Monday, February 14, 2011

Race and the American Novel in the "Post-Racial" Age: Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett's The Help has become a phenomenally successful novel. It has spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list and a movie adaptation has been made, starring Emma Stone and Viola Davis by Dreamworks Pictures. This is an amazing achievement for a debut novel from a young woman from Mississippi, but is it a novel to celebrate?

The novel centers around the relations between white women and their black maids in Civil-Rights Era Jackson, Mississippi. The premise of the novel is appealing: how did black women work for women who were often extremely racist, but yet somehow still forged intimate relationships with these families, in spite of closely maintained lines of race?

The Help clearly deals with far more treacherous issues than most novels that become staples of reading groups: race and racism are something most people do not want to confront in a tearoom setting with the women from the neighborhood. Stockett is able to grapple with many of these issues because of the distance we presently have from the 1960's. This also partly explains the popularity of films like "Ray," "Dreamgirls," "Hurricane," and "Ali;" we can watch Denzel and Will be faced with oppressive racism because we know we have progressed far from that point. This also requires that we ignore much of the institutional and economic racism that still occurs on a daily basis.

The novel follows an idealistic young, white woman, named Miss Skeeter (short for "mosquito," a name given to her by a black domestic who thought she resembled the blood-sucking insect), who after graduating from Ole Miss is debating about what to do with her life. Her mother is fretting about Skeeter's lack of a beau. Skeeter dreams of writing, writing important books, and not the Household Hints column, which is the only job she was able to get from the local newspaper.

When asking a local maid, Aibileen, how to clean rugs and get bloodstains out of sheets (because Skeeter has never cleaned a house up and can't write her own column), she hits upon a bright idea: Why don't I write a book about black maids' experiences working for white families? Aibileen at first dismisses the idea. If anyone were to find out that she spoke about her employers frankly, not only would she be fired and blacklisted from ever finding a job again, she would also most likely be beaten up, or worse, lynched. In a very unconvincing scene, Skeeter assures her names will be changed and that Skeeter will protect her identity. Aibileen then agrees because she has her own secret ambitions to write.

Stockett's first major misstep comes with the poor decision to have the main maid, Aibileen, narrate her story line in a Southern black dialect, reminiscent of Amos and Andy. "Law have mercy" and "I reckon I 'm on help you" are frequently uttered by the quietly suffering maid. It is hard to accept the woman would write like this when she encouraged her child to read Ellison's "Invisible Man" and devoured classics of race relations by American novelists from the local library (eg Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird). Aibileen's no-nonsense friend, Minny, who has no interest in reading or writing narrates her section with no grammatical mistakes but plenty of idiomatic color. Why doesn't Aibileen have a similar voice?

In the most troubling instance of dumbing down her main maid character, Aibileen sees her employer return home and says: "[Miss Leefolt] got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia" (p. 94). My eyes went over that sentence and stopped. Is this some illness as metaphor that I do not understand? Then I realized no, Aibileen means "ammonia." Is this a typo no one caught? Or, has Stockett thought she has done something clever by showing that Aibileen doesn't know the difference? But why wouldn't Aibileen, who seems to know every secret to cleaning a house not know how to spell ammonia, which she uses on a weekly basis, but would know how to spell a quite difficult illness and mix the two up? Stockett has most likely, in an unconscious fit of writing, felt that she should make it clear to her readers Aibileen is a little slow. An offensive move.

The novel is also marked by a series of narrative mistakes common to a novice. She has three narrative voices (Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny), but then for a key scene in the third act, a limited omniscient third-person narrator has to be employed, a jarring instance. The jumps from one character to another is not even or thoughtfully placed, which leads to some frustration on the reader's part. Stockett twice mentions some event in the opening fifty pages that is not explained for two hundred pages, so the reader is left with tantalizing and frustrating references to "the time I did the Terrible Awful," until we finally learn what it is around page 350.

The largest shortcoming of the novel is the lack of placing at the center of the novel the experience of violence in the experience of these black maids. The book that Skeeter has anonymously authored is published and becomes a bestseller in Jackson, with everyone trying to figure out who is who. The novel ends with few repercussions meted out to the maids, which seems preposterous that they would not be jailed or lynched after divulging the deepest, darkest secrets of their employers' psychic lives (eg one woman doesn't seem to care about her children, another stole her mother's possessions). Their are references to characters who went to prison for allegedly stealing a ring or a character beaten so badly after accidentally walking into a white bathroom that he is blinded, but the maids themselves are never met with physical and sexual assault (except for Minny, whose husband beats her, playing into stereotypes of black masculinity), which many black domestics suffered at the hands of whites in that period.

The book will surely be applauded by many and liberal white-guilt will be appeased by reading the book, but does it give us a new shade of understanding of race? I think not. Stockett had the chance to answer a very important question: how do people who are seemingly intelligent people believe the most insidious and irrational things about race? Miss Hilly supports feeding starving children in Africa, but she contradictorily believes that black maids should not use the same restroom as their white employers, for fear that "black diseases" will be spread to whites. Unfortunately, Stockett makes Hilly so despicable she turns into a cartoonish monster. Hilly is so despicable that the reader asks: how could sweet Skeeter even associate with her?

Stockett has done her readers and herself a disservice, making Hilly complex and somehow likable but also racist would do far more to make The Help an important novel about race. Without these, the novel is simply the fodder for a feel-good Hollywood production.

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