08/28/2011 05:54 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2011

Historians Respond: Who Needs The Help ?

Co-authored by Thavolia Glymph

The Help has stirred up a controversy.

On the one side are the faithful fans of the book-turned-film who have enthusiastically praised its moral lessons, believable characters and insider's view into the lives of black women domestics in the mid-20th century South, an interpretation author Kathryn Stockett leaves room for. "The Help is fiction, by and large," she writes, positing an implicit claim about the reality of black and white women's lives during the 1960s.

On the other side stand the mostly black writers, intellectuals and historians who have challenged the problematic and often inaccurate portrayal of black women in the film and the troubling way that the civil rights movement is treated. As Martha Southgate incisively stated, "within the civil rights movement, white people were the help."

Indeed, the fantasy life of the Old South is given new life in the book through the story of Fay Belle. The elderly woman remembers hiding from the dreaded Yankees in a steam trunk with her young mistress during the Civil War and cradling her former mistress in her old age. They were "best friends" to the end. Amazingly, the elderly black woman would have been at least 100 years old when Skeeter interviewed her. But, no matter. This is "fiction, by and large."

If fans placed themselves in the position of Rachel, the very minor black character in the film, they might have a better understanding of the plight of black women domestics.

Rachel is the daughter of Constantine, who is subsequently fired simply because Rachel makes an unexpected early visit to see her mother. We learn that Rachel and Constantine then move to Chicago, because Constantine cannot survive on her own in Mississippi once she is without employment, but ironically when she makes it to the North, she dies.

From Rachel's perspective, Skeeter is essentially irrelevant. Yet, according to the logic of the film, Skeeter is a hero because she exposes the rotten reasons why Constantine got fired and, most of all, she reveals the evilness of Hilly Holbrook, the film's leading antagonist. But that's not the point. The point is that black women had no choice but to work as domestics. Once Constantine was fired, she lost everything; there were no other options available to her. Racism is structural, not the result of a white character's personality or a black character's indefatigable work ethic. It does not matter how sassy Minnie was or how scrumptious her pies were, the systematic economic forces that produced racism forced her to pull her daughter out of school so that she could work as a maid to help pay the bills.

The problem with The Help, therefore, is that it tells the story of black oppression as a story of a good versus evil in the way Sunday school lessons are taught to 5-year-olds. As long as Aibileen can muster up the courage to call Hilly a "godless" woman, then she is redeemed and Hilly is punished. Yet, racism is not defined by how sharp Hilly can squint her eyes or broadcast an accusation. Rather, racism is the result of economic forces that separated blacks from whites, rich from poor, and made it downright impossible for black people to escape abject poverty, no matter how much they shined the silver or how well they cared for the white children whom they raised.

Domestic work is a job. It is a job that historically has devolved to people all over the world who are prevented -- by race, class and ethnic proscriptions -- from holding any other kind of job. Domestic workers do not love their employers and their employers do not love them, which does not rule out the capacity for sympathy or empathy on either side.

If black women employed to take care of white children did that job well, that need not be translated as "inexplicable love." Fans of the book-turned-film might well ponder why employers of domestic workers needed to feel loved by people they hired and expected to work under the most degrading circumstances.

The intimacy embedded in the very nature of the household work and the supposed privacy of the site in which it is carried out may mimic family relations but can neither create nor sustain them. The fictional white employers of the fictional Jackson, Miss., came from a long line of women who had organized to fight for separate restrooms, drinking fountains and accommodations for their "help" and all black people.

Just because you want to provide the black women's perspective does not mean that you did. Just because you think you are embarking on a social justice crusade does not mean you have not redefined stereotypes in the process. Just because the civil rights movement happened does not entitle you to write about it without understanding it -- even if a black woman raised you.

Jim Downs is an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College and author of "Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction" (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Thavolia Glymph is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Duke University and author of "Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household" (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

First published in The Durham News, Sunday, August 28, 2011.