids’ stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful — and her maid has almost the same name as Stockett’s sister-in-law’s maid. Fancy that!”
Miller of course is insinuating that the real life Aibleen lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that Stockett’s sister-in-law coerced her. The plot thickens (sorry, I couldn’t resist) on the revelation that Robert Stockett III (the author’s brother) has cosigned his longtime nanny’s claims. Not that Miller gives him much credence.
So, in the end, The Help is about a white woman and the lawsuit is about a white woman, maybe because it’s always about them. Which is why they need help.