Saturday, January 7, 2012
Why "The Help" Hurts the History of Black Domestics
First, try to evoke an image of a nanny. Next, think of a black nanny. Now, search your mind for a picture of an African-American domestic worker. Most people, at some point, envision a stereotypical "Mammy": a large, dark-complected woman who is always smiling because she is so gratified to be satisfying the needs of the white family she serves.
Melissa Harris-Perry examines the Mammy stereotype, as well as Sapphire, the Hottentot, the Welfare Queen, the Superwoman, and other media-promoted images of black women. In her book, the author investigates the debilitating political, cultural, and social pressures put upon African American women.
Your interest in this book by Professor Harris-Perry will be piqued by her views on the movie "The Help," which can be seen online on C-Span.
She explains real black women who worked as domestics when Medgar Evers died didn't have a Miss Skeeter. She encourages us to read the facts and explore the history. In reality, black domestics walked out of their jobs and protested in the streets themselves without help from any white people.
She suggests that Minny Jackson didn't need to find the courage to leave her abusive husband only after her white boss, Celia Foote, cooked her a meal.
When Viola Davis's character, Aibileen Clark walks out of her job in the oppressive South at the end of the movie, audiences cheer as if the character is a strong woman. But, Professor Harris-Perry questions why we applaud. In reality, Aibileen was walking into the oppressive South and would not have been hired again after being fired at that time and place. In reality, she actually may have been arrested because the white character Hilly Holbrook accuses her of stealing her silver.
Harris-Perry states her perspective about the movie just past the halfway point on the show, but we found the entire hour provocative and insightful. Please click here to see the entire program.
The author's strict adherence to analysis of empirical evidence and data is as welcome as it is uncommon. The concepts of fictive kinship, linked fate, and the crooked room are intriguing enough to justify purchase of the book.
The point of her book is that media-driven stereotypes lead to misperceptions by the public. Harris-Perry helps you understand race does matter. Gender does matter. She helps you see the importance of the structural barriers to individual achievement and the inherent inequality of using stereotypes to judge an individual. All women, especially black women, can benefit from reading this book.