“The Help” Reflects the Racial Divide, Then and Now

The Help Racial DivideThe movie, “The Help” was not at the top of my list of films to see when it was first released.

The book version of the story was recommended by several acquaintances. I didn’t read it because I’m generally not into fiction – of course there are a few exceptions, James Baldwin comes to mind. But I also didn’t read it because I sensed that the story would be disappointing based on a few clues — Hollywood’s reputation, those who recommended it, those who didn’t and those who never mentioned it at all.

Allow me to explain.

I am a black woman. I travel in diverse circles but I attend a predominantly white church. It was there that I’d heard rave reviews of the book and was told that I should definitely read it. When the book was made into a movie, several women at church – mostly middle-aged, middle to upper middle-class white women told me that I had to see it. They insisted, “it shouldn’t be missed”. But while they praised it,  The Help didn’t seem to be on the radar of people I am connected to in other areas of my life. I’m a progressive who is actively engaged in a few political and civic groups. Not one of the activists I collaborate with mentioned The Help.  Neither the film nor the book reached the level of interest that made it worth discussing by any of my family members. At the progressive law school where I am an adjunct professor — no mention. These were all indicators that were alerting me.

In a culture where race consciousness is hardly ever critically examined, it wasn’t surprising that the women in my church who characterized the story as heartwarming and uplifting couldn’t have guessed that my take on the film would almost certainly be different.

It’s presented as a feel good story where black and white characters band together in the face of racism. But for many, particularly in the Black community, The Help reaffirms the age old White Messiah myth. Yes, my views were different.

My husband and I have an inside joke – well, actually it’s my joke. To understand this, it would help for you to know that my husband is white and I’ve already told you that I’m black. We have an active social life – sometimes attending two or three events in a week. When we’re in a social setting where I am the only or one of few blacks in the room, I have to insert myself into conversations or risk being ignored unless the topic turns to race — then all eyes look to me as if I’m the race expert.

To be fair to my many non-black friends and family, this usually happens when we’re with people we don’t know very well. But it happens often enough that I’ve dubbed myself “the race one”. My husband, on the other hand, is never looked to when the topic turns to race. “So”, I tell him partly tongue-in-cheek, “I guess this means you don’t belong to a race? Does that make you the race-less one?”

There are lots of stories I could tell, most of which are pretty funny, that illustrate this notion of racelessness among white people. But what it really points to is a lack of white awareness. I certainly felt it was this lack of  white awareness that may have led the women in my church to assume I’d be uplifted by reading The Help instead of disappointed. I doubt most of them know of the prevalence of the white messiah meme and how I had picked up clues that this story was going to be just that.

I finally gave in and saw The Help when it was released as a movie.  Yes, as my church friends had told me, it was entertaining and well acted. But as I expected, the story was not atypical of most Hollywood films of this genre — an attempt to convey the southern black experience through a white lens. This is not a film I’d recommend to my son, daughter, or any young person seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the lives of black southerners during this era in American history. It is a fictional representation that is seasoned with humor and supposed feel good, heartwarming moments but it is not a story that would have been told by black maids. In my opinion, they are not given voice in this film.

Here is an example of a “feel good, heartwarming” moment  that was anything but:

One of the maids, who was expecting to be fired for some infraction she did not commit, is told by her employer that not only is she not fired but she can stay on for a long as she lives. The boss makes this declaration as sweet sentimental music plays softly  in the background and the camera slowly closes in on the maid’s smiling face.

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Personally, I wasn’t feeling all warm and fuzzy. As I watched the scene, my thoughts went to the maid’s not-so-distant ancestors who labored to develop the land and grow the crops that produced the wealth that was stolen by the forefathers of the boss who then inherited the estate and all of its assets putting him in the position to decide this maid’s future.

Due to her ancestors hard work, he got to be the one to decide if she’d be employed or unemployed. Born into a society that systematically precludes her from reaping the benefits of her ancestors’ blood, sweat, tears, and labor while others continue to benefit from the fruits of her and her ancestors’ labor, the scene closes with the maid expressing nothing but gratitude.

I won’t give the story away, but one critic said, “Despite Hollywood’s best intentions and well-meaning saccharine storytelling, it gets race wrong, repeatedly”. I agree.

The women who recommended the book did so because they probably felt the writer successfully grappled with a difficult topic and arrived at a place of racial redemption. But they were unable to see the story through my lens. And they were unaware that they were seeing it through a white lens. For me, their white unawareness is a significant missing element in most discourse on race. From my perspective, rather than being a story of racial redemption, it is a story about white redemption.

Film critic Christopher Kelly said,

For decades, we’ve seen books, plays and movies about Southern race relations that invariably place white people at the center, and usually as the savior: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Mississippi Burning,” even “A Time To Kill.” “The Help” falls right in line. It’s a story that allows white readers to feel good about the way black and white characters band together in the face of racism, even as it also reaffirms a “whites lead, blacks follow” social structure.

What Kelly describes here has been dubbed, in some circles, the “Tarzan Syndrome” or white messiah myth. It is prominently on display in American cinema. In fact, films about racial issues that don’t have a white lead are doomed at the box office if they ever get made at all. Just ask George Lucas, executive producer of Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Lucas went to every Hollywood studio looking for backing for his film. They told him — directly — that they would not finance a film that didn’t have a white lead. Lucas ended up financing the film with his own funds.

It’s easy to argue that Hollywood’s unwillingness to finance films that don’t have a white lead is based on the bottom line. Clearly, they do what they do to turn a profit. But because of this policy, films like Biko, Ghosts of Mississippi, Dances with Wolves, Armistad, The Blind Side, Glory, Avatar, Invictus, A Dry White Season and Dangerous Minds, perpetuate the notion of the white savior coming to the rescue of the helpless and oppressed in ways that don’t align with the reality of the past or present.

In the absence of comprehensive history courses in public schools that contain accurate representations of all people, our nation’s sense of history is often shaped by Hollywood. So, even though Hollywood has no obligation to educate, by default, it increasingly has become a primary source of information for good or for evil.

The United States, often characterized as a nation overly entertained and under informed, receives most of its information through television and movies. Like it or not, the myths or truths served up by Hollywood play a role in shaping the nation’s sense of history. Without strong countervailing stories, myths reinforce stereotypical images that linger in the public consciousness and contribute to the gap between real lives lived and fictional lives depicted.

Addressing this gap, author Tim Wise, a white anti-racist, wrote of white people,

“When asked if we believe racism to be a significant problem: the vast majority, in poll after poll answer that it is not, irrespective of the evidence to the contrary. And we have long believed that, so even in the early 1960s, at a time when in retrospect all would agree the nation was profoundly unequal in its treatment of people of color, whites told pollsters in overwhelming numbers (anywhere from sixty-five to nearly ninety percent) that blacks had equal opportunities in employment and education. White denial has been a hallmark of the nation’s racial history.”

The white denial that Tim Wise is referring to is fortified by subtle and not so subtle messages in film and other media that dismiss, minimize, or render invisible the horrors and continued trauma inflicted on people of color in this nation.

For example, although a fictional account, The Help is supposed to be the story of African-American maids living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the Civil Rights era. The story takes place in 1963. The women range in age from their 40′s to their 80′s so its likely they had grandparents and maybe even parents who were born into slavery. These women would know of or have a direct connection to someone who may have been lynched. They lived at a time when a white man could rape a black woman with impunity. White men raped black women in the south with such regularity that black women lived in a persistent state of apprehension knowing they had little to no legal or police protection. This story, set in Mississippi when Emmett Till and Medgar Evers were fresh in the minds of the black community – is the Mississippi of Nina Simone’s, “Mississippi Goddam” and yet, the high drama of the film centers around Skeeter, the young white journalist who courageously stood up to the powers that be and helped the maids share their story.

The notion that a story – supposedly told from the perspective of black maids living in 1963 Mississippi — would be focused primarily on the courage of a young white protagonist is preposterous but for it not to be addressed as such in any of the major media outlets gives us insight into where we are in our understanding of race in this country and why it is that we didn’t hear this story.

It happens that at the same time this movie was getting rave reviews, there was an alleged race related murder in Jackson, Mississippi. In a manner similar to the way the movie The Help avoided serious discussion of black life in pre-civil rights era Mississippi, the media has pretty much avoided covering this story which ironically also takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. It doesn’t warrant a headline that  James Anderson, a 49-year-old black man was allegedly assaulted and repeatedly run over with a pick-up truck by two white men who were said to be looking for a black man to assault.

This crime was captured on video tape. I read about it when I saw an excerpt from a post on Facebook. The excerpt was taken from a piece entitled “Prove Me Wrong, Mississippi,” by blogger Susan Wilson. Speaking of the killing, Susan wrote “what I really want to say isn’t about the crime itself. It’s about Mississippi’s response to the crime. What response? Well, that’s the problem.” — Sharon Kyle

According to the blogger Susan Wilson, when she heard that Anderson had been killed by being run over repeatedly, she tried to find local media coverage of the incident but couldn’t. This is the heart of the matter — the lack of attention given to the real trauma that racism inflicts in the lives of people of color then and now.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle

If you’d like more information on the lives of black women in the south during the era depicted in the movie The Help, read At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Vintage). The author, Danielle L. McGuire documents and reports on the “alarming regularity and stunning uniformity” of the raping of black women and children with some victims as young as 7 by white men in the south. She also links the beginning of the civil rightsmovement to the investigation of the gang rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by 7 white men who admitted to the rape but were neither charged nor arrested. The NAACP mounted an investigation which was conducted by none other than Ms. Rosa Parks.

Now THAT would make a great movie but I’m not holding my breadth waiting for Hollywood to take that on anytime soon.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

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Comments

  1. James says

    The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”. The fact that the majority of African Americans feel uncomfortable with the “The Help” whilst the vast majority of white Americans LOVE it (calling for an Oscar and describing it funny, witty etc) shows the reality of race relations in America couldn’t be more different from the rosy veneer that the Obama presidency would have us believe.

    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.

    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

    Its been done … nothing new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …

    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/05/rewrite-us-history-so-that-white-people.html

    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

  2. Bill Gibbons says

    The “black experience.?” I thought we left the 1960′s far behind. I have travelled all over the world and have seen racism (and tribalism) everywhere. Chinese hate the Japanese, the Japanese look down on the Koreans, and they all despise the Filipnos. India and Pakistan are forever at each others throats and the Tamils hate both of them. I stood and watched a group of native Canadians exchange racial slurs with a group of east Indian youths, and have stood on the banks of the Dja River in Cameroon, watching a bantu tribe attacks and beat a group of Baka (pygtmies), calling them animals and telling them to go back into the forest.

    Racism is everywehere. The “black experience” isn’t unique when it comes to hating others because of their colour or ethnicity.

    • James says

      Bill: From your comment, I take it that you are white. I am white too so don’t take it as being racist. You are using the academic definition of racism – which white people almost invariably mean when they talk about racism (I know I did).

      Racism = prejudice based on skin colour.

      By the definition, all (or most) people are racist.

      Most black peoples definition of racism is as follows:

      Racism = prejudice based on skin colour + POWER

      It is the POWER element that changes the racism dynamic COMPLETELY. The power is derived from the social infrastructure (i.e. institutions etc) – which for the most part Eurocentric. Most white people invariably never see the the POWER element (look up “white privilege”) and therefore come up with statements like you just did – well everyone is a little racist (or words to that effect).

      As an aside, this explains why African American’s may seem particularly “sensitive” (as a white person would put it), by racist language coming from a white person, more so from someone from another ethnicity.

      The POWER element means that racial dynamics are not linear, but rather EXTREMELY non-linear, with the prevailing bias being in favour of white people (after white people, set up those institutions for their own benefit).

      Hope that helps you understand the non-linear dynamics of racism, and why certain things may seem “unfair” to you as a white man.

      Hope that

  3. TCB says

    Jacquelyn,
    “Those of us who lived through those times understand that it took MLK and other super courageous leaders, along with some also courageous white people to keep a small movement growing and staying in the spotlight. It makes me wish we had someone like that now to lead a fight for those living in poverty and for the middle class, which is fast disappearing. It takes much community organizing, including faith-based organizations, to achieve a real movement in society, such as MLK led. I think faith in doing for “the least of these” and that we need a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not for the rich corporations, is what can get it going, but we need a MLK to lead.”

    I agree with you that Martin Luther King Jr. was the kind of man needed for those times. He was instrumental in a society that overlooked the most basic rights of a particular kind of person and instigated the movement that for all intents and purposes rid society of this particular evil. I also agree that we still need this kind of man in our society today but not necessarily for the reasons you indicate. The antonyms for poverty: abundance, affluence, luxury, richness, wealth and prosperity, are not a civil right, just as poverty is not. If these states of being apply to the so-called middle class (of which I might be considered one) then you must explain why and how. I think we can agree that MLK was after a civil right but accordingly those most basic rights are “…life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” First note that they are in this order for a reason and that “pursuit of happiness” is another way to say “providing a fertile ground” or making the American dream of prosperity available to every citizen. The key here is to make available. It does not mean in the end everyone should be prosperous and to say this is to invoke a chief tenet of socialism. It means leveling the playing field so all have an equal chance versus the government’s duty is to provide everyone’s most basic needs. So whether the middle class comes or goes is not as much the government’s business as it is “We the People.” Our government is tasked with legislating and maintaining good laws that protect us from some entity interfering with our legitimate pursuit or “stealing” our prosperity once we obtain it, whatever the level our prosperity may be. And I think you will agree that the most egregious way for someone to steal our prosperity is for them to take our life. So the government’s protection of all American’s lives is a priority.

    I agree that faith-based organizations are integral to the pursuit of those things that are instrumental in making us happy. In fact faith, applied and made real in prayer, is the underlying form that activates all good intentions in any worth-while movement. What I don’t agree with is that corporations are evil. Nor do I agree that “rich corporations” are evil any more than I’d agree that money is evil. I would say that “love of money is the root of evil” and therefore any person within or without a business who puts money before human persons has crossed over to a love of evil. From such principle I would say that while Bill Gates, who runs a huge multi-billion dollar corporation, has crossed this divide when he chose to fund organizations that endorse or practice population control. Gates use of money is evil… not his possession of those billions of dollars. It’s not that Gates is greedy in running his large corporation but in how he is using it’s profit. Likewise for any large corporation no matter how much money they make. If they use it legitimately, that is within ethical limits, meaning within objective moral standards, then no matter how much money they possess it is not an evil. Business owners have a right to do what they will with what they’ve earned within proper moral constraints. They are not required to give their money to anyone no matter how poor – although they are required to help the poor.

    I also think that while each of us as individuals is responsible for “the least of these” who are around us, as the gospel mandates, a corporation is not… at least not in the same sense. The owner who is an individual could be said to be responsible just as each of the employees at all the different levels of incomes are too. But to say a corporation has the responsibility to give some portion of it’s profit to the poor is to invoke responsibility to an abstract entity and would make for bad law. Because of this Government is wrong to tax corporations with the justification that they are responsible to the poor. This is not the only reason why I think government has no duty to tax corporations just because they make a certain level of profit. To say this is to claim that it is the government’s money and not the corporation’s. More concretely those who own and run a company own the profit and so the money is possession of “We the People.” No, the government in taxing us, including those “rich corporations,” is in a real sense confiscating our money. The government owns nothing and produces no product. “We the People” do have ownership and are the ones who run corporations. Our government is to serve us and not the other way around. We are responsible for our neighbor and not our government which like a corporation is an abstract entity. It is possible for us to delegate the power to our government, who as our representatives can then tax businesses for whatever purpose, but I would ask is this wise? I suggest that history shows us it is not as wise as we would like to think because the government is an entity that is hard to control, and ever more so as it grows in size. We must be able to hold government accountable to meet the additional responsibilities we give to it.

    What must be understood in all of this is that being poor or rich is not a basic human right. On the other hand “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” are fundamental rights that were recognized by our founders in the Declaration. These basic rights are not given to us by our government but “they are endowed by their Creator” and that “these truths” are “self-evident.” It is our government’s duty to “secure these rights.” Our government’s primary purpose is not to confiscate money from the rich and redistribute to the poor. Now recall that I said the order has a purpose. Who could care about happiness if they were not free, and who would care about freedom if they were not alive? The truth is our government’s first duty is to protect all innocent human life and to apprehend and punish those who violate this “unalienable Right…” Therefore, as I stated above the most agregious way for someone to lose their most basic rights is to have their life taken. This is why it is most important in context of slavery and racism that abortion be recognized and legislated against because a whole class of person is losing their right to live free and pursue happiness. Their only offense is where they live. Even the threat against their life should be considered a form of slavery just as was for the Jews in Nazi Germany and African Americans in pre-civil war America. And if we address any poverty it must be that poverty of the lack of life the preborn experience in an abortion.

  4. TCB says

    Jacquelyn,
    “I think, if we want a novel that is written from the black perspective, then a black person should write it.”

    What puzzles me here is if we are all supposed to be “color-blind” and not look at another person’s skin color or race, then how can there be a “black perspective” versus a “white perspective?” If racism is defined as hatred of one race of people and is therefore equivalent to focus on skin color then it seems to me we can never get at the root cause of so-called racism. In addition to this it bothers me that “blacks” as a group refuse to recognize reverse discrimination. I suspect that these inconsistancies are part of the problem we have with profiling in airports where a whole society is held captive to an ideology that insists if we recognize color in any situation we are in some way prejudice, that is in the negative sense.

    I believe that latter term, prejudice, is as much misunderstood and misused as the terms racism and discrimination. To me a prejudice is making a judgment prior to having enough information to make it properly. Racism properly defined is an irrational hatred of any group of people and can include a more general form apart from “skin color” or race. As such it is an improper discrimination, that is making a judgment in a way not conducive to the nature of the being (as inherently good) and that is as such an immoral act. In other words it is to judge in a way that does not take into account the dignity of the person being judged (rightly or wrongly).

    This perspective implies there is a type of discrimination that is good and just. For instance if we judge a person of a different race than ours to be dangerous because they are behind our house acting in a suspicious manner then we have a justification for being alarmed, or at least alert. Likewise under the threat of terrorism we have a reason to be suspicious, but furthermore, because 99% of all terrorism has in the past been committed by persons of a particular race, we have the warrant, no duty to profile!

    Like it or not these words have meaning with many senses. If we apply one sense to all situations we end up with an ideology that is as dangerous as the real racism of the Nazis in Germany or of the “whites” toward Negros in the southern United States. What is inherent in racism is hatred of another person and this is what Christianity has always considered a sin. Racism is just a term to designate hatred on a larger scale which manifests more clearly this particular sin. The key as the Christian faith teaches in not just understanding, which implies knowledge, but also love, or in other words turning one’s will toward the person with their good in mind. This excludes false ideas because it involves truth and it also excludes fantasy like believing in this life everyone can get along. We must be conscious that some people no matter how good one treats them will never reciprocate that love and so here lies the difference between sound airport security and false discrimination… between just and unjust discrimination.

  5. TCB says

    There are good comments on both sides of this debate. Nevertheless I have two problems, one in reference to what Mrs. Kyle has said and a second with the debate in general.

    First, this idea of reparations that Mrs. Kyles brings up has elements that are both good and bad. It is true if one sins they should do something to repair the damage. So the question is not whether we should in some way pay reparation but exactly how in context of the issue of slavery. In Mrs. Kyles words:

    “Personally, I wasn’t feeling all warm and fuzzy. As I watched the scene, my thoughts went to the maid’s not-so-distant ancestors who labored to develop the land and grow the crops that produced the wealth that was inherited by the society that systematically precludes her from reaping any of the benefits of her ancestors’ blood, sweat, and tears, yet entitles others to continue to live on and build upon the fruits of her and her ancestors’ labor.
    So the maid, who is systematically relegated to a position of subjugation, must involuntarily continue to work in a hostile environment for wages that barely keep a roof over her head or give proper care to her own children while she cares for the children of others. And yet, she smiles as she learns she gets to do this for a lifetime.”

    Once we accept the idea of reparation the question now becomes how will we quantify this? Then to whom do we distribute the compensation? Finally, when is the reparation satisfied? If we equate the compensation to money we need to know how much, who gets it and at what point is justice fully satisfied? If the compensation is some other tangeable reality like property (“plantation” land) then what percentage must be partitioned and to whom and for how many generations? In other words we have to move from the general principle of reparation to its specific application. That this is hard to do has been shown historically with legal precedent like affirmative action law (1961) where the intent was to choose persons “without regard to race, religion and national origin,” with “gender” being added to the list only later.

    The problem today is that discrimination knows no bounds and can occur in the opposite direction toward persons who have been traditionally the ones who have been doing the discriminating. Racism and discrimination in general are sins characteristic of fallen persons, thereby inclusive of all human beings. As such discrimination can go in any direction and for any reason, but has been typically perpetrated by persons in power, so its definition has been referenced toward dominant groups, such as the “white” race. When understood fundamentally as an innate characteristic of fallen persons it is easier to see it is not so easily attributed to race and that it will never be completely eradicated, although institutionally we have enacted laws that strive to do so and virtually do. On the other hand when it comes to person to person contact outside of an institutional setting, prejudice, discrimination and racism can and will continue to occur. No law will completely eliminate this evil because that is not the function of law. Law is a limiter meant to deal those persons who refuse good will toward their brother or sister and so is essentially an imperfect corrective to fallen human nature. Law should also teach us to know that good will toward our neighbor leads to an ordered society; it should also show ill-will does not. In other words compelling one to love from the outside, as the law does, is inferior to a person freely choosing to love. Love apart from coersion is the desired motive in any well ordered society and because we live in a fallen world where people tend toward not loving their neighbor we need law to reign in… that is to externally compell them to do what they aught. Prejudice and discrimination as such can only be reigned in or curtailed by careful drafting of law as a cultural situation warrants.

    As for my second point, generally speaking, slavery is an evil in any context. Slavery is essentially to force someone to do something against their will. Contrast this to employment, where two persons agree, one to do a particular work, the other to reward that person in an agreed upon way. In the latter case one may even do a job they hate but they are willing to do it because of just compensation. They key in this second case is an exchange of goods that are freely willed. So if reparation is made in the case of a former slave, does this end the injustice? I say this may not be so because slaverly also has an element of coersion such as torture, physical and emotional abuse, and at times in extreme cases lasting physical harm including death. How does one quantify and compensate for this? An eye for an eye… a tooth for a tooth… a life for a life? The problem of reparations for slavery is much more complex than simple economic justice from this perspective, especially when removed many generations from the original offense.

    Also I find in Mrs. Kyle’s appraisal of the movie scene a further problem of confusing the idea of forced servitude (slavery) with contract between two parties. Evidently the woman who gets the “lifetime job” is an ancestor of slaves and she is suggested to be “systematically relegated to a position of subjugation” and must therefore “involuntarily continue to work.” Either she hired into this line of work as a maid willingly or she is a slave? If she is a slave then how does one account for her “wages?” They are wages even if they “barely keep a roof over her head or give proper care to her own children?” There are many persons who agree to take a job that does not pay a desired wage but does, even if in addition to other work, pay for one’s obligations. This is not slavery as is commonly understood and should not be confused as such. If the woman is free then she has the ability to walk away and acquire another job if she thinks she is under paid. If she is free to do this then she cannot be a victim of slavery. If she is not free then her wages are not in reality wages and the ethical reality of her situation is entirely different than described. This idea that she is “systematically relegated to a position of subjugation” implies a social mechanism that forces persons into slavery that, if it exists, is illegal under current framework of law within the United States. In other words we have protections already in place against such injustice in our society today and they just need to be applied in any case where needed.

    Then too, racism itself is an ambiguous term. If one seriously believes we all should “vote color-blind” then they cannot call someone a racist if they vote based upon principle or policy and consequently don’t vote for a person of color or one who comes from a minority. Blacks, women and other traditional minorities have been integrated into every area of industry and politics, including as CEO’s, senators, governors and as recently witnessed by the world, into the most powerful office of president of the United States of America. If one is to take the charge of racism seriously and can give a coherent definition one then has to ask how do we quantify it so we know when we’ve achieved a non-racist society. This problem is much like that of discrimination against women in the work place. The indicator settled on seems to be to look at the percentage of women employed, like the ratio of female to non-female CEO’s and similar quantifications. The question is do we stop when the ratio is 50% women to 50% men (25% “black” to 25% “white” to 25% “yellow” to 25% “red”)? If this is true can we and how do we judge their poor performance, that is, can we then negatively judge women who fail their job as company CEO, thus upsetting the numerical balance? This question must be considered knowing it is possible to link a failing business to the actions of a CEO (or any other job in a company). Granted there can be other factors in a failing business but should minority positions be considered sacrosanct and immune to negative assessment because of a non-quantifiable (color or race) numerically protected status? It seems to me performance of a job is tangeable, a business can succeed or fail, and so is a better way to judge the character of a person (measured as performance) than a “color-blind” system where color inevitably must be taken into account as ratios of one “race” to another.

    Finally, if racism can be defined as hatred of a race or group of persons for irrational reasons then it seems to me, while institutional “racism” has for all practical purposes been eliminated, there remain forms of unjust discrimination that are not being addressed today. The most pernacious of these like its precursor, slavery, is an irrational prejudice based upon where a person lives. While this place should be the safest on earth it is indiscriminately the least safe of all and the prejudice has as its justification that a person can be considered property. Euphemisms like “choice” and “unwanted” express the idea that a person in their mother’s womb can be considered viable life or indiscriminately taken based on purely pragmatic or utilitarian considerations. Thus abortion, like racism, can be considered hatred toward a group of persons who according to the U.S. Constitution deserve the same legal protections of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” as Negros, or any other race of people does! The black and white divide for all intents and purposes has been addressed quite effectively by modern law and positively inscribed into the sentiment of the average well-meaning person but when it comes to persons in the womb unjust discrimination remains a serious flaw in our nation’s thinking. This is precisely because “racism” or more accurately unjust discrimination is not a “black and white” problem but a human problem!

    Ratjaws (alias TCB)

  6. Lauren Steiner says

    I just love that the Google ad at the bottom of these comments is for Housekeeping Maid Service, environmentally friendly no less.

  7. says

    Sharon,
    I don’t understand why people say there is still racism going on in this world. To say it is a black discrimination…isn’t that just another form of racism? It is multi-colored discrimination that is going on in our society. Obviously, all races have their equal chances at life in America. I mean, come on! You are a black college professor teaching law! We have a black President of the United States. And don’t forget Oprah, who is one of the wealthiest, if not THE wealthiest person in the world! And still you cry racial discrimination?
    It is not about race! It is discrimination at all levels and races that is happening in today’s society. I know of a poor little white girl that was raped and molested repeatedly by her father; and, he got off without even being charged. I personally believe it is because she and her mother are economically poor and the dad is not. The dad comes from a wee bit of local social prominence and the mother’s reputation has been battered previously by her first husband and his money, which put her reputation into question….which had nothing to do with an innocent little girl! Yet, the discrimination took place!
    I have personally seen money buy credibility in the court room; credibility from people who had nothing going for them but money! But it made the judge see them as credible; and, the other party who had no money to their name was deemed a liar with no credibility whatsoever, which let to their constitutional rights being incredulously illegally violated! None of this discrimination had anything to do with race, but everything to do with money and physical appearance.
    We all know of the Walmart employees who are all races, colors and creeds, who work very hard, long hours for minimum wage, barely able to make ends meet. That is not a black or white race thing. That is a greed thing, taking advantage of those in NEED to work to make a living to support a home and a family.
    I have seen people discriminated against for their lack of beauty, and for handicaps. And sometimes, honestly, people are not even aware they are doing it. Teachers have their ‘pets’, usually the cutest or smartest or hardest working student It is just easier to love the good child better than the naughty one; or the easiest one to get along with, rather than the difficult personality.
    My question would be: how much character does it take to love when things are going your way and everyone is nice to you? Aren’t we all able to accomplish this? True character comes from loving all people because it is the right thing to do, not because you stand to gain something from that ‘love’. And GOD commands us in Romans 12:18: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”
    I just wish to help you contemplate even another angle of looking at things. Discrimination is out there, for sure. But it is far more than a racial thing!

    • TCB says

      Sherry,
      While I agree with your general point, that discrimination is more than “racial,” I have a “bone to pick” with you on the example you gave of Walmart as a form of unjust discrimination. Your words below:

      “We all know of the Walmart employees who are all races, colors and creeds, who work very hard, long hours for minimum wage, barely able to make ends meet. That is not a black or white race thing. That is a greed thing, taking advantage of those in NEED to work to make a living to support a home and a family.”

      I understand the principle you put forth that Walmart does not discriminate “racially” but to then say they are an example of “corporate greed” is yet another issue. To my mind no one working at Walmart has been forced to hire in there. As such they are also free to leave any time they so desire. At the point of determining if they want to in they must decide if the wages are acceptable or not. Again if they decided it was not they still had the ability to walk! As such they have in no way been coersed by Walmart into taking the job. That Walmart sets the wage where it is IS THEIR PERROGATIVE. Walmart, or any other company for that matter, is and should be free to set their employee’s wages at whatever rate they want. Now if a person does not like the wage they need not hire in. Even if there was no other better prospect outside of Walmart the company is not required to raise it wage level. The only reason an employer would do such a thing is if they perceived the benefit of that particular employee warrants such an increase in wage.

      This is how the free market works and to demonize such a relationship as “greed” is to misunderstand the market. Our cultural idea of “corporate greed” is a very misconceived notion that needs to be thought through better. As one who has owned a company and been employed by another I have seen both sides of the issue. As one who subscribes to the so called free market I also realize that without moral constraints such a market becomes harmful. But within a state of freedom two parties, employer and employee, come to an agreement or no cooperation and therefore work is done. Now if an employer were to in some way extort effort from an employee, that is to get work without corresponding pay, then we could call this unjust. But this is hard to see except in clear instances where someone has been deceived and concrete evidence of coersion exists.

      In an authentic free market the worker and employer barter with each other, typically exchanging the goods of effort or product for some form of currency, and this is freely agreed upon by the two agents who have some idea of the value of the means of exchange. The degree to which either party is ignorant of the relative values involved is the degree to which they should not be involved in the transaction or that they should seek advice from someone who has the knowledge to do so. Every employer has the right to set his wages just as they have the right to set the fees for their products. On the other hand each employee has the right to demand a certain salary or pay for their work and or knowledge. The two then have the freedom to agree or disagree as to the relative equality of each others donation. Furthermore a company owner by virtue of his knowledge, investment and risk he takes has the right to whatever amount of the profit he wants to keep. Who are you, an outsider to his situation, who are you to dictate what salary he should make? Who are any of us to say what a business owner can keep and what they must give up?

      That there is no such a thing as greed I am not saying. Now because there is does this make the idea of “corporate greed” a real thing? I say no! I say that corporations are not entities in themselves and that they are made up of persons who think and make choices and as such, can be either greedy or fair (even chartible). The point here is not to deny that those who own corporations can be greedy but that we must ask how do we want to handle such an evil. Will we involve the government, as has been done in the issue of human slavery (rightly so), as has been done with so-called monopolies like Ma Bell, or as with the numerous auto company bail-outs over recent years or failed government housing assistance programs… or is there another way? According to free market theory there is another way and this is to allow the market to regulate itself. This simply means that if “greedy” owners and CEO’s who have ultimate say in what a company pays out are perceived as making too much, then both customers and employees can walk out and to another company to do their business. The more this happens the more the company owner has to take into account the demands of both his employees as well as his customers. As long as people are free to transact with each other they will invariably take the path of least resistance. They will choose the best deal. They will balance working for the highest pay with the best working environment. To my mind the more people on either side of this debate, either employer or employee, appeal to the government for reasons of “equality” the more they disengage the free market and become “slave” to government regulation. We either lean on personal responsibility for our conditions or we lean on government intervention at the expense of freedom.

      Finally, while this is true it in no way nullifies the need for government intervention in issues such as slavery, which are extremely serious in nature and part of the essential purpose of government. Government power is primarily for the protection of human life and secondarily the protection of property. Slavery is an intrinsic issue of life and one whose scale was so large as to preclude any other means to change it. On the other hand one’s income is something that cannot be guaranteed by government coersion. It is one that should be determined by a free market with clear moral constraint. So-called greedy corporations are best dwelt with by good communication between customers which also means trust and as such are not a example of discrimination as you’ve used it.

      Ratjaws (alias TCB)

  8. Nanette says

    Sharon:

    Thank you for this review. I, too, flipped flopped multiple times about this film. My white partner and I decided not to see it. She and I are children of the sixties and we remember those painful images on tv and sometimes in our own cities. However, the sadness is that these images are not the past and they are still with us. Anyway, as an African American woman I believe it is time to see “our” women in more overtly strong positive roles such as: “Catwoman”. I’m tired of seeing “The Mamie” who tries to rise above but, just can’t do it on her own. Enough is Enough.

  9. says

    I saw a screening of the film, The Help, last night. I would generally agree with Sharon’s comment on giving Minnie a “job for life” under the slave wages and working conditions of those times in the 60′s.
    However, I also saw two things that seemed to miss the review. First, Minnie became a mentor and a teacher to her white woman employer which was acknowledged and appreciated by the husband and wife and rewarded with a life-time position. She didn’t have to worry about being unemployed again as her opportunities to work again after the book came out was zero in the rest of the community Second, it enabled Minnie to leave her Domestic Violence situation and have a place for her and her children to live free from a violent home.

  10. -Nate says

    I’m a Blue Collar White guy with a Black Wife , she saw TV ads for this film and said she wanted to see it so I took her .

    She says it was a good film and was up lifting .

    I felt it was a bittersweet film and had an important message that far too many folks miss or worse , choose to ignore lo these many years later .

    We’re technically ‘ Seasoned Citizens ‘ , to day whilst on Holiday in Henderson , Nev. , I ran into another mixed couple , they were early 30′s age and the White hubby noticed I looked at his pretty young wife and moved in posessively , maybe to protect her , I’ll never know .

    Truly we’ve not evolved as much as we’d hoped to in the 1960′s , I still hear hurtful & ignorant things from Black and White folks who automatically assume because I’m White , blond haired & blue eyed ,
    I share their racist frame of referance .

    Happily , the large majority of your folks I meet , don’t give a rat’s ass what color anyone else is .

    Sharon’s initial post seems to suggest White folks have something to atone for , this is not only wrong , it’s a mind set that precludes folks from taking full advantage of the wonderful opportunities available to everyone in America these days .

    If you allow a minority of hateful White people to determine your life , _YOU_ have lost and are wholly responsible for not achieving your goals , not them ..

  11. says

    I read the book – recommended by a white reader of my newspaper column. I wasn’t impressed and determined, being the daughter of a “live-in” domestic I didn’t need the fictionalized version of my mother and paternal and fraternal grandmother’s lives, I didn’t need to give up my limited time taking in the movie.

    Your article confirms my suspicions. “The Help,” is just what white women need, something to go on and on about.

    Thanks for doing the great job you always do, Ms Kyle!

  12. Val Eisman says

    I read the book first and that’s what motivated me to go and see the movie. Because I know from personal experience that movies NEVER EVER reflect books. They chop, cut and shorten a book. A movie is written by a screenwriter, not the author. So, the screenwriter presents and makes his points and then the directors and producers come along and present their own viewpoints as well.

    First, the picture I received in my mind of the young white woman who writes the book is not at all like that of the woman depicted in the movie. Her hair, in particular, is out of keeping with the time. There are a lot of things in the book that go unexplained in the movie which is really trying to tell a racial or civil rights story. The book is much deeper than simply that. The book draw unique characters with rough, raw, sharp and dirty edges. The movie smoothes and polishes all these rough edges down and basically provides a more Hollywoodized portrayal of events. By Hollywoodized, I mean they don’t show the rough and raw pain of the characters. Because Hollywood never presents true portrayals of reality. After all, they don’t want to present too much ugliness, pain and suffering. That is not why people go to the movies.

    So, don’t judge the book by the movie. My advice is to read the book. It if s very fine novel and it is about human beings. Regardless of whose perspective is portrayed and their are multiple perspectives portrayed clearly in the book, it is a unique and worthy story. And to the extent that Hollywood portrays who actually raises uncomfortable questions, it is still a worthy movie unless you are not expecting to see a Hollywood- film.

  13. Rose says

    Hello My Sharon
    I’m so pleased with your article. Thank you for opening the eyes of those who pretend they don’t see.
    Thank you Ms Sikivu and Ms Jackquelyn C. I love what you’ve written. Please keep your replies coming.

  14. Lauren Steiner says

    Hi Sharon,

    I understand where you are coming from. And having heard Melissa Harris Perry’s review of the film on MSNBC, I was prepared not to like it. But aside from that one cringe worthy line, “I sure loves me some fried chicken,” I thought the film was very good. I was so moved by the story and the acting, I found myself on the verge of crying many times during the movie.

    Like Jacqueline, I don’t believe the point of the film, (I didn’t read the book,) was to be the all encapsulating description of the life of black maids in the South. When you and Perry say that the Medgar Evans murder was reduced to a plot point, that was OK with me. It was not supposed to be a documentary about the civil rights movement or even a movie designed to show strong black males. The white males were pretty weak characters themselves. The Medgar Evans plot point was just to put the film into historical perspective and also show the reason for the fear of the black maids to come forward with their stories.

    I think the film was supposed to be the story of not just the coming of age of a previously oblivious white woman but more importantly the story of the awakening of the courage of the main protagonist who I feel was Abilene even more than Skeeter. And in the end, it was Abilene who claimed authorship of the book to Hilly and closed the film saying she had become the writer. That kind of empowerment of a character who had been previously only exploited is a positive message for a black woman, I would say humbly, as I am not a black woman.

    Finally, I think it is important to do a film like this because I do believe, despite the continued incidences of racism in our day, that there are many young people in this country who have never experienced that kind of institutionalized racism. Having Skeeter read as narration that book of Mississippi segregation laws I think will provide a very important history lesson to many young people in our country who would never ordinarily study this.

    So all in all, I think it was an very fine film with excellent performances, set design, costumes and cinematography. I would encourage as many people to see it as possible with the caveat that it is not the all encapsulating film about the exploitation of black maids in the South. Oh, and by the way, if you remember, Abilene was making 95 cents a day six days a week, approximately $6. Well, Skeeter was making $9 a week at her newspaper job. Obviously her job was a lot less physically demanding and she had upward mobility. But I think that should be pointed out.

    • Jacquelyn Christner says

      Lauren, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, especially the point that none of the men come off very well in the novel or movie. I hadn’t thought of it before, but the author must be a bit of a feminist because all of the strong characters are women. I like what you said about empowering Abilene to leave her employment and take up writing. She was, after all, the main author of their book. Their book did empower them all. Thank you for writing this. Jackie

  15. says

    Thanks for the article, Sharon. I went to see the movie last week with friends, and was uncomfortable without really knowing why. I just knew that I would not be recommending the movie to anyone, and had absolutely no interest in reading the book. You explained the ‘why’ that I could not articulate very well.

    Maybe it was going to Berkeley in the 60′s, but in the movie it was like everything that led up to the civil rights movement was third-person remote on a monochrome tv screen. I don’t recall anything feelgood about any of this stuff. Particularly in today’s climate.

      • Laura Brown says

        I will start by admitting I loved both the book and the movie. I do understand it was written from the white perspective (something that of course influences my reaction to the works.

        Can you suggest things equally well written, but from the black perspective, I would love to read them to better understand a more real perspective both of that time period and of the current one where racism is much better disguised.

  16. Jacquelyn Christner says

    I respect what Ms. Kyle says about the black experience and agree with her assessment of the lack of coverage by the media and lack of perspective by Hollywood in general. However, in regard to “The Help,” I disagree for the most part. I, like Sikivu here, was disturbed that the novel and film did not present any positive black males other than Medgar Evers, whose death was given more coverage in the book than in the movie. Also, in the book we were given more hints of the fear around the protests and the horror of what happened to the son of a maid and the maid’s helplessness about that.

    What I disagree about is what Ms. Kyle and others assumed to be the whole point of the book and movie. It is not about the experiences of the black maids, although we get that, but about the coming of age of a priviileged white girl as she comes to realize that what she grew up feeling was the proper set up of society and her rightful place in it is unjust and that she could do something other than just play along in apathy or with malice, as all the others were doing. When she got the courage to question and then investigate, she learned a great deal. She had been involved in her own world, her own education and social life up to this point, not questioning anything. I think that is just the way so many of us white people were during this time. The story is about her, but about what she is learning, and I, for one, was left with the feeling that this would be only the beginning of her learning about real life, not the kind of lessons she could get at school. It was a time when many whites, especially in the South, were in denial, but it was a time also when we were all having to face the truth of lives that we had never come into contact with, especially those of us in the North.

    I think, if we want a novel that is written from the black perspective, then a black person should write it. Perhaps a black maid or other woman (in the ’60′s or present day) who could incorporate some family history into a story could write one. Then we could learn all about the injustice of inheritance and the real black experience. I would read it.

    • says

      Jacquelyn — thank you for your thoughtful, well explained position. If I had read your comment before going to see the movie, I may have written my piece differently. I appreciate that you took the time to write this. My only (minor) counter to your argument is that the book and movie is called “The Help” which would lead one to believe that that is the main topic — the other point is that the tagline of the film is “one act of courage changes everything” — considering the story takes place at the dawn of the civil rights era and the title is “The Help”, the kind of change I was expecting to see wasn’t Skeeter’s coming of age change.

      • Jacquelyn Christner says

        I hear you and understand, but it was an act of courage — Skeeter’s and the maids together to write the book — that changed quite a lot in their world. It did not change the big picture much, other than making readers aware of their stories and, hopefully, thereby bringing some understanding and empathy for situations they may not have been aware of or just didn’t pay attention to. It would take a huge movement of maids and Skeeters together to move the larger society so entrenched in apartheid at that time. People don’t question the status quo unless they experience something, and if they don’t experience it, they have to read about it to learn. As far as the title, it is Skeeter’s focus on the help that brings her to understanding, empathy, and courage. It changes her, as well as the circumstances of the maids, so I don’t think it is a bad title.

        Those of us who lived through those times understand that it took MLK and other super courageous leaders, along with some also courageous white people to keep a small movement growing and staying in the spotlight. It makes me wish we had someone like that now to lead a fight for those living in poverty and for the middle class, which is fast disappearing. It takes much community organizing, including faith-based organizations, to achieve a real movement in society, such as MLK led. I think faith in doing for “the least of these” and that we need a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not for the rich corporations, is what can get it going, but we need a MLK to lead. I’m off track, but these are the big pictures that don’t happen without starting with the little ones of a single person’s awareness of what is wrong with the world and what might be done in some small way to change it. Everyone cannot be that great leader, but everyone can make the attempt to grow in awareness and, hopefully, act on it in whatever way they can.
        Thank you so much for responding to my comments.

    • Jerome Mckinstry says

      Jacquelyn__as I responded to Laura earlier; I highly recommend the book entitled “While the world Watched” (A Birmingham bombing survivor comes of age During the civil rights movement). This book was written by my wife of forty three years, but I must admit it blew me away. The book is published by Tyndale and is available at all major book stores and at Amazon. I invite you to check out the page on Amazon (the reviews, the ratings and the ranking). I’m not just trying to promote my wife’s book. I truly want to give you an opportunity to read about racial injustice in America from a Black perspective with a strong family history and most importantly the ability to survive and forgive traumatic experiences. My email address is (mckinstry46@gmail.com). If you don’t like the book I will refund the purchase price. Send an email and I will give you my phone # if you would like to talk.

      • Jacquelyn Christner says

        Thank you for the suggestion, Jerome. I will check with my library to see if they have it first. I get most of my books fromt the library. Congratulations to your wife for writing this. Jackie

  17. AntBee says

    It seems strange to me why some black people feel so up in the air about this film!

    The film is fiction! It is not a documentary!

    The film is based on the on and through the eyes of a white woman. The author did not intend to tell the story of all black women. The film is seen through her eyes.

    The performances from all of these women is excellent! The period piece is very well done, from the casting to wardrobe, to set dressing. Depicting a role as a maid in not degrading for an actress. That is what an actor does, they portray a role. It is a period piece about the south in the 1960′s. Many black women worked as maids! It is a fact.

    Some blacks take everything to far. Too much emotion about a film that is fiction, and some indicate that so much should have been included in this film. LOL!

    For those who want to see a quality film, go and see it, and for those who feel so ‘insulted”, you do not have to see it! Very simple.

    Lighten up! it is just a film!

  18. says

    Amen, Sharon, amen. My Irish mother-in-;law couldn’t understand why I can’t embrace the book and film (I read the book and, our of curiosity, saw the film). I told her because she would fit right in there with Hilly’s circle in Jackson… It’s Mississippi Burning all over again, alas…

    • says

      Thanks Natalie — Yep, it’s Mississippi Burning, it’s Glory, it’s Biko and so many others. Are you able pass your understanding on to your mother-in-law?

  19. says

    Excellent piece Sharon. I’m slogging through the book and I’m enraged by the white paternalism and patronizing disregard for the deep lived experiences of African Americans who were actively unwaveringly resistant to white supremacist terrorism during this era. I find it really interesting that there was no foregrounding of the sexual terrorism and violence that the black “help” suffered at the hands of white male employers and their silently complicit white wives. The sole prominent black male character is an abusive alcoholic brute and the white patriarch (Skeeter’s father) is benevolent and upstanding. Yet another piece of Hollywood technicolor propaganda with white people “helping” themselves to the “raw material” of black lives.

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