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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
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
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
Unpleasantness: 2


  1. Very thought provoking. If the tone or 'voice' is patronising or inaccurate or racist then I agree it is wrong. But if the depiction is accurate then can it be so bad to have this terrible situation brought to a wide readership? Would you also say that a man cannot presume to write in a woman's voice, or vice versa?

    I have read that stuff about TKAM too and felt sad. It is no doubt a product of its time but I feel that Atticus Finch's essential humanity teaches the reader some very important lessons. And I think people are usually smart enough to see through caricatures or patronising personas.


  2. Totally agree with Jane. I found this book very moving (and yes, a terrific read) and was surprised to discover the author was white. Surprised, but not appalled. As Jane says, writers of fiction always have to take on different personae - it's part of the job. Should a white writer never have black characters? And vice versa?
    As Jane says, what about gender divide? Sexuality? Age?

  3. I agree with both Janes. You (as in "one" not you personally!) can't proscribe who writes what since that in itself is deeply patronising. You can't ring fence grubby bits of history or apportion different chapters to different people. There's no reason why a modern black woman born since those days is more entitled than the white one to write the book. Aint we all brothers under the skin??!
    Good blog though!

  4. Maggie, what a wonderful post. Very thought provoking. I do agree with Jane that if the depiction is accurate, then it is fine. Do you disagree with Chris Cleave taking on a young Nigerian woman's voice in "Little Bee?" There are many more examples, of course.

    However, your view reminds me that we should all be sure to question authorial perspective, and not simply for negative reasons. Even a novel about a young white woman penned by a young white woman can be inauthentic. Think While Reading should be a bumper sticker! Cheers, and I'll be checking in on this blog...


  5. Nancy @ TheSensitivePantryAugust 2, 2010 at 4:40 AM

    The Help is a beautifully written fictional book with a view into what it might have been like living in the south in the 60s. It's from the perspective of a white woman. It's fiction. That's it. A black woman or man might write as wonderful a book with a totally different view of that time and subject.

    TKAM is from a different era. As with many classics it will not always reflect today's reality. Still, as Jane states, it gives us a lesson that is timeless.

  6. Maggie. Have to say I agree with the above comments. Am uncomfortable with the sound of this particular book but would be even more uncomfortable if I were only allowed to write from a white north London Jewish perspective. Did Dickens personal wealth negate the fictional voice he gave to the poor? Did Alex Haley need to experienc slavery to write Roots? Course not. Ultimately, people can write in whatever voice they choose and it is then up to the reader to decide if they want to read it, no? Your post would put me off this particular book simply because there are so many great novels written about those times by people with a more "authentic" experience. But if that weren't the case and I was interested in the subject matter, it is irrelevant surely who shines the light on dark corners of our history

  7. Your post definitely raises some interesting points however I think it is also reflective of the idea that race is still a demarcation of ingrained difference.

    It shouldn't matter whether a fictional author is black or white or any other race because there is nothing fundamentally different about each race. Bringing it up just supports the idea that there are differences that cannot be overcome.

    Books should be judged on their merits and granted, that involves examining the context in which they were written. But the context only adds to the depth of analysis you can give a book rather than a point to condemn a book for being written.

  8. Another stunning example of how it can be done well: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle. Extraordinary. I could not believe that what I was reading was written by a man - utterly convincing voice of a battered woman.

  9. I have come straight back to this review after I closed the book (it took me six months to get hold of it and two days to read from start to finish). As you said a very easy read but I had that niggling doubt about the fact that this was actually one of those "lil white babies" all growed up who was doing the writing. I don't feel outraged as you do but I do feel as though it's taken away from the book and the story she tells.

    What DID outrage me was the schmaltzy happy clappy ending... in those times? Against a background of lynchings, beatings? And everyone's happy except the character we disliked? Now THAT was designed to sell... I must remember that when I write my bestseller.

  10. After reading something so engaging, so wonderfully written, feeling all the emotions I felt, really caring about the characters, it's going to be a tough act to follow. The next book I read is going to have to be good in its own right or it won't stand a chance.
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