Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Black Girl, Light World XI: The Help

Writers do it all the time. 


Create characters with different lives than their own. Different experiences. Different statuses in life. in fact, characters that are simply an avatar for the author tend to be frowned upon in literature and tend to be difficult write without sounding like any of the thousands of horribly written self-insertion Twilight/Naruto fanfics that can be found online. 


So why am I rolling my eyes and fighting down bile at the same time while trying to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett? The book isn't uninteresting or poorly written, as I'm sure hundreds of book clubs across the country have found. The character I suspect of being a self-insert isn't the main one.


Maybe it's the assumption. I don't know Kathryn Stockett, but she is now joining the league of white writers who have assumed that they know what the experience of Black people and can accurately portray it in fiction. It doesn't help that I think the woman is either a liar or self-delusional. If she really expects me to believe that she didn't base the main character, Aibilene Clark, on Ablene Cooper she doubts my intelligence. Either that, or she counted on the fact that most people wouldn't care how unrealistic her explanation for the similarities between her character and the real life help, and she was right in that respect. It also doesn't help that the entire book is written in dialect. And it also doesn't help that the dialogue just doesn't ring completely true.
And to top it all off  the book is is just more of the same: "Look at this horrible racism in the sixties, wasn't that so bad? And those poor black people! I'm so glad everything has changed and that race doesn't matter like it used to and all that racism is over and we're all different now!"


Of course it shouldn't surprise me is that everyone is willing to support the book because it's "such a good fun read".


The problem being that if she really understood the struggle that African Americans have gone to and are going to in this country to reclaim their own lives from the influence of White Supremacy maybe she would have done as one reader suggested and provided a a channel through which the voices of African Americans could be heard rather than usurping their voices as her own.
'I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.... 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. ... But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.' 
What I don't understand is why Stockett felt she needed to profit from her own journey to understanding, especially when it's clear that--on the whole--she still doesn't understand.

Here is a rather good summation of why I find this book distasteful in the extreme:   
from The Loop 21 by Jamilah Lemieux
You want a tale of good white folks helping ‘de blacks? Where’s the John Brown film? Or the book aboutGeneral Oliver Otis Howard and other whites who worked to help start Historically Black Colleges and Universities? Where’s the story of those whites who risked their own freedom to support the Black Arts/Black Power Movements? You want heartwarming tales of cross-racial friendships? How about the many black and white people from similar socio-economic backgrounds who attend school, work and worship together each day? Why can’t we see blacks and white working alongside one another? Why must there so often be either a white savior and/or a “magical Negro?”

It’s pretty simple: because these narratives allow white folks to feel good and satiates their guilt, while failing to challenge their racialized worldview. 

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