Monday, April 16, 2012
A former student just requested these Facebook posts I made on "The Help" and so I thought it might also be interesting to post them here as a compilation "as is." I have since taught the novel by Stockett in my graduate/advanced undergraduate seminar entitled "The Oprah Book Club and African American Literature." I have also written a critical essay on it. Here are the thoughts I very informally outlined last August on the phenomenon of "The Help" from various angles as I dialogued with some of my "friends" on Facebook.
"I can't believe such an egregious and unconscionable taboo violation is staged in this film. Like, I was so unsettled when I saw the Audrey Tautou film Happenstance at the first Sacramento French Film Festival, which I attended annually, because it features someone in a cafe stirring a roach into a black woman's coffee, and her drinking it later. Such anti blackness. From Kizzy spitting in Missy Anne's cup to Ole Mister's water in TCP, I don't find scenes like that empowering in the end."
"Love this! I think of the honest comments of Sophia in Alice Walker's TCP on how possible can love be in such situations. This dynamic that the film stages is upsetting because the logic that underpins it is contingent on a deeply ingrained racism in the U.S. South and elsewhere that suggests that black people don't deserve things as individuals, like money or material success, which goes back to antebellum perceptions of blacks as being childlike. It was thought to be okay by some, for instance, for white art dealers to bank the money from astronomical sales of Gee's Bend Quilts, to then pass on to their children, who argued that they had built a community center in the town that compensated the women artists; the logic here is that these women don't deserve respect or consideration as individuals. This whole things also makes me think of that infuriating film called something like Ticket to Heaven or Price of the Ticket, where a young white insurance man befriends a very senior black woman, and fills in for her and others in a poor black community when they can't pay their premiums. He turns them in when pressured by his bosses. She had dreamed of a glorious funeral, Imitation of Life-like, and when he returns, he learns from the little black girls always around her house that "they put her in a box and threw her in the ground." While their lives are now defined by witnessing her shattered dreams, there is no accountability or remorse for him. The final shot of him in the film is running along the beach with his new bride in her wedding gown and him dressed up. All I could think of afterwards was about those girls, whose implied pain the film writes off."
"And yet, it can be a different matter altogether when the shoe is on the other foot and texts in the dominant culture are engaged or challenged by minority authors. I think of the challenges that Alice Randall encountered from the Margaret Mitchelll estate, which attempted to obstruct the publication of The Wind Done Gone. Yet, the estate endorsed a GWTW sequel published 60 years later set mainly in Ireland with scarcely any black characters, and a very problematic allusion to Melly's racist Southern nativist, anti-Northern logic related to not schooling blacks and whites together in the original, which is mentioned heroically and nostalgically in the context of reflecting on Irish nativism in the face of British imperialism."
"I’m a Southerner, a scholar in both Africana and Southern studies, and definitely feel that this discourse should be met with certain critical apparatuses. I posted these two responses last night on a friend’s link to Martha Southgate’s article about the novel/film, which I valued. Can’t wait to see yours.
1. I agree. My great-grandmother, who is mistakenly listed as white in a version of the 1910 census, had a house full of Victorian antiques and kept an image of the Mona Lisa in her hallway, and did not raise daughters in the South who could have ever related to the basic premises or dynamics of this book (she forbade any domestic housework for them); my grandmother had first jobs taking appointments in the office of a white dentist and doing window displays in a hat shop prior to NYA training in nursing as a teen in Montgomery. She left a job at a shirt factory after just two days b/c she did not like making the cuffs. Her attractiveness made a huge difference in how she was treated, she walked off jobs that she did not like, and always could given my grandfather's steady contracting work in construction, and she came through the Jim Crow South unbought and unbossed as a black woman. It is stories like hers that are obscured by such condescending, cookie-cutter narratives of black Southern women's lives as workers. That is the lineage from which I've gotten my basic outlook. I have taped and interviewed her since college and her story is so, so different.
2. Martha Southgate's novel The Fall of Rome is one that you might like for how it tackles both internal racial dynamics and interracial relations through the story of a black male teen and his teacher set at an exclusive and elite predominantly white high school. I find it interesting that she connected the typically interracial "buddy film" dynamic to the film, along with the motif of representing civil rights heroes in the mainstream, though the flip side is that black leaders tended to be discredited and cast as selfish and corrupt villains in that civil rights film genre. Slave narrative motifs featuring the "jealous mistress" and novels from Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose to Valerie Martin's Property will likely help scholars to think of more contexts or counterpoints for this novel when teaching it."
"I so agree, Dr. Ward. I originally recorded her autobiography in Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles' course on black women's autobiography at Spelman, and transcribed it into a 26-chapter entitled Going Places: The Autobiography of Emma Jenkins Richardson as an amateur bookbinder in graduate school. I love the parts about the years in Florida during the 1940s during WWII especially and she has her ID badge from that time, along with photos of herself and my grandfather, that might interest a miliary museum. I agree, too, about the importance of recording black women domestics, including the revolutionary contributions that they have made. I think of the wonderful women I met in Baltimore a decade ago, who in discussing their work, associated it with freedom because it had allowed them to escape domestic violence and to make their own money for the first time. This young beautiful woman told me that she was a "military brat" who had traveled the world, but ended up in an abusive marriage where her husband had beaten their children with coat hangars. We discovered that she and I were born just thee days apart in May of 1971. Black women domestics historically negotiated, perceived and defined their intimacies with whiteness and their jobs in ways that can differ markedly from what is represented in the media, as did many other black laborers in the South, and did not necessarily perceive themselves as servants even if they were. This is what the pageantry of the Garvey movement demonstrated as well in the North, which supplemented black workers with a range of cultural activities, the kinds that the character Miss Laura had never perceived or asked Annie about in Imitation of Life. Sarah Jane's burning anger about her subordinate treatment very much propels her to cross the color line in that film, and the kind of power dynamic that nearly crushed her is so crucial to acknowledge."
"One of my all-time favorite special issues of the journal American Literature co-edited by Annette Trefzer and Katie McKee, a critical resource in the field so relevant and timely for these dialogues on the U.S South and film, and that can help to clarify the limits of the black-white binarism and why the global and Hemispheric Souths matter, too, when thinking questions of labor, even historically.
Deborah E Barker and Katie McKee's edited collection on the U.S South and film published earlier this year in The New Southern Studies, a book series that I co-edit at University of Georgia Press with John Smith along w/ the outstanding Advisory Board. Its brilliant critical introduction and essays are absolutely indispensable for film courses that take up the South, including The Help."