Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help reviewed: bell hooks, Oprah, and Melissa Harris-Perry

In the previous post, I gave you homework to read The Help and to see the film.  Let me now confess I haven't finished the book.  My spouse did, and she gave it, some reluctantly, to a former neighbor, our friend before I had a chance to read it all.  I say "some reluctantly" because our friend, our former neighbor, is AfricanAmerican and we're not.  We're EuroAmericans.  And we'd read the reviews by bell hooks and by Oprah Winfrey.  And if you haven't yet seen the reviews, then I'll share them here, including the very important one also by Melissa Harris-Perry.

Anyway, our friend's spouse called me last night.  It was the first time we've spoken since we moved nearer where I work, away from the former neighborhood.  He's also AfricanAmerican.  He called to invite me to attend a "man" conference at The Potter's House tonight in Dallas, a conference led by T. D. Jakes.  So in just a bit, I'll drive up to our friends' home and go with him.  If we dare, we might discuss men and women and black and white, and The Help, written not by an AfricanAmerican although a portrayal of AfricanAmerican women through the telling by a character not an AfricanAmerican woman.  bell hooks may or may not be someone we discuss tonight, although I'd like to ask my friend taking me to the T. D. Jakes conference on manhood how she might critique what we're doing. 

When my spouse first brought home The Help to read, my first question was, "I wonder what bell hooks says about this book?"  I knew what hooks had said about "Homeplace: a Site of Resistance."  She said:
Throughout our history, African-Americans have recognized the subversive value of homeplace, of having access to private space where we do not directly encounter white racist agression. Whatever the shape and direction of black liberation struggle (civil rights reform or black power movement), domestic space has been a crucial site for organizing, for forming political solidarity....(page 47, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics)
When I was a young girl the journey across town to my grandmother's house was one of the most intriguing experiences... there ... all that loud talk, the talk that was usually about the old days ... but also how we lived and survived as black people, how the white folks treated us.  I remember this jouney not just because of the stories I would hear... because we would have to pass that terrifying whiteness -- those white faces on the porches staring us down with hate....  Such a contrast, that feeling of arrival, of homecoming, this sweetness and the bitterness of that journey, that constant reminder of white power and control.
I speak of this jouney as leading to my grandmother's house, even though our grandfather lived there too.  In our young minds houses belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith. The folks who made this life possible, who were our primary guides and teachers, were black women. 
Their lives were not easy.  Their lives were hard.  They were black women who for the most part worked outside the home serving white folks, cleaning their houses, washing their clothes, tending their children -- black women who worked ..., whatever they could do to make ends meent, whatever was necessary.  Then they returned to their homes to make life happen there.  This tension between service outside one's home, family, and kin network, service provided to white folks which took time and energy, and the effort of black women to conserve enough of themselves to provide service (care and nurturance) within their own families and communities is one of the many factors that has historically distinguished the lot of black women in patrcarchal white supremacist society form that of black men.  Contemporary black struggle must honor this history of service just as it must critque the sexist definition of service as women's "natural" role.
. . . [they fostered] a radical political dimension . . . [and created] a site of resistance and liberation struggle (page 41, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics)
I shall never forget the sense of shared history, of common anguish, I felt when first reading about the plight of black women domestic servants in South Africa, black women laboring in white homes. Their stories evoked vivid memories of our African-American past....
I want to remember these black women today. The act of remembrance is a conscious gesture honoring their struggle, their effort to keep something for their own. I want us to respect and understand that this effort has been and continues to be a radically subversive political gesture. For those who dominate and oppress us benefit most when we have nothing to give our own, when they have so taken from us our dignity, our humaness that we have nothing left, no “homeplace” where we can recover ourselves. I want us to remember these black women today, both past and present. (Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics pages 42-43).
hooks got me remembering Nancy.  Nancy was The Help for my white family when I was a little boy in Corsicana, Texas USA during the Jim Crow era.  Did Nancy or her daughters and sons fear when they passed into our neighborhood and into our home?  And what subversion of the segregation in very very profound ways.  What feminism.  What love in contrast to hate.  What a critique of the status quo, of the power, of the white supremacy, of the patriarchy.  I've asked my dad and mom if they know where she is today.  What is she doing?  No, they tell me- they don't know.

So how does bell hooks critique The Help?  Isn't it about black women, the very ones she remembers and wants historically to be remembered?  Here's her fair and good and just assessment:
“Here, I’m going to be mean,” she said, noting that the books she would mention are beloved by many, including The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Help, and The Secret Life of Bees. “These books are seen as showing the organic, fun time we can have together,” she said. “Regardless of race, we can be light, sentimental, we don’t have to be political.” Then she called this avoidant perspective for what it is: “… bullshit.”
Stockett, who wrote this book because she was inspired by her own perceived experience, is seen by hooks as “slobbering” all over her nanny, who Stockett admittedly hadn’t seen since she was 16. “She didn’t know what happened to her,” hooks said. “How does she know this black woman forgave her? She doesn’t tell us where she got her information from, but she doesn’t have to, because that wasn’t the point of the book.”
hooks addressed this thread as well: that these books want to perpetuate the outright mythology (my word, not hooks’) that women of multiple races and ethnicities are not really separated by anything after all: “we’re just two people with nothing standing between us,” hooks said. But there is a difference, and it’s that “white folks are not called to extreme choices.” And it is often those who have the luxury to decline to be political, because they can be, who oppose Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial readings of texts, who like to say things like “let’s not get all political about this,” who prefer to approach “the text on its own terms,” who are perpetuating the fiction that social equality has been achieved: “by centering on the lives of women” in these books, hooks said, “the anti-feminist, pro-racist idea is pushed that the patriarchy has been dismantled, that it has ended, that there is no need for feminism, and that society is now post-racial.”
“Bonds of affection?” hooks asked. “Why not also show the rage, the anger, the hatred, as well as the bonds of affection?”

Applying frank, powerful and controversial racial analysis to leading theories has been the intellectual duty that hooks has fulfilled for decades, and hearing her speak on such terms was remarkably refreshing and inspirational. At IC on Tuesday, she used her hallmark description of the American political system, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, over and over again, and she sounded at once dated and invigorating, both antiquated and completely fresh. The black feminist perspective that she fashioned is threatened by an encroaching social and political fascism that she mentioned toward the end of the talk. But she emphasized Pema Chodron in her approach to “start people where they are” and to find the “openings” in seemingly airtight systems: “what I learned from Foucault is that there are no closed systems,” she said. “All systems have openings. You have to find the openings.”
For hooks, that opening was in writing. Once she started writing, she said, “suddenly there was room for me in a system that doesn’t want me and doesn’t pay me well.”
In response to the person who asked about giving up privilege, and in response to someone else who suggested that demolishing the class system must precede any kind of social equality, hooks emphasized that the formation of strong and healthy self esteem is crucial to what she called “mutuality:” equality might be beyond the scope of what is immediately realistic, but no matter how much privilege you have, you don’t need to dominate others, she said, and for this, “the challenge is to be engaged where we are, loving ourselves and others, where we are. This is crucial to our struggles.”
The above is a report by Danielle Winterton, who heard bell hooks when she appeared at Ithaca College Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010.

Now, here's Oprah, from O Magazine:
Then: The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
464 pages; Amy Einhorn/Putnam

Practically from the moment it was published in 2009, the reading world embraced Kathryn Stockett's The Help, a debut novel about black maids who finally speak up about their white employers during the civil rights movement. A fixture at the top of most best-seller lists, it became the feel-good book of the year.

Now: Glorious
By Bernice L. McFadden
250 pages; Akashic

Bernice L. McFadden's riveting novel, Glorious, starts in the Jim Crow South and moves to the Harlem Renaissance, and finally to the same civil rights era Stockett chronicled, but it's a grittier, more brutal tale. Easter Bartlett, a young black woman, flees Georgia after seeing too much, including a mob lynching of a pregnant woman. Easter is no victim, though. In Harlem she encounters a world where crowds gather to cheer the "Black Moses" Marcus Garvey and publishers enthuse about the exotic genius of "Negro" writers. Still, it's hardly a postracial paradise. McFadden—in vivid vernacular—brilliantly skewers the vanity of self-congratulatory liberals. A white woman returning from Paris with her black lover gushes, "Before our encounter, I had never even spoken to a Negro. They were invisible to me and now I see them everywhere!" Easter achieves some brief literary fame, but by 1961, she is tired, and battered by stubborn racial attitudes. In confronting one final injustice, she doesn't just survive; she triumphs—gloriously. — Karen Holt
And Oprah is listening, liking the book but wanting to hear what others say and think about the movie.  She's publicly called for our opinions.

And then, finally, here's Melissa Harris-Perry noting how the film based on the novel neglects the history that “it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities”:

So now I'm off to hear T. D. Jakes.   I wonder if he's seen or read The Help, what he thinks.  Maybe tomorrow I'll have opportunity to say more.


Jim / Random Arrow said...

“.. this is the way we go to church.”

Thanks. Excellent series of posts on the help.

I feel like the teenager who broke down the V-8 and forgot to make a diagram how to put the engine back together. I read these posts and suffered the consilience disease (consilient inductions) and my brain raced over to, “But the earth helped (based on boētheō) the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon poured out of his mouth” (Rev 12:16).

I wanted the earth as the help for the woman. Me and Lynn Margulis. With the earth swallowing the river from the dragons of male patriarchy ala Grudem. And this insight seemed great. Until I broke down the V-8 engine (aorist, active, indicative) and I wanted to interpret it as an imperative constant and continual action.

J. K. Gayle, my infidelities in wanting to force this text reminded me of your kind corrections about, “he cannot speak for her.” Meaning here I cannot speak for the earth who – helped – the woman. So here are my broken thoughts on the earth helping the woman. Maybe you can put this text together and rebuild the V-8 engine better than I.


One final thing – Gayle snorted out a mule-brilliant comment on Two Mules for Sister Sara awhile back. Galye’s comment mulishly irritated me. Until I watched and re-watched Sister Sara four more times.

Gayle! See and use the subtitles! Right from the beginning. The movie starts point blank with a song by rapists ... “this is the way we go to church, this is the way we go to church.”

The gang of men sing this song as they are raping her – “this is the way we go to church.”

The movie is far better than I remember.

Thanks for the pique.


J. K. Gayle said...

The movie [Two Mules for Sister Sara] is far better than I remember.

Jim, Thank you for the rich comment!