It ‘Helps’ to Be White

It takes a special kind of talent to take a civil rights novel about black maids to Hollywood. But do you also have to be Caucasian?

Kathryn Stockett
Kathryn Stockett

In one scene in the best-selling novel The Help, a spirited black woman has second thoughts about sharing the gory details of her life as a Mississippi domestic with a white writer who is part of the town’s bridge-and-tennis-playing aristocracy.

“What am I doing?” Minny says, in an uncharacteristic attack of self-doubt. “I must be crazy, giving the sworn secrets a the colored race to a white lady.” Later, she justifies speaking out in 1960s Jackson, even though she faces violence and never getting work again. “I … just want things to be better for the kids. But it’s a sorry fact that it’s a white woman doing this.”

I am kind of with Minny. I absolutely loved The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s wonderful book-within-a-book about segregation in her native, Mississippi. Here was a novel that tells the heroic story of black women who nursed white children and cleaned white homes while never missing a church tithing on Sunday. These women did the literal and figurative dirty work of the civil rights movement, sitting silently in the pews while the men in front of the pulpit made the magazine covers.

But with the movie version of The Help coming soon via Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks and the book making best-seller lists from Biloxi to Boston, Minny’s troublesome observation about white privilege is still relevant 50 years later. In the world of publishing and Hollywood, it helps to be talented, as Stockett clearly is. But it also helps to be white. The book’s title referred to 1960s maids, but the “sorry fact” is that in 2010 if colored people want to have a voice–and more importantly one that carries far and wide–you still need white help.

The plot follows Skeeter, a naïve 23-year-old aspiring writer, as she tries to impress a fancy New York editor by committing class suicide, turning the stories of black maids who worked for her white friends into a book. Through the voices of the white socialites and black maids as they march toward publication of Skeeter’s book, layers of irony are peeled back as secrets are told that got at the paradox of the black and white hands that rocked the cradle, but yet live worlds apart.

Stockett’s attempts at black dialect consistently miss the mark. But it is a credit to the authenticity of the characters and zippy plotting that I eventually put down my pencil, stopped correcting her Ebonics and enjoyed the ride. In the end, the maids experience a delicious, quiet victory. Those colored girls got a voice!

Stockett cleverly disarmed the inevitable criticisms of appropriation and exploitation through candid confessions from Minny and from another maid, Gretchen, who refused to participate in the book. Gretchen dismissed Skeeter as “another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.” In the afterword, Stockett acknowledges that she’s “crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.”

Stockett noted the generally positive feedback she’s gotten from the book in an interview with the Charleston Post and Courier. “People have been so forthcoming … wanting to share their experiences. Which was sort of shocking,” she said. “I think they were surprised that someone finally wrote about it.”

Actually, it’s more like, someone white finally wrote about it. Let’s look at the criminally underrated and uncelebrated work of Barbara Neely. Her Blanche White series is absolutely brilliant, pitch-perfect and probes at the issues of race and class from the perspective of a murder-solving black maid with a biting wit. I remember discovering them years ago, and thinking Neely’s Blanche is like a feminist response to Walter Mosley’s hard-boiled detective character Easy Rawlins. They are the same, delicious, pulpy read, sly commentaries about class and society. There is not a false note in any of her books. This is a writer who knows the correct Ebonics syntax of the verb “to be.” I can’t recommend her series enough. Buy every single one. Each takes about a day to read. And each gives you the same made-for-book-club pleasure that The Help gives you.

So why haven’t you heard of Barbara Neely? And why are her books selling for $1 on Amazon?