Wanna Help Think About “The Help”?

31 08 2011

I was up past 3 am reading in bed and couldn’t quite finish, but I’m ready to talk and it seems worth its own post if not several posts.

Already I’ve been swamped by outrage from my African-American female friends, particularly those who didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow South themselves, and I’ve heard (and felt myself) some reverse-outrage from “white women” in response, particularly those who DID grow up in the South and resent being lumped together and set apart by people insisting that the lumping and setting apart by race is wrong, especially after a half-century when we really believed the woman part of that phrase had taken precedence over the white part — but there’s plenty more power of story to this story than race and region to think and talk about, too.

So consider this an open thread for all our friends, to discuss The Help.

The Upside of THE HELP Controversy:
I thought about my own power and class privilege. Seeing The Help has made me even more committed to challenging racial disparities in Hollywood. And it has reminded me to keep encouraging people of color to write, produce, and direct films—to keep fighting for our stories to be told through our own eyes, not through others’ fantasies.

Mostly, seeing The Help made me want to hear my own grandma’s experiences. I have a plan for the next time I visit her in North Carolina. I’m bringing my Flip Cam, sitting next to her, listening to her story, and recording it—on my own terms.

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29 responses

31 08 2011
bpbproadrunner

The outrage is overblown. Go to any college and get into those upper level division sociology classes, or some Women’s History coursework and you will talk about things like Male Privilege, White Privilege, Christian Privilege.

These are important aspects of our culture and our history that must be understood in order to contextualize certain issues like racism, religious bigotry, sexism and even classism [and much much more]. This is especially true when teaching students about institutional prejudices–meaning those that are built into the existing social infrastructure as a matter of course without thought to other minority groups in the midst of the dominant cultural paradigm.

Or those prejudices that are outright codified like Jim Crow.

when you study these phenomena what you will find that that some people cope with it better than others. But that often it takes very special individuals to see these constructs against the structure of larger society.

A person who accepts in their place as a second or third class citizen might find relative success within that *ism because they have learned how to work within the confines of that system.

In the future others may look back on that relatively successful person and think they a traitor or a survivor.

While in the past if their predecessors could look forward, that person may be seen as a pillar of stability in a minority community because they have achieved something like success while not bucking the system and bringing unwanted attention and retaliation on themselves and all those others who share that common minority status.

Other contemporaries will see no benefit in complying with the status quo and employ overt rebellion. Will future students see them as heroes or loose cannons?

Understanding the way oppression affects the behavior of the oppressed and the oppressor is very complex and not always flattering to those being studied.

31 08 2011
JJ

Preach it, sister!
Understanding the way oppression affects the behavior of the oppressed and the oppressor is very complex and not always flattering to those being studied.

31 08 2011
bpbproadrunner

Oppression makes my butt look big.

31 08 2011
JJ

I’m like the John Adams song in the musical, “1776” — obnoxious and disliked.

1 09 2011
bpbproadrunner

Okay Now I have to find that on DVD and watch it! You and I might share some theme songs. I could tell you stories….

1 09 2011
JJ

Although there was a time when I was the tall, amorous young prodigy with a “happy felicity” for turning a phrase, a la Jefferson. And now I’m actually more like Ben Franklin, including the enlarging girth, gimpy leg and jack-of-all-trades self-amusement style to my thinking and writing.

The “obnoxious and disliked” tag developed only online and only in one context, among conservative Christian homeschoolers who hated me for poking logic and strategy holes in their illogical political arguments against Big Bad School. They hated Nance too, btw (so she could play Adams if I switch to Franklin ) which in retrospect I see as part of how we got together and helped educate each other — we were surrounded by pitchforks with our backs pressed up against each other and decided we might as well enjoy it 😉

1 09 2011
JJ

That ten-year-old old argument about “saving homeschooling” was really in the weeds at the time, where none of us could know at the beginning, that there were future TEA partisans cutting their teeth on it and it would develop along battlelines that hadn’t been drawn yet in the general body politic. By the end it came increasingly clear but SO much damage had been done and it was irreparable, to our universal sense of citizenship in Homeschool Nation, something that we thought had unified us in common purpose and solidarity and mutual respect.

Just as I fear has now been done to the nation and to most states (certainly this one.) It doesn’t feel like solidarity, as if Americans trying to take care of all the people instead of fighting among ourselves can ever be restored — nor that we will care much, about having lost unity with people so alien to ourselves. I should write about that, hmmm . . .

1 09 2011
Nance Confer

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”

*********************

That’s from this post at DailyKos — http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did?via=search

It seems right on to me. I don’t know. I’m white.

Nance

1 09 2011
JJ

Right. I was off in my eclectic reverie again but we were talking about The Help and race civil rights, not homeschooling civil rights. 🙂

1 09 2011
Nance Confer

JJ, I just don’t know what to think about . . . what? . . . parents?

I recently tried to participate in a new Facebook/website group urging parents to opt out of standardized NCLB testing.

They were not ready for prime time. Although I recognized several names from over the years, most of the energy seemed to be coming from those new to the fray.

And then the men started squabbling. Everyone was vehemently unclear about what the group was for and what, specifically, needed doing.

And, even if all of that could have been ironed out, if the newbies had studied all the work that had gone before and the veterans helped and advised and a clearer focus was achieved, looking back over the 10 years or so this particular fight has been going on, the whole thing seemed pretty useless.

Now, these are public school parents. But, really, their inability to work together, get much done and achieve anything really big . . . pretty much the same as we saw with homeschoolers. Pretty much all down to pettiness, misinformation, lack of focus. Add a completely unrealistic idea about their ability to change “the system,” and it’s the whole hsing/NHEN crapfest all over again.

I offered a few links to help them along and left the Facebook page.

Nance

1 09 2011
JJ

Exactly. That is so what I’m seeing. Maybe this is just what life looks like when you get to be our age? — sure feels like more than that though, as if American exceptionalism has suddenly been redefined to mean that despite all our science and wealth and rich history and vaunted freedoms, nothing works here, like we’re the Bermuda Triangle where up is down, majority is minority, terrorism is courage, corporations and states have human rights, not actual people — reason drops off the radar and is never heard from again.

1 09 2011
JJ

I’m not sure what to think of the MLK diary’s power of story. It strikes me as the Christian Redemption Story especially for black people.

I understand it, appreciate it, see great value in it and don’t feel the need to argue with it or compete with it to advance a “righter” story — but it also has a sharp edge to its telling, the one flaw I see in most every story these days: setting itself up as THE story and warning other folks to back off, they aren’t entitled to their own stories as just as human, just as real and important, just as much claim to being told and making meaning.

That’s what bothers me about the critics of The Help. That’s what bothers me about how homeschooling was “defended.” That’s what bothers me about our current national politics, journalism, justice system. One Story With All the Power is the holy grail held out to us as the way it is, the way it must be. All the other stories lose, as lies or stupid or just less-than. So let’s fight to the death over which story wins.

And what’s worst about that is not just setting up competing stories between us, but that it also narrows down each individual’s different stories to One Way of Understanding One Fixed Identity, and that’s all you get to be. It makes all of us Hedgehogs.

Now you don’t get to embody all the characters (Adams AND Jefferson AND Franklin, or all three of the Stooges) with different facets at different times of your life, living out many stories that together enrich your full-fledged humanity. Now you are only one reductionist label, like those protestors of the Dr. Seuss movie, remember Nance? They put duct tape over their own mouths and wrote the word “Life” on the tape, as the single word where full-throated human storytelling was meant to come from. And we’re doing it to ourselves! It’s not being forced on us by abusive bullies terrorizing us into silence and labeling us with their chosen reductionist slurs. I can’t figure out why.

1 09 2011
bpbproadrunner

I am surprised that you haven’t checked out my Post- How can Americans know what they want if they don’t know what they have?

The lack of a clear purpose and definition is very troubling and not at all surprising. Many people cannot seem to distinguish between drawing boundaries about identity as opposed to raising razor wire enclosures and performing, proverbial ethnic cleansings.

1 09 2011
Nance Confer

I didn’t exactly take it that way. I took it as coming from the point of view of someone who knew what he was talking about — living in fear because of the color of your skin — and the change from then to now. Not that I, in my whiteness, couldn’t appreciate MLK in my way but that I was missing a big, important part of the story.

But I think that leads to BP’s idea — we don’t know what we are giving up when we yearn for the good old days before FDR. OTOH, maybe I better go read BP’s post before I guess that’s the point of it. 🙂

Nance

1 09 2011
Nance Confer

Well, that wasn’t exactly BP’s point but there was also this great piece on Bill Nye — http://thespectrumofbeing.blogspot.com/2011/08/there-is-poll-on-cnn-what-do-you-fear.html

1 09 2011
JJ

I thought the MLK diary was a worthy contribution, Nance, insightful and personal, powerful and rang true to me as someone who lived through those times too. It wasn’t very much pushback against Hillary Clinton and white people generally. It was there though, although OTOH I admit I’m hyper-sensitized at the moment from two weeks of white-woman dumping-on as if we all said something to diss MLK’s memory or use a bigoted term or dare to write in dialect or whatever. Not only did I not start this but I tried to sympathize and emote and ignore all the lynching references and white-woman savaging, almost all from folks who hadn’t even read the book (I hadn’t either.)

Having just finished the book and having found it pretty wonderful, I feel it also rang true despite having been written by that dreaded lightweight, the uppity white woman! I’m not happy with the needless division of history between people whose interests today are in sync and were being collaborated on with great good will, until we turned to this and were turned on each other.

1 09 2011
1 09 2011
JJ

They can’t imagine having the free time I had. I can’t imagine having their classes. We can’t fully picture one another’s lives.

And it’s really OK, most of the time, when the occasional hater isn’t grilling me about whether or not my parents are sadists who want to torture children or writing an angry anonymous comment under a piece I’ve published somewhere, going, “Arrogant little losers. Public school was good enough for MY kids. They think they’re so much better than everyone else and they can’t even tie their own shoes. What is WRONG with this country? This should be illegal.”

Most of the time, though, I just see the world kind of differently, by accident, reflexively, and I’m not fighting for anything. I’m not standing up waving a flag and yelling for the troops to follow me. I’m not against it. I think thinking differently about normalcy is healthy. I think challenging things that seem not to be working well is critical.

But it’s not my mission. It’s just a part of who I am.

1 09 2011
bpbproadrunner

Those are good missions. I agree with you. People get lost in their fights you know. They are so busy railing against “What they hate” or “What they are not” that they forget how to tell us what and who they are. How can you know what you are against, if you don’t know who you are? It’s a big question, that stumps a lot of people and tends to piss them off. Because you can tell when you have struck a forgotten nerve.

1 09 2011
bpbproadrunner

Those are good things about you then, and I agree with you. People get lost in their fights you know. They are so busy railing against “What they hate” or “What they are not” that they forget how to tell us what and who they are.

How can you know what you are against, if you don’t know who you are? How can you lead if you cannot define yourself for others, or your movement?

If all you are about is the fight, then fighting is all you will every do. If not with a system, then inside your own hierarchy. Because if there is no fight to be had, the dysfunctional people will create one in order feel more secure about their surroundings. After all–Fighting is Normal to them.

as for the “Good Enough For My Kids/Me” argument, that [and you know this] is not a valid argument. That operates on the assumption that all schools, systems, teachers and the like are equal and that equality is a proxy for good and effective. Even if that person and their kid was in school 30 years ago or more.

Honestly when I see arguments like that, most likely their experiences with schools were not good, “but they felt compelled to stick it out,” and by golly you have to pay your dues too! It’s a way of spreading their misery around, a sort of hazing thing.

Then if you don’t, you have made them feel bad and insecure. There is guilt there about not having the testicular fortitude to do what you did or what I did. Maybe their job didn’t allow it, or they didn’t have the money or maybe they just never imagined that as an option. Whatever the reason it didn’t happen, and therefore it cannot *happen for anyone else.

It is not unusual for people like this to have issues also in owning their mistakes or in giving others credit for their accomplishments.

It’s a package deal.

3 09 2011
NanceConfer

So, how was the movie?

3 09 2011
JJ

I saw the movie today, with Favorite Daughter and her boyfriend’s mom (who’s also a family friend.) It was excellent, Academy-worthy, instant classic. I laughed, I cried, I was bursting with thoughts and feelings, ideas, memories — and admiration for so many of the full-color characters both black and white, how real and intriguing, how complex they were.

It was more satisfying as a complete and compelling story on screen, I think, than even Milk:

This sure isn’t [what] I was braced for.

Extraordinary. It was entertainment, education, time travel almost for me. And enlightenment.

3 09 2011
JJ

Reading the book first was important for just how much I loved this movie. Not that it wouldn’t be great on its own, and it was very faithful to the book even in the few plot twists that changed a bit. The characterizations were even more eerily accurate than I had animated them in my mind. It all went beyond where I went as the reader and I had just finished it, all very fresh in my impressions and feelings still. I knew the movie was better than I would have made it myself! So for me, book and movie each enriched the other and fit together as a, well, *perfect* whole.

3 09 2011
JJ

One idea I had after I was home (they went to lunch after without me; I’ve been sick the past couple of days) was that the main maid character is named Aibilene and called Aibie. Her son has died and it’s taken the heart out of her but she soldiers on trying to bring people together even as she has to compromise so much and see such suffering. At the end she has helped “set herself free.” — so I wondered if the author had meant her to be like Abe Lincoln (didn’t he lose a beloved son too, while president?)

5 09 2011
JJ

From American Radio Works:

Mississippi led the South in an extraordinary battle to maintain racial segregation. Whites set up powerful citizens groups and state agencies to fight the civil rights movement. Their tactics were fierce and, for a time, very effective.

10 09 2011
Steph

I think the outrage is overblown. The Help never claimed to be a comprehensive account of the ugliness of the Jim Crow South or the battle over civil rights. It was deliberately told from a limited perspective — a sheltered narrator whose eyes were just beginning to be opened to some of the things going on around her. So this is the story that is told. I don’t think The Help should be bashed by people who expect it to be something it isn’t. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but that’s my two cents.

11 09 2011
JJ

Hi Steph, thanks for coming by and joining in. 🙂

Your guess is closer to what The Help is than the folks who are so outraged. It is a “coming of age” story for the young sheltered author — AND at least three or four other strong stories as seen through the eyes of other main characters. The book literally has three main first-person narrators, all female, one white and two black. They shift back and forth between chapters and the two black narrators speak in dialect (one of the objections some black friends had, that a white author would dare.) In the film though, in what turns out to be a compelling artistic choice, only one first-person narrator is used throughout, one of the black maids.

12 09 2011
bpbproadrunner

And some of those institutions are not dead yet. Harkening back to the Southern Strategy that is still alive and well in our country’s political system even to this day.

23 09 2011
Judy Blume: “Children are the real losers . . .” « Cocking A Snook!

[…] thank goodness I personally unpack and inspect her school things every day to keep our home tidy between the maid’s afternoons, because her virginal young eyes hadn’t yet opened up the “thing” to behold such unsuitable […]

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