Thursday, September 8, 2011

The folly of empathy: Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

What if you try to walk a mile in somebody's shoes, but then the somebody says you stole his/her shoes?

I'm mired in the folly of trying to reconcile Kathryn Stockett's The Help (the book; I've not seen the movie) and the negative reaction to it. By "mired in the folly of trying to reconcile" I mean that I
  • was deeply moved and impressed by the book, which used the power of fiction, I felt, to cut off a slice of the rotten moral core of the Jim Crow South and shove it in my face;
  • was recently confronted by a scathing critique of the book/movie--written mostly by African-Americans and forwarded by progressive friends of mine--that accused Stockett of cultural appropriation and of foisting yet another "white savior" narrative upon an unsuspecting public;
  • discovered that the Association of Black Women Historians had issued an open statement protesting the book/movie, saying that it "distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers" and calls it a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy," the stereotypical black woman servant;
  • went back and read Stockett's afterword in which she discusses her self-doubts about trying to tell a story from the perspective of her grandmother's maid Demetrie about a time before she (Stockett) was born.
  • came upon an anonymous blog devoted to calling out all of the errors, inconsistencies, and problems with the book and the movie;
  • looked at the transcript of the NPR Talk of the Nation interview with Ida Jones, the director of the Association of Black Women Historians, in which Jones says that her principal objection to the book/movie is that African-American women "were not allowed to speak for themselves. There was no real voice of the women speaking for themselves. They were being marionetted and spoken for. So therein lie a level of distortion with regards to the actual lived experience of African-American domestic women." When asked why Stockett "gets it wrong," Jones replies "I don't think she gets it wrong. I would just simply say that she needs to package it--maybe she didn't have the right to do so--package it as a nostalgic reminiscence." NPR took four calls during the interview. All were positive about the book/movie. Two were from women who self-identified as black. One said she'd never had such a polarizing experience at a movie: all the white women came out crying out of guilt, and all the black women came out "smiling, uplifted."
  • recalled that The Help was an Oprah Book Club Selection.
Early on in the im-miring, a friend of one of my progressive friends (neither of whom had any use for Stockett's work) mentioned that she was the daughter of a former maid who worked for white people who lived on Lookout Mtn. This is near Chattanooga, where I grew up. In fact, I grew up on Chattanooga's other mountain, Signal Mtn. In fact, my family had African-American housekeepers.

In fact, long before The Help, I wrote a short story supposedly told by a white boy from Lookout Mtn. about the experience of getting to know the older brother of his black maid. At the time, I'd just learned about James Reese Europe, an influential but little-known African-American bandleader of the ragtime era. Also, as an oboist, I'd grown up playing a wonderful piece by the African-American composer (and oboist) William Grant Still. At the time, I wrote (very occasionally) short stories that were (very occasionally) published by the International Double Reed Society journal. They didn't print much fiction, and it was my thought that oboe fiction was something that the world needed more of. Be that as it may, I didn't submit this particular short story, the title of which was The Leopard.

But anyway, when Lookout Mtn. came up in the context of fiction written by a white American about a black American, I could say that maybe I'd been closer to that particular geographical aspect of this particular, painful American issue than anyone, and I wondered if any of the purported crimes of Stockett's fiction could be ascribed to mine. Had I marionetted anyone?

Even though my intention at the time (1996? 1997?) had been to honor the memories of two mostly unremembered stars in the American cultural firmament, and to point to the awful irony of living in a country that proclaimed equality while practicing a vicious form of racial prejudice that haunts us still, I now have the example of Stockett's undoubtedly well-meaning efforts before me, mired in misplaced empathy.

Which has me mistrusting my own.


  1. how do i follow your blog, Jud?

  2. I can't figure out what I think about this subject either. As someone who didn't grow up with this particular social issue in the forefront, I can't reconcile the objective of equality with what seems to amount to the objective to censor an entire point of view.

    My generation Y instinct is to want every viewpoint to express their experience so that I can read them all and judge them accordingly!

  3. My advice: Don't hold back, write your heart out and leave it all on the page.

    P.S. Happy belated birthday bro!