January book club: “The Help”

I can’t believe November has almost ended and I still haven’t posted about the next book club. (I blame the Thanksgiving Staycation of 2011 in which I did such domestic tasks as knitting a scarf, building a chicken fence, eating slivers of pecan pie while standing in front of the fridge and watching as many Christmas movies as the boys would tolerate.)

My apologies, Feminist Kitchen book clubbers.

In an effort not to clog up an already busy month, we decided to skip December’s meeting and keep our eyes on Tuesday, January 10. For this meeting, let’s talk about “The Help,” the insanely popular 2009 book and 2011 movie that many of us have either already read/watched or at least heard something about.

I first wrote about “The Help” (the book) at the end of last year, and my glowing post (and later review of the movie in the Statesman) reflected the response that many youngish, middle class, white American woman had: Yay, isn’t it great that the racism reflected in this movie doesn’t exist anymore?!

So many people responded in this way that the Association of Black Women Historians wrote an open statement to fans, like me:

Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. … In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Members of the ABWH certainly weren’t the only people who felt like “The Help” didn’t do anything but help white women feel better about themselves. Toni Tipton-Martin, an Austin food writer and historian, has spent years reviving the stories of real-life Minnys and Abilenes to break The Jemima Code, the mythology that still persists about black cooks in America. In her blog of the same name, she recently wrote about “The Help,” a woman named Idella Parker, who wrote about her experience as a maid for popular American novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and recent encounter with a black maid in uniform in New Orleans:

Though slightly distorted by the mist of a steamy humid morning, I can see a narrow black woman in uniform as she emerges from a dilapidated Chevy. She waves goodbye to the elder lady behind the steering wheel, makes her way up the cobblestone walk and knocks on the door of an opulent southern mansion. As I jog by, I extend morning greetings to them both and realize that while I have been straining to hear the voices of accomplished Louisiana cooks over the loud and unrelenting gaggle surrounding the record-breaking book and film, real women of color are still reporting to work in the homes of wealthy families in these “post racial” times.

I can’t wait to talk about this book and movie at our next gathering. The book club — 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 10, at Thrice Cafe, 909 W. Mary St. — as always, is free and open to anyone.

2 responses to “January book club: “The Help”

  1. I absolutely loved the book and could not put it down. However, I was truly outraged at the audacity of the white women in the story and ashamed at the way they treated the very people that took care of their families and raised their children. It was disgusting and despicable how they thought nothing of destroying their lives by spreading lies and rumors about them for petty reasons. Although, this was a work of fiction, I know these stories were only tips on the icebergs of truth.
    To say we’ve come a long way from those days, is an understatement now, with a black President in office but to say we still have much work to do and a much longer journey ahead of us to get better at bridging that gap is an even bigger understatement.

  2. It was a pleasure to join the Feminist Kitchen group. We had an open and honest conversation, which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist much anyplace else. Thanks FK for tackling a controversial subject. We still have a way to go before this is truly a post-racial society.

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