By Rebecca Theodore
It is a fantasy of a post racial America narrated in the voice of a black person by a white woman. It is a story of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a time and place when black women helped raise white babies, and yet could not use the same bathroom as their white employers.
Set in the Deep South, ‘The Help’ portrays African-American women in subjugated roles and relies on tired stereotypes of black men. ‘The Help’ misrepresents African American speech and culture and omits civil rights activism.
‘The Help’ calls up memories for many affluent whites of being nurtured and cared for by black women, who might have been more like mothers to them than their own white birth mothers.
It is in ‘The Help’ that novelist Kathryn Stockett opens up old racial wounds and presents a deluded picture of hope for black people, who are still considered to be subhuman by mainstream white America.
And I am not amused.
I am not amused because Stockett has maligned the lines between black and white women in America and the Caribbean and it is not impolite of me to write about it. I did not experience slavery or the ravages of the civil rights movement but I am the offspring of slaves who left the same African port but anchored on a different shore, therefore I have the right to speak for I have no fear of being heard.
I do not speak African American vernacular English because I was born on a Caribbean island called Dominica, where vestiges of slavery still decorate the landscape. I was taught the perils of slavery by West Indian historian, Dr Eric Williams in the ‘Making of the West Indies’ and ‘Capitalism and Slavery.’
And I am disturbed.
I am disturbed because Ms Stockett has crossed a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I speak a different accent and I do not understand that voice. The ‘infantilization’ of black women in ‘The Help’ also includes me and my Caribbean sisters everywhere, for we know what it is like to be told in America, “You have a different accent.”
Ms Stockett, Caribbean women may not have raised white babies to be racist like you but there are many Caribbean domestic workers living in the South. The brutal rapes and sexual harassment that they experience behind the iron gates and closed doors of white employers never make the headlines because they are denied the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. They have little recourse to challenge abusive behavior and no union protection. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans sexual harassment in the workplace, but domestic workers do not enjoy this privilege because the private space of a home, behind closed doors or iron gates does not constitute a workplace.
Reports from the United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women concludes that half of all foreign domestic women workers in the South report that they are victims of verbal and physical abuse and rape.
Yes, Ms Stockett, their hushed violence continues in silence while you profit as the hero.
You have used racism as a means to engender white solipsism by allowing white women the power to make it seem that their experiences are wholly representative of all women’s experiences, thus resulting in misinterpreted myths and the advancement of your history by exploitation and greed.
And I am angry.
I am angry because you have made slavery appear as a convenient formula for others to follow. You have used racism as stigmata for entertainment and have belittled the experiences of domestic workers in America and the Caribbean.
But I’ll forever be a confident black woman.
I will be a confident black woman because I know my history and I have powerful black role models as my guide. You have used the dependable voices of Abilene, Minnie and Skeeter to further deify systematic racism in America.
But at the end, you still needed black women to tell your story. At the bitter end, Ms Stockett, you still need black women as your guide.
August 17, 2011