You can now have my Style Notes column delivered direct to your inbox every Saturday morning, by subscribing to my new blog Maggie Alderson Style Notes.
Click on the rather faint grey link above.
Follow me on marvellous Twitter @MaggieA
Sunday, August 1, 2010
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett
When I was a little girl in the early 1960s I used to watch a television programme with my granny called 'The Black and White Minstrel Show'.
It consisted of a large chorus of male dancers done up in black face make up with big painted on white lips and eye-holes, and cropped black afro-style wigs. There would be a big line of them in matching suits, bow ties, white gloves and boaters.
Even as a child of five I thought it was weird, but at the time nobody could see anything wrong with it. It was a prime time show on Saturday nights.
The blacked-up men would do their odd synchronised dances in long rows, like legions of golliwogs, doing jazz hands, then Kathy Kirby would come on and sing in a lovely sparkly gown and my granny enjoyed it all as an entertainment in the music hall tradition.
I haven’t thought of it for years – until this book reminded me.
The author is a white woman – from Mississippi – who has written two thirds of The Help in the voices of two black women, who were maids in Jackson, Mississippi, back in the early 1960s, right when I was watching that terrible television show. And when a black man would still be lynched down there, for using a lavatory reserved for white people.
The book may be her attempt to redress some of the wrongs of that terrible time in American history, when the South lived under brutal apartheid law, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s written it in black face.
How dare she?
It’s a huge bestseller – two million copies and counting – and it has had rave reviews everywhere. Am I really the only person to be outraged by her profiting from the hardships of another race? And using their voices to do it?
I must stop and say here that it’s a wonderful, riveting read. Stockett writes beautifully, her white characters are brilliant (especially the really nasty one) and it’s grippingly interesting to have insight into just how badly black maids – the ‘help’ of the title – were treated by their white employees.
I just hate her writing in their voices.
Her heart is clearly in the right place – she grew up in Mississippi, raised herself by a black maid, who it seems was more of a mother to her than her real mother – I get all that and I admire it. But she really loses me because the person who helps the black maids in this book move on from their oppression is, guess who? A white woman.
Maybe I am more alert to all this than I might have been because a couple of weeks ago I heard a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 discussing that most famous novel of southern US race relations, To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published fifty years ago this year.
To my surprise most of the commentators on the show – all serious academics - were quite critical of the book, saying they found the portrayal of the black character, Tom Robinson, patronising and archetypical.
I listened in disappointment – this was one of my all-time favourite books they were dissing. Then it gradually came out that the majority of the contributors to the programme were of British Afro Caribbean descent i.e. black.
They were prepared to acknowledge that the book was very much of its time and to make allowances for that – much as I did about the grotesque anti-Semitism in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth - but their consensus was that over the long view, while not the author’s fault, those outdated attitudes lessened the ongoing worth of the book.
I felt sad about To Kill a Mockingbird, but by the end of the discussion I could see their point – so that made it all the more shocking that Ms Stockett has up and done exactly the same thing in the here and now. Written a patronising white woman’s view of dem down home black folk.
When there is a black president in the goddam White House.
To put it in another context, this book is the equivalent of me – a white English woman - writing about the systematic extermination of aboriginal people in Tasmania by the British invaders, using the voices of two aboriginal woman. I wouldn’t bloody dream of it.
I carry the race shame of what my forebears did – and I would not insult the victims of it further, by writing a make-it-better book in their voices (perhaps with a lovably wayward aristocratic British woman as the one who helps them…).
Stockett even knows it was wrong herself. There is a little apologia at the back of the book, entitled 'Too Little, Too Late', where she writes about the childhood experiences in Mississippi that inspired the book, and then says this:
‘I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.’
And then: ‘What I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s.’
So she knows it’s wrong – and she did it anyway.
Read it if you want to – you will enjoy it - but ask yourself what Michelle Obama would think about this book. And then, if you want to know how a real black American woman feels about things, read some Toni Morrison.
Reading satisfaction: 8 and also 1
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9 (because I want to discuss it with her)
Recommend to mother: 9 (ditto)
Recommend to niece: 9 (as above)
Recommend to gay best friend: 9 (same)
Recommend to man pal: 3
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9 (as previous)
Read on public transport: 0
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.