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Gary Stager

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The Help: A Teacher's Guide

Posted: 09/22/11 12:01 PM ET

The Opportunity

Some of your secondary school students have read The Help and many more will have seen this summer's film adaptation. This creates a critical teachable moment for educators.

This feel-good book and film only makes some people feel good. The more you know about the historical period depicted in The Help and understand the courageous struggle for civil rights, the less likely you are to forgive The Help as light entertainment.

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 percent 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.

... Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture.

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.

These are not the words of a casual movie critic. They are part of a powerful public statement issued by the Association of Black Women Historians. Yes, historians!

It is incumbent upon professional educators to provide a thoughtful context and facts that will help their students understand the truth surrounding the era depicted by The Help. At the very least, teachers should help students become aware of the controversy.

This is a teachable moment!

Many find The Help to be a well-written book. Why not ask students to read it AND a more historically accurate text like David Halberstam's The Children or Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi?

Irresponsibility

There are middle and high schools taking classes of children to see The Help as a field trip without providing any historical context or awareness that the film is controversial. Given the under-representation of minority voices and civil rights history in the curriculum, showing this film to school children implies historical accuracy to students who have no reason to know better.

Students are likely to think, "The film is popular and my teacher justified it as a social studies activity; it must be true." This strikes me as remarkably irresponsible on the part of educators.

In addition to the list of books recommended in the statement by the Association of Black Women Historians, I strongly urge every K-12 classroom teacher read Herbert Kohl's incredibly thoughtful book, She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Kohl describes how teachers, media and the curriculum reduce complex historical events into simplistic, inaccurate, feel-good cartoons. He dissects the fairytale of Rosa Parks taught to school children as an uneducated old lady with tired feet and corrects the record with facts about her preparation, courage and heroic struggle for equality. The second half of She Would Not Be Moved features invaluable strategies for teachers who wish to teach complex and controversial issues with clarity, objectivity and honesty.

Teachers who have read Kohl's book will approach The Help with greater sensitivity.

I am amazed and saddened when my liberal friends dismiss criticism of The Help as less important than their desire to a cinematic escapism. I wonder what the reaction would be to a film in which happy Auschwitz prisoners help their Nazi captors find their voice? Would we take classes of eighth graders to see that film?

The Mediaite website shares video of Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry reviewing The Help movie on MSNBC. She situates The Help in a long tradition of sanitizing the brutality suffered by women and people of color throughout our history. I strongly encourage you to watch this video. Here is a bit of the article discussing Dr. Perry's review.

"This is not a movie about the lives of black women," she clarified, as their lives were not, she argued, "Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi... it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities."

She then explained that it was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they "found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial," which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. "It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced."

Video resources

Here are some videos teachers may share with students or use to become better informed about the African American struggle for civil rights:


Books

There are numerous books written by experts about the Civil Rights movement. Here are a few appropriate for school teachers and students of various ages:

 

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