Aug 12, 2011



The Association of Black Women Historians wrote an open letter to fans of 'The Help'. The information set forth in the open letter very thought provoking.


On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this
statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping
presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over
three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success
at the box office. 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. We are specifically
concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention
given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

During the 1960s,
the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited
black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women
in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s
representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a
mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or
segregation, to serve white families. 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.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African
American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent
gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for
example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that,
“You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to
the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For
centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community
institutions. 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.

Furthermore, African American domestic workers
often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the
homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by
Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic
workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The
film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities
turning them into moments of comic relief.

Similarly, the film is
woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists
in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first
Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However,
Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into
the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage
demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the
most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well
dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku
Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual
acts of meanness.

We respect the stellar performances of the African
American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism
of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular
rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a
story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in
white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the
coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of
black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians
finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s
lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

Suggested Reading:

Fiction:

Like one of the Family: Conversations from A
Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress

The Book of the Night Women by Marlon
James

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley

The Street by Ann
Petry

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight



Non-Fiction:

Out of the House of Bondage: The
Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph

To Joy My
Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter

Labor of
Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the
Present by Jacqueline Jones


Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great
Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne
Moody

Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent
to: ABWHTheHelp@gmail.com

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