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Is colour a help to controversial writers?

By Linda Atkins - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I have just finished reading the Kathryn Stockett book, The Help along with over three million others. For the rare person who can read who has not heard of this book and the subsequent movie, it is written from the perspective of three women from Jackson, Mississippi, two black and one white. The black women work as maids in white households, and spend their lives in domestic drudgery, the victims of numerous acts of racism both covert and direct. The plot does not need to be further elaborated as almost every woman around has read the book. A page-turner it certainly is. I found myself late last night, eyes burning, reading the final pages almost too quickly to savour them.

This morning, I thought I might check what the reviewers of the book had said, and unsurprisingly, reviews were mixed. Whilst some reviewers felt that the author had handled the conflicting viewpoints deftly, at least as many accused Stockett of being at best simplistic, and at worst, racist. The southern twang of the maids and their allegedly uneducated tone, which contrasted so markedly with the white, southern belles, was seen as unpleasantly patronising. Other mentions were made of the idea of a black maid as a 'noble savage', the lack of emphasis on sexual abuse, and the fact that all of the black male characters were all seen as no-good drinkers and beaters (despite the fact that the reverend of the church was neither, and the church was the guiding force of the black community).

The Association of Black Women Historians commented:


Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

Strangely, that wasn't the message that I recieved from the book at all. I was in turn horrified and deeply embarassed by the racism of the white women in the novel, and mentally cheering on the black protagonists. I thought that Stocket portrayed very well the courage that the maids demonstrated in choosing to share their stories with a privileged, callow white girl, who failed to realise until just before the end of the book the enormity of what she had asked, and the possible consequences of her actions. For Skeeter, the penalty was simply social ostracism - which she promptly fled. For her maids, speaking out meant losing their livelihoods, their houses, and possibly their lives.

I wondered how this could be seen as "Jim Crow Lite", and I suppose that two thoughts sprang to mind. The first is that some of the criticism may be rooted in the fact that this is easy to read, populist fiction, a book that one could read in an aiirport, or on the beach during a holiday. In fact, looking at the Amazon reviews, many people have done just that. Somehow, in many people's minds, a book can be easy to read or good literature, but not both. Clearly the book is thought to be easy to read because it is simplistic. I dont see why that should be the case, myself. I dont see that simple is necessarily wrong. Think Hemingway, for example. Or even such books as The Colour Purple, also written in vernacular. I might ask what the difference between The Help and The Colour Purple really is.

The only one that springs clearly to mind is that The Colour Purple was written by Alice Walker, a black author. Does this make Walker's patois endearing, and Stockett's merely patronising? Should a white author write from a black perspective, even if her book is a homage to the black women of the south, and a strong criticim of the deeply straightlaced, closeted lives of that generation of white women? Is that why so many commentators have howled at the book?

Whilst not attempting to defend the book in any way, I would defend the right of an author to write fiction of his or her choice. I do not think that a work needs to be the definitive story of every viewpoint in the town, or that it needs to include extensive background on the civil rights movement, Vietnam, black lynchings, sexual abuse of maids or forced adoptions UNLESS THE AUTHOR WANTS IT TO. Fiction is not easy to write, and simple fiction is perhaps the most difficult of and misunderstood of genres. In simple fiction, much nuance needs to be injected in few words, and characters need to be lifelike and vivid without pages of explanatory prose.

I some ways it is far more interesting to keep these facts in the background - the simmering, slow burn of Martin Luther King, sharply contrasting with the white protagonists' increasingly frantic attempts to cling to the surface of a life that even they must have known was doomed. This book documents the end of a generation of women dressing for their husbands, playing bridge on Mondays and living narrow, stultified lives. What a relief that must have been for the Skeeter's of that world, and how beautifully Stockett portrays it. I can't imaging how suffocating those lives must have been, even if superficially pleasurable. And perhaps that is the genius of the book, as Aibileen walks home from her lost job, musing that {Miss Hilly she be in her own jail, but with a lifelong term".


It seems a shame that a white author should be criticised for the audacity of writing about black women, and I would be interested in what would have happened critically if a black woman had written the same tome. So I thought I would throw it out there. Any opinions?

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This is a review of The Help, Kathleen Stockett

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About the Author

Linda Atkins is a specialist medical practitioner working in reproductive health. She is interested in social medicine and the effects of media on modern life. While winning several awards for writing in her teenage years, she has recently returned to writing with a primary interest in small, non-fiction works because they fit into a full time specialist career and the demands of three children.

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