Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Help yourself

I went to see “The Help” tonight, after reluctantly reading the Kathryn Stockett’s book a couple of months ago. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to read central Black characters as imagined by a white woman. The ambitious, sprawling exploration of racism in the American South in the 1960s, told from the point of view of Black women working as domestic maids and a white woman struggling with her own complicity with racism, changed my mind. Signposted with reference to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Jim Crow segregation laws are described, and the employment conditions of Black domestic workers exposed.

What works in the book is the interweaving of institutional oppression – laws, segregation, the state ignoring the murder of Evers – with families, and in particular, women, surviving. The extraordinary irony of white children being brought up and loved by Black women they are taught over time to treat as second-class citizens, in order to fully enjoy white privilege. Black women scarcely seeing their own children, or having to send them out early to paid work while they look after white children.

I can well believe the loyalties in these situations would have been fractured and complex. I can imagine loving a child I was looking after – because children are often very easy to love – at the same time as hating the racism and class privilege keeping me poor and unsafe. And I can imagine being a child who was loved by someone I was eventually taught to see as less than me, and struggling to imagine how to do that differently when everyone around me was stepping into the white privilege line.

Turns out though, “The Help” may have been written by a white woman stealing from a Black woman she knew. And astonishingly, the movie misses out on the subtlety and richness of the book by simplifying the storyline, picking only pretty people to appear, writing out some narratives completely and glossing over aspects of the 1960s social structures.

So both the movie and the book are controversial, which as ever with issues to do with power, is not necessarily a bad thing. I agree with African American media activist Jamia Wilson when she takes comfort in “The Help” promoting talk about race:

The Help comes at a time when white people are increasingly paranoid about “reverse racism.” From the classroom to the Supreme Court, more and more white people feel targeted by discrimination. Meanwhile, resentment of President Obama has manifested itself in bigotry toomanytimes. Racially motivated violence still happens in Jackson, Mississippi—automobile worker James C. Anderson was murdered in a hate crime just a couple of weeks ago.

But can we see this as a learning moment if what we’re learning is historically inaccurate? The Association of Black Women Historians have come out guns blazing:

Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.

One of the problems here is that revisioning history always gives “victims” of history subjectivity – we are encouraged to examine choices that are made, agency that is exerted – even, to paraphrase Marx, when it’s not in the circumstances of our choosing. That’s real life – no matter how oppressed we are, we make choices – which is abundantly clear in “The Help”. The central Black characters choose to tell their stories, they choose to wrestle with faith in a time period characterised by brutality, they choose to stay with or leave violent men, they choose to take revenge on bullying employers or buckle down because they need the money. This is what I like about the book, that we see how oppression is unknitted by how we live, even as we also see how it is knitted. I don’t agree the racism of that time is trivialised by the book, feel more ambivalent about the movie, and positively love that it is Black women in the foreground.

Another issue for the Association of Black Women Historians is the portrayal of Black men:

The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.

Yet civil rights activist and Black feminist philosopher Audre Lorde wrote in 1980:

Because of the continuous battle against racial erasure that Black women and Black men share, some Black women still refuse to recognise that we are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our Black communities as well. Exacerbated by racism and the pressures of powerlessness, violence against Black women and children often becomes a standard within our communities, one by which manliness can be measured.

I guess revisionism happens in all kinds of directions.

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