The text below is from the Association of Black Women Historians, who released it either today or yesterday. They released it as a pdf, which, in my opinion, is not the best format to easily disseminate information that needs to be shared Widely and Right Now.
So! I have converted their statement into this linkable format. What I love? A resource list at the end! I have been threatening to put together a similar list as Reality Based Counter-narrative to that regressive, abysmal movie, and now I don't have to!
(I'll come back and do the line-item formatting later.)
Once (and if) the ABWH makes the document available in linkable form, I will edit this post with excerpt and direct link over to the full item on their site.
- End Me -
- Start the Association of Black Women Historians -
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.
Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.
Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.
We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.
Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.
Suggested Reading: Fiction: Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley The Street by Ann Petry A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Non-Fiction: Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent to: ABWHTheHelp@gmail.com
I've turned a lot of my friends onto Slog*** (and, for those who are fellow former j-buiz folks, onto its master site The Stranger). Slog is the group blog run by people who work at The Stranger, a roiling democratic space with entries from everybody from the Unpaid Intern to Dan Savage. I greatly enjoy the work of several of the writers there, though it's possible I'm the only one who also appreciates the work of Charles Mudede, whom so many Slog readers trash for reasons I can't figure out. Maybe he's too black, too big-picture sedate, and too I Don't Give A Fuck for the demographic that is Seattle? Ooo, was that my inside voice?
Every once in a while the staff members fight with each other via the newspaper's blog (West v. Savage re: fat people comes immediately to mind); there have been cupcake wars there; attempts to Guess The Messy Desk; many delightful pranks; and what I have come to call the Gloriously Surreal It's The Holidays And One Poor Bastard Is Left Behind To Run The Place. I look forward to the latter every holiday. I refuse to let my suspicion that those entries are mostly fiction get in the way of the bonus entertainment value that comes with taking it on faith that those entries are real.
I love the widely-roaming nature of Slog because it's random, informative and often hilarious. Slog is also one of the precious few internet(s) spaces where I will actually read comments threads, because of the quality of those comments. Generally.
Today, Slog brought to me this video below. Here's a cut/paste of the chatter that accompanied it that blog post:
Speaking of death and girls who just want to have fun, today brings the anniversary of the death of Robert Hazard, the American singer/songwriter who passed away in 2008. Here's his invaluable contribution to American culture (which you know and love and but maybe didn't know he wrote).
OMG I HAD NO IDEA. The meaning of the song changes in this original. Hmm. Admit that I also like the slightly more punk/raw approach. (Which is not saying I don't love Lauper's version, but it's like the difference between the original I Will Always Love You and the I Will Always Love You you're most likely familiar with. Same words. Not the same song.)