I've been around for the better part of three decades, and not ONCE has a white person provided me with some sort of salvation. I feel shortchanged. There was no teacher who saw something in me, no employer who defended my rights and no white family who kindly took me into their home. To be fair, I have never performed any seemingly magical act of humanity for the benefit of any white folks. I never showed up on anyone's doorstep barely able to form a sentence, yet somehow capable of transforming lives, saving marriages and instilling hope in the hearts of good meaning pale people.
So, I guess my meditations and narratives on race would be less than compelling for the many readers who made Kathryn Stockett's The Help a best-seller-turned-film. To be fair, I was in no way, shape or form inspired to read the tale of Miss Skeeter Pheelan, a young white writer who manages to shake up the lives of two black maids by collaborating with them on a book with a Civil Rights Era backdrop. Why would I need to? I've had far more than my desired share of exposure to the "white savior meets downtrodden blacks and everyone is transformed" trope.
While many black women have and still do work as maids for white households, this is not so important a relationship between the two races that we need to continue revisiting it over and over again. Perhaps a contemporary tale of a black woman doing housework in an era where this may be frowned upon by peers attitudes would be somewhat interesting. I still don't think I'd like to see it. But the 1960s again? Heavens, no.
There is so much that is uncomfortable surrounding the black domestic worker. We first took this work on during our enslavement and in many instances, it was a continuation of the relationships we had with whites on the plantation. We nurtured the children of others, while not having the resources to spend the same amount of time with our own. We endured undignified treatment and coddled employers who seemed largely unable or unwilling to complete basic adult tasks on their own. I give respect to the women who did this work with their heads held high, but this is the last place I want to go to for entertainment.
You want a tale of good white folks helping 'de blacks? Where's the John Brown film? Or the book about General Oliver Otis Howard and other whites who worked to help start Historically Black Colleges and Universities? Where's the story of those whites who risked their own freedom to support the Black Arts/Black Power Movements? You want heartwarming tales of cross-racial friendships? How about the many black and white people from similar socio-economic backgrounds who attend school, work and worship together each day? Why can't we see blacks and white working alongside one another? Why must there so often be either a white savior and/or a "magical Negro?"
It's pretty simple: because these narratives allow white folks to feel good and satiates their guilt, while failing to challenge their racialized worldview.
The inherent superiority of whites is still made clear, yet the presence of liberal, benevolent protagonists serves as a buffer. People probably don't want to see that in most situations in which whites pitched a hand to help, they weren't the leaders; they were supporting the actions of mobilized, self-actualized black folks. Stories like The Help allow white audience to feel like they are facing ‘the race problem,' without actually doing so.
The nail in The Help's coffin for me is the lawsuit filed against the author by her brother's maid, Ableen Cooper, who feels that she largely based a main character off of her. Robert Stockett III has cosigned his longtime nanny's claims, which are compelling; the novel features a maid named Aibileen Clark (really creative name there, huh?) who lost her own son as she cared for some 17 white children over the course of her career. Cooper's son died of cancer many years ago, as she was working for the Stocketts. What's even more damning: the 60-year-old claims that the author assured her she would not be portrayed in the book.
The ABC News story that brought my attention to this dispute featured a quote from The Help that assured me that my choice not to read it was a good one: "That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor," says the book's Aibileen. "He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me."
In an ever changing world, people tend to run to comfortable, familiar places. I'd imagine that many of the white women who gushed over The Help were eager to get that old thing back in the era of First Lady Michelle Obama: stylish, accomplished, attractive and successful in ways most of them can never imagine. The current administration has undoubtedly made a lot of folks cry out for good ‘ole Mammy; the looming promise of a majority "minority" USA surely has as well.
I don't need The Help after Gone With The Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, Corrina, Corrina, The Legend Of Bagger Vance, Gimmie A Break, Webster, Diff'Rent Strokes, Clara's Heart, The Green Mile, Dangerous Minds, Houseguest, Bringing Down The House (never bought the "satire" claims, btw), Freedom Writers, The Blind Side, The Secret Life Of Bees, Invictus … and if I was to be interested in such a story, I would like to hear "the help" tell it herself. Spare me the fantasy reinvention of a middle-class white woman.
Jamilah Lemieux is a freelance writer and author of the award wining site The Beautiful Struggler. Since 2006, Lemieux has galvanized a broad national audience with her meditations on race, culture, relationships and her own less-than-ordinary life. Her work has been featured in Essence Magazine and on NPR's "All Things Considered". She is also a contributor for Clutch Magazine, Soul Train Online , The Fresh Xpress and Essence Online and is currently working on her first book, to be published in the Summer of 2011.