Racism is one of those manifestations of evil without which the world would be far better off. It is sinister in its slythering way, creeping into attitudes and dragooning consciences into presuppositions that may have at one time been based upon truth, but now only lie in truth’s shadow. Chameleonic, racism’s many forms can shine through even the best intentioned person. So every so often, when faced with someone so outrightly a bigot, such as the character of Ms. Hilly Holbrook, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, it is good to take a step back and reflect upon the ways in which individually one’s actions may be even remotely akin to someone like Holbrook’s, and make a sincere effort to change for the better.
This lesson, as well as many others, can be garnered from Stocket’s beautiful novel, so filled with vitality and love, it’s a thrilling joy to read from the get-go. That is of course not to say that its content brings nothing but cheer. But the breadth of love of some its characters brings joy to readers.
The Help centers on three main narrator’s stories, in alternating chapters. There is the near perfect, Aibileen Clark, the maternal, silently strong, and magestically humble maid to whom most readers will instantly cling and wish that in some other life, she could be their very own mother, aunt, or kindred spirit of any kind.
Then there is the perfervid Minny Jackson, the maid whom no one can supress, whose tenacity and sassy demeanor is as lovable as it is ferocious and undeterred by external factors that attempt to bring her down, be they the harsh 1960s social norms of Jackson, Mississippi or her long-time abusive husband or otherwise.
Lastly, there is the indefatigable Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the white girl who breaks away from her group of friends to realize that actions speak louder than words, but also in becoming a writer herself, and bringing about change in her community, she finds that words indeed have great power as well.
In reading the story of these three women, and the many wonderful and terrible characters that they encounter, it is striking that the injustices of yesterday even exisited. The insults spewed on a constant basis, the view that someone is less than simply because of the color of their skin, the ridiculous discussion and promotion of the separate bathroom for the maids, Jim Crow laws, etc. are all many manifestations of a simple attitude that underlies them all: white is better than black.
Even more disturbing is that this ideology is not non-existent today.
Progress has surely been made from the 1960s to 2011, and to state otherwise would be simply untrue. There certainly are no drinking fountains with signs reading “whites only,” shunning an interracial marriage in most circles is seen as ridiculous, and Oprah Winfrey consistently remains in the Forbes list of the most influential people, among many other things. Plainly said: a black man, Barack Obama, sits in the white house. If that is not progress, I do not know what is.
Yet, equality is not completely gained. We are not on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop. Instances of racism and ideologies of hate still exist everywhere. A story like The Help is important for people to read because it recalls an institution–the black maid in the middle and upper class white household–that was a corruption of the employer/employee construct, a vital system of a functioning economy.
Maids, however, were not treated as regular employees to their white employers, with reasonable hours, a just wage, benefits, vacation days, and a 401(k). They were treated as slaves, given a paltry sum so as to exuse their employers’ consciences, and looked down upon as though they were the scum of the earth; yet, ironically, they were given full responsibility of their employers’ babies, often acting as the true mother figures for the children, while the children’s actual mother went about her own business of the day. Those kids grew up more often than not viewing their maid as their mother and their mother as a distant relation before, that is, they grew old enough to have a reversal of thinking and be influenced many times to become just like their parents.
But not everyone adhered to this mold, as the character of Skeeter or even the somewhat aloof Celia, whom Minny tends to, and whose beauty and bubbly but sincere personality shine through the pages, demonstrate to readers.
That is the goal of the story, to touch on this necessity to break the mold, to not accept the venomous bigotry of the Hilly Holbrooks of the world, to realize that we are all just human beings, trying to make our way in this world, and we all need and deserve love and happiness and equity.
Slammed by some as being an essentially black story told by a white woman, I think that this criticism shortchanges the deeply fleshed out characters of Stocket’s story, as Viola Davis (who plays Aibileen in the film adaptation) states. (*NB: Scroll down to the comments section of that article linked to the sentence before this one to the very first commentor, “Michael,”–who, I’d like to clearly note, is not myself–when attempting to address stereotypes in Tyler Perry movies, his racist undertones completely negate his argument and reflect his ignorance, further indicating our societal need for continued growth and progress toward an end to racism in the 21st century).
Filled with humor and poignant moments, The Help is a must-read for everyone who believes that love is stronger than hate, and that real change is possible in eradicating racism from our lives entirely.