The truth about the civil rights era
Narratives like The Help underscore the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth about the civil rights movement.
I resisted the fictional and soon-to-be cinematic juggernaut that is The Help for quite some time. In an otherwise extremely positive review in 2009, EW summed up my feelings quite well: "The backstory is cringeworthy: A young, white first-time author — inspired by her own childhood relationship with her family maid in Jackson, Miss. — sets out to write a novel from the point of view of black maids in the midst of the civil rights era." Cringeworthy indeed. Further, the plot of the book itself — young white woman encourages black housekeepers to tell their truth through the vehicle of a book the white woman writes — I found both implausible and condescending to those maids. An oral history of black maids published in 1962? I don't think so. I'm acquainted with intelligent readers — both black and white — who enjoyed the book. I also greatly respect the talented actresses in the film who have proclaimed their affection for it. But I still couldn't get on board. When I took a closer look at what Kathryn Stockett hath wrought, I didn't much like what I saw — but The Help is only a symptom, not the disease.
There have been thousands of words written about Stockett's skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won't rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.
The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.
Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What's more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone's part to believe that "we're all the same underneath" is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.
This isn't the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning, which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.
Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That's a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn't need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.
• Southgate's fourth novel, The Taste of Salt, will be published in September.