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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: July 21, 2010 10:13 AM

An African-American Woman Wrote To Me: The Help Makes Us Look Ignorant & One-Dimensional

What's Your Reaction:

I'm not the guy you go to when you want to find The Hot and The New, but after months of watching women on the bus weep as they read The Help, I decided I ought to find out why so many tears were being shed.

I read it. And was stunned --- not only did I make it all the way to the end, it really was powerful, even moving. I gave the book to my wife, who has as little patience as I do but less free time. Same reaction. So, last October, six months after everyone else, I reviewed The Help.

Since then, Kathryn Stockett's book has known nothing but continued triumph. It's still selling so briskly in hard cover [to buy it on Amazon, click here; to buy the Kindle edition, click here] that there's no paperback in sight. The movie is being made by friends she trusts. And, on the bus, I see the next wave of weeping women.

Last week, a reader --- let's call her "Concerned" --- sent me an e-mail:

Hi -- I just read your review of The Help and am wondering if you are open to a discussion about why this book is so popular.

I am not one of the fans, rather, I am a person who is baffled by the success Ms. Stockett has enjoyed and a little bit disturbed by the way central characters were presented.

Your praise of the writing interests me. Obviously, your opinion is echoed by the majority of those who read this book. But I think you are better able to articulate what you liked about it and why.

I replied:

happy to chat

you start --
l) What did NOT work for you?
2) What DO you like to read?

To which "Concerned" wrote:

First, thanks so much for being willing to have a dialogue. I'm not into shouting matches and some of the conversations that I see online tend to turn into just that.

I'll answer the second question first. Fiction that I've read recently and loved reading include The Time Traveler's Wife, Olive Kitteridge, A Mercy, Blood on the Leaves, The Sound and The Fury, Garden of Eden, Devil in a Blue Dress (2nd or 3rd reading was just as much fun), Wild Seed and The Emperor of Ocean Park. I like both heavy stuff and what I call 'beach reads'.

As for the first question. What deeply troubled me about The Help almost from the very first pages, was the demeaning presentation of the maids. As an African-American woman with roots in Alabama, I'm familiar with our dialect and vernacular. I'm not at all opposed to it being used, but I bristle when it's misused to create an image of us as ignorant and one-dimensional.

I also, just overall, found the book to be very poorly written and edited. The plot points seemed to be telegraphed with a heavy hand and not very well thought out. Lastly, the language Stockett used --- or misused in my opinion --- reflects her own prejudices and inability to 'hear' the people about whom she is writing. In a way, this is worse than the original heinous acts that preceded the Civil Rights era because one assumes that a young, educated person writing today, has the means and opportunity to 'hear' the other without imposing his or her own prejudices on that voice.

That's why it surprised me that this book has been so overwhelmingly well received. I've been looking and looking to get a better understanding how people who enjoy this book experience it. The reviews on Amazon.com are a little too cursory to give me a good understanding.

I am hoping that you can help me understand how you felt while reading the book and perhaps shed some light on why this book is so enormously popular.

With that, "Concerned" had my full attention, It wasn't that she didn't "like" the book for any simple black/white reason -- in the writing, she saw what looked like a paradox. That is, a writer who greatly admires the African-American women who inspired the book created characters she unknowingly mocks.

I replied:

You write: "As an African-American woman with roots in Alabama, I'm familiar with our dialect and vernacular. I'm not at all opposed to it being used, but I bristle when it's misused to create an image of us as ignorant and one-dimensional."

Aha!

1) The book was written for whites.
2) She took a huge chance writing "black" talk? Not really. Blacks were not likely readers.
3) She (kinda) got those white bitches right.
4) Her readers cared less about the blacks (except as victims to pity) than about women (kinda) like themselves.

So.....you nailed it --- that is, for smart African-American readers like you.
BUT.....this book did a WORLD OF GOOD.
Because a lot of women who read it had to confront/overcome their own prejudices.

An interesting sidelight (maybe) -- re PORGY & BESS
After its premiere in 1935, no less than Duke Ellington said, "It has grand music and a swell play, but the two didn't go together. It does not use the Negro musical idiom --- the times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms."

A quarter of a century later, the producers of the film version had trouble assembling a cast. Harry Belafonte rejected their offer to play Porgy. Sidney Poitier took the part --- and wished he hadn't. Poitier later wrote that the movie insulted black people; when he chose clips of his best performances for his tribute at the American Film Institute, he picked nothing from Porgy and Bess.

And in 1985, when Grace Bumbry was a sensation as Bess in a Metropolitan Opera production, she slammed the opera: "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935."

These days, who thinks ill of PORGY & BESS?

"Concerned" replied:
Thanks for the insight that this book helps some people confront their prejudices. I had not been able to see this book from that perspective.

I guess also, that's what concerns me. Well-meaning people are probably looking for honesty and authenticity in this book. I don't think The Help delivers on either front.

Reducing characters (both black and white) to stereotype caricatures does little to add to real understanding.

I went back and re-read your review of The Help and was struck by your description of Polly Heidelberg. In just a couple of paragraphs, I got a more nuanced and three-dimensional view of Miss Polly than of any of the characters in The Help. Perhaps I have too much faith, but I believe that in 2010, we are ready for and able to swallow ideas that are complex.

With that, our substantive exchange ended. I was glad for it --- conversations like this are what makes this medium actually "interactive," and being able to share it with you, while it's still fresh, is also sweet. And it makes me want to revisit what I wrote.

That is, I want to talk about Polly Heidelberg. I spent part of my childhood in the South --- the little Jewish boy in a segregated North Carolina. My parents lived in Tennessee for 25 years. Going to visit them was pleasure doubled --- I really like the South, and not in some quaint or condescending way.

In 1987, when I joined the staff of Vanity Fair, I arranged for one exemption in what was, in every other way, an exclusive contract --- I could write two pieces a year for the New York Times Magazine on subjects of no great interest to VF. That is, the poor and the black.

One of the pieces I wrote for the Times Magazine was The '64 Civil Rights Murders: The Struggle Continues. You know: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Andrew Goodman, killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

It is a measure of the symbolism of these killings in our national consciousness that it was here, in the summer of 1980, that Ronald Reagan gave the first speech of his Presidential campaign --- never mentioning the murders but announcing that "I believe in states' rights." Nine years later, I could still feel the tension. But even more, I could share some stories of courage beyond anything I got to see in my sheltered life in New York media.

One stands out: Polly Heidelberg, an elderly African-American who worked as a maid --- and helped the civil rights workers, even as they helped her. In my review of The Help, I quoted this section of my piece:

She didn't become an activist, she told me, until January 1964. ''I was a slave until I met Mickey Schwerner,'' she emphasized, as we sat on the porch of her home in Meridian. ''And when I met him, I didn't understand a word he said. But I began to feel free. I asked him if I could work with him at his school. He said, 'Are you from here?' I said, 'No, I'm from everywhere.' He laughed. 'Then you be a good friend of mine,' he said, and we started a family relationship."

''I brought food and clothes to Mickey and Rita. And I'd go to school. Sometimes I'd say, 'I'm tired, I can't do this.' Mickey would say, 'You're doing good --- now, what are you bringing for dinner tomorrow?' And I kept at it. I remember when I learned my 25 words. Mickey jumped up."

''Political? Oh yes. I was arrested for picketing Woolworth's. Spent five days in jail. They had me ask the questions at the store because they knew I'd speak up --- see, I didn't want to be a slave anymore. The officer who took us in was so pitiful. He said, 'Big mama, I hate to arrest you.' I said, 'You go on with your job, 'cause I'm goin' on with mine.' ''

Then Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared.

"When their bodies were found, sorrow rode across Meridian like the dark covered the sun. People could not stand it. We had a church service. We all wore black skirts, but we wore white blouses and carried candles to let people know the light was still burning.''

After that desperate expression of hope, the sadness returned. ''You never saw a lady weep like Rita Schwerner when it was time for her to leave. When we were packing her things, she told us she loved us and our children. She said, 'Miss Polly, you were the light in my path.' I said, 'Rita, you were the light I held.' And we held each other and cried.''


My conclusion, back in October of 2009:

Miss Polly is too painful, too real, for a novel like The Help, which doesn't sugarcoat racism but keeps the guns and violence always a few miles away. Smart thinking. In popular fiction like this, riling readers with false accusations of stolen silverware works just as well.

Sadly, nothing that has happened since the Fall of 2009 has changed my opinion. We were a nation of children then. Now, thanks to a deliberately stupefying mass media and the exhaustion of coping in a troubled economy, we seem even more infantile.

And something else: We are a crueler nation today. I think compassion still exists --- on the personal level. But in politics and in corporations, I have never seen less compassion for people who are struggling. Even worse: When successful people talk about the victims of downsizing and a bum economy, there's a kind of glee, like America is some kind of meritocracy and if you don't have anything, you don't deserve anything. Jimmy Breslin once told me that "The poor can never be made to suffer enough." I thought he was just being clever. Not so.

Which is why I still admire The Help. My review, I now see, is wrong about one thing --- "The black Southern dialect will someday seem mawkish; today, it still sounds right," I wrote in my review --- and I am indebted to "Concerned" for the correction.

But I continue to think that the novel's "modest historical awareness" is a start. Especially for women, who are, more often than not, the agents of change and compassion in the lives of their families and communities. They certainly have their work cut out for them in the hatefest taking place all around us. May The Help give them courage. And may African-American women --- and how tired they must be of hearing this from white Americans --- have patience with us.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]