Association of Black Women Historians comments on ‘The Help’

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

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

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5 thoughts on “Association of Black Women Historians comments on ‘The Help’

  1. I saw a tiny bit on an illegal website and just stopped watching it. It’s clear since ages that those in power will promote their own agenda. It just boggles my mind that we haven’t accepted that as fact and have all these expectations of other humans when we’re unable, when we’re able, to do justly for ourselves.

    • It’s clear since ages that those in power will promote their own agenda. It just boggles my mind that we haven’t accepted that as fact….

      I don’t know if this is what you meant, but it just reminds me of all the black moviegoers who still complain about not seeing enough black faces on the big screen. Do they think there can only be one Tyler Perry or one Spike Lee (they both bother me, but business wise what they have done can be replicated). I know Angela Bassett has a production company and Viola Davis just started hers, but to be honest, there should at least be hundreds more owned by African Americans, especially black women. I’ve stopped expecting Hollywood to be inclusive and creative with movie featuring or staring black actresses. If we want to see more of us in quality films, we have to get off our behinds and do it ourselves. Believe it or not (most AA people won’t believe it) there are non-black people in the industry who will support our projects.

      I’m with you. I’m not going to sit around complaining and venting, but not bother to start creating opportunities for myself.

  2. Thank you for posting this eloquent article. I’m also sick and tired of this one-dimensional representation of black womanhood, and I wish we would stop supporting it by buying the books, acting in the movies and buying theater tickets. Websites like yours (and mine – yes, it’s a shameless plug!) are what we need to be producing to transform our public image. We know who we are, and we now have the means to teach the world how to see us.

    • Carolyn, you can shamelessly plug your site up and down my blog if you would like. You have no idea how excited I was about traveling the world after I found your website (i believe you are on my blogroll). 🙂

      Honestly, from what I’ve heard from people (non-blacks) who have gone to the theater to watch the film, the audience has OVERWHELMINGLY been older white women…no surprise there. I was more weirded by the responses of the actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and them trying to explain why this wasn’t another “white savior” or “mammy” film. Meanwhile the white woman who wrote the book has been under fire from the families of the black maids this book is based on for distorting the characters and lying about certain aspects of what really happened.

      I understand these actresses need a paycheck, but, that does not mean I need to show up at the theaters. Viola just started her own production company (which there should more of, owned by black women) so maybe she can start telling the stories that she wants to tell.

      We know who we are, and we now have the means to teach the world how to see us.

      Exactly. No excuses. We HAVE the means to do it and it does not involved marching in the streets screaming “we is womenz too!” or continuing to have dialogue or talk about the behavior(why do we do that?) of people that we know are happy with status quo of the downtrodden black women. I think A LOT of the problems that black women face could be reduced if not be solved if we start putting ourselves first and accessing what is in our best interest.

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