"Change begins with a whisper."
This is the tagline for The Help, Kathryn Stockett's blockbuster novel, which has been adapted for a film of the same name by Disney (starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone) and will hit theatres on Wednesday.
The Help follows five women from Jackson, Miss., in 1962 – two are black, three are white. One of the white women (Hilly) is a high-society bigot who believes fervently in the Jim Crow laws of the then-segregated South; the other two are, alternately, a clueless babe (Celia) and a heroic, aspiring writer (Skeeter), clearly modelled on To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout (Stockett mentions Harper Lee's novel three times). As for the black women: Aibileen has raised 17 white babies and works for the racist harpy; the other, Minny, is a firecracker who works for – and disdains – the hapless Celia.
The "whispering" of the tagline is the hushed conversations between the prejudiced white ladies, between the angry and frightened maids, and, finally, the maids' whispering to Skeeter, who holds top secret meetings and acts as their liaison and the novel's Deep Throat. Skeeter, who has been plagiarizing Aibileen's ideas for a domestic tips column, decides to write a book of transcribed conversations with 12 maids (her disciples, one assumes) and a chapter by herself. The book is called Help, and it's published by "Anonymous."
Stockett's book and the movie based on it are packaged in the colour purple; the character Celia, oddly enough, evokes the dauntless "Celie," the black heroine of Alice Walker's 1982 novel. Both novels address severe racial prejudice.
But Walker's book is distinguished by its place within a powerful continuum of African-American female artists. Stockett, a white Mississippi native, seems, incredibly, unaware of her competition – her novel is not only devoid of any deep insight into black women's lives, it exists in a cultural vacuum, seemingly oblivious to the impact of black artists and activists of the era she writes about.
All of this makes one lament the passing of essentialist arguments about appropriation of voice (the idea that oppressed people should write their own stories), as does reading dialogue like this:
"Don't you worry, Minny. We gone find you somebody deaf as a doe-knob, just like Miss Walter."
"Who you think you're talking to, Aibileen? A monkey?"
"I'm sorry, Lordy me."
This dialect – reserved for the black characters – is not so much racist as stylistic ineptitude. Were the author familiar with Zora Neale Hurston's work, for example, she may have fine-tuned her dialogue (Hurston was a black ethnographer and novelist whose pitch-perfect writing appeared in the 1930s during the Harlem Renaissance).
The book also seems unmindful of other inspirational figures of the period: While Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Dr. King and Medgar Evers are mentioned, it is always in passing, as if to further the bizarre idea that Stockett is a kind of "maid whisperer," revolutionizing the South with her story.
The idea of "whispered" change is nothing new for African-American women, as well as the black men and children, who, say, modulated or adapted their voices to pass each other life-saving messages.
And while the triple subjugation of poor, black women in the early 1960s is a cultural fact, their oral and written culture is substantial, their voices well-documented. Many memoirs by black women appeared in the heat of the civil rights movement, but one would never know this by The Help.
In the film, Minny speaks about getting "it" right, meaning her true story, and authentic voice.
Yet she and her friend, the gifted writer Aibileen, tell their stories anonymously to a white employer. They do it for reasons of safety. It reads as plagiarism: Skeeter crows to herself about "her book" and lands a prestigious job after its publication. Furthermore, doesn't finding a voice mean transcending anonymity? If Harriet Wilson could publish, in 1859, an autobiographical slave narrative under her own name, what is stopping Aibileen from writing her own book?
In the 1960s, political women across the board – black and white– recognized the power of the subjective voice; of the movement, through art, from object to subject. Why don't the maids recognize this power?
It's not as if they don't have striking role models: Sojourner Truth, Billie Holiday, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Brooks (who won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry 12 years prior to the era in the novel). Or Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man Aibileen says she has read.
But has Stockett?
Ellison did say that "the act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike." What is curious however, is why white folks are always plunging back into times of monstrous oppression against blacks, out of an interest that feels only self-serving. Why are blacks always depicted in crisis, almost always punctuated with slapstick (the film has a comic component; the book is filled with hack jokes)?
This is more than a disquieting novel: The violence against blacks includes an evil black husband and a naked, onanistic cracker, whose scene plays out like accidental pornography. Central to the novel's plot is also the recurring image of a maid excreting into the chief bigot's chocolate pie. If this is meant to elicit a cornball "Serves her right!" reaction, does it not also, horribly, fuse race and filthy waste? (Another convoluted plotline has a white woman, who advocates segregated facilities, finding toilets all over her lawn.)
So why the book's huge popularity?
Is the average reader unaware of fairly recent American history? Of the inarguably better work of Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Gayl Jones? What about the more accessible, still-powerful, pop novels of Bebe Campbell Moore and Terry McMillan?
If Stockett's book is about the truth (in this case) setting the black women of Jackson free, why does it seem so dishonest?
Perhaps the white ladies in The Help are vicious, but there are far worse things going on in Jackson in 1962. A black man is lynched in the book, but this gets so little attention, relative to the back-stabbing and conniving of white women and their intensive silverware-cleaning demands. The white men never assault black women (though history laughs at this vast improbability) and are otherwise peripheral and always hunting does – this is the kind of sterling metaphor I enjoyed in To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 11 years old.
The Help, ultimately, is best compared to Mean Girls playing in front of a blurry newscast of the Ole Miss riot.
And the great American civil rights movement, shouted, not whispered about, at its height, should not be open for revision.