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Seen, Not Heard
by Malcolm Hansen
A Review of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
December 28, 2010
No matter how hard I tried to keep an open mind about The Help (Stockett, Kathryn. First Ed. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2009), I was viscerally put off by the idea. The world didn't need one more story about life in Jim Crow era Mississippi being told by someone white. Hadn't William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and countless others already done that? Worse still, the story purported to be about black people.
It was Spring of last year and a friend who knew that I was working on a novel of my own thought that I ought to have a look. The Help had already been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year, but I had been so wrapped-up in my own manuscript that I had been oblivious to its debut. I cringed during the first few pages, scared of what I might find there. As I settled in with it I was surprised to discover black characters that possessed a warmth and humanity that, with the exception of the central character of Skeeter Phelan, was altogether lacking from the whites.
Yet, when I finished the book I felt that it failed to deliver on its promise to tell the story of black maids living in the Deep South during the final years of segregation. Even if the story left me feeling hopeful for the main black characters of Aibileen and Minny, it seemed that there was something deeply disingenuous about the book. It had pretensions of delivering their perspective, one foreign to that of the dominant cultural narrative of their day, but instead seemed to have merely settled for that aspect of their perspective perhaps closest to the author's own experience. Thus the book's incessant drift back to the point of view of Skeeter Phelan. A character who would seem to be superfluous to the perspectives of your average black domestic servant of the early sixties is, inexplicably, the lens through which so much of their story is mediated.
It's hard to overstate the challenge of writing from a perspective alien to one's own. Yet, moving beyond the comfortable framework of one's own point of view is necessary and good storytelling often demands it. The risk, however, is that the writer merely elaborates the sliver of that perspective closest to his own, and in so doing falls short of the real thing. Those of us who aren't in a position to know better, think we own a Rolex when in fact we've just been sold a cheap knockoff.
As likeable as Constantine, Aibileen, and Minny all are, they are predictable and uninteresting stereotypes whose primary function is to advance Skeeter Phelan's moral development. Skeeter Phelan, for her part, is likeable too, but mostly because of her desire to expose, at great personal risk, the struggles of blacks suffering under the thumbs of their employers. This aspect of the story is particularly close to me as the biracial child of Civil Rights activists. My mother was from Pine Bluff, Arkansas (the daughter of a Baptist minister) and my father was a Freedom Rider who later became the Arkansas Project Director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I grew up seeing how their respective roles were spoken of. If my father's activism has been the centerpiece of his life, my mother's hardly attained the stature of a footnote. All of the stories that I grew up with seemed to belong to him, even hers.
Thus it was unsettling to me that The Help was unwilling to surrender itself wholeheartedly to the central characters of Constantine, Aibileen, and Minny. If my mother ever wondered why white activists succeeded in drawing national media coverage when black activists could not, I too asked myself why The Help required the presence of Skeeter Phelan. I suspect that the unspoken rules governing what is palatable to mainstream media outlets today is much the same as it was then. It isn't that Skeeter Phelan's perspective is too interesting to omit; rather, she's the character most relevant to the author, agent, and publisher, never mind the audience to whom the book was ultimately marketed. It's telling that the only convincing morsels of self-discovery contained in the book come from her. The Help is what I would expect things to look like for a liberal-minded white Southerner trying to project herself into the head of the domestic servant that she knew and adored as a child, nothing more.
I suppose that I should be thankful for the existence of a story with such broad appeal deigning to treat the black perspective judiciously. In today's world I suppose that, in itself, is something of an accomplishment. Yet, if some——blacks and whites alike——are willing to believe that they've been told the precise time even when it comes from a cheap knockoff, I am not. My concern is that if we take books like The Help at face value we become co-conspirators in our own self-delusion. By allowing ourselves to believe that we have been given an authentic viewpoint when we have not, we inevitably forfeit the potential for the kind of insight that gives literature its meaning, value, and power.
To the extent that it can be said that The Help has brought a once obscure voice into the mainstream, albeit fifty years later, I admit that I am tickled for no other reason than that the inclination to do so seems a step in the right direction. Heck, if the best we can hope for is to become an ever more inclusive society by degrees and with a dollop of revision thrown in, then so be it.
By Kathryn Stockett
Amy Einhorn Books/G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $24.95.