'The Help:' Rebirth of a painful genre

Kim McLarin | 8/24/2011, 1:45 p.m.
For two years I managed to avoid...

Why can’t I just see the book as a simple, personal tale that was not intended to carry any meaning beyond itself and therefore does not? Because as a writer and novelist myself I know better. I know that words matter, that words alter people’s perception of reality, and that doing so can change the world, for better or worse.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was also just a novel but when Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he said, “So you’re the little woman who started this great big war.”

My issues with the book are legion. They begin with the awful dialect of the black southern characters while allowing the white southern characters to speak in perfect English.

Secondly, the willfully blind and arrogant insistence that the relationship between privileged white women in 1960s Mississippi and the impoverished, often undereducated black women who had little choice but to depend upon them for employment —  and thus life itself — was fundamentally one of “love,” “equal” and “pure at heart.”

Love so deep that when the white protagonist’s maid (played heartbreakingly by the great Cicely Tyson in what may well be her final film role) is betrayed by her employer she dies of a “broken heart.”

When I saw the movie the audience was full of sniffly tears at this scene but I was fascinated by the implications. Think about that: This woman has lived all her life under the boot of the most vicious racism in the land and survived. Her daughter has escaped to Chicago and apparently carved out, against all odds, a sense of self-worth and identity. And yet she dies of a broken heart because a white woman turns her back on her.

With this plot point the author placed white people at the center of a black woman’s experience. And this, I think, is the crux of it, the heart of the book’s wild popularity and appeal. For some white Americans the greatest fear is not that black folks secretly hate them, it’s that black people find them irrelevant. Especially in matters of the soul and heart.

Sure, in 1960s Mississippi a black woman had to pay attention to white people for financial and personal survival. But hand over her love and her heart? Spend her time away from work worrying about her mistress or even the white children in her care? Whose experience is this, really? Whose fantasy?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. Next, there’s the ignorant misunderstanding of the civil rights  movement.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and every movement which preceded it, were not a petition. They were a demand. To quote Frederick Douglass: “There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.”

After that misinterpretation, and in no particular order of aggravation, other issues with “The Help” include:

• The suggestion that the civil rights movement was launched, or primarily driven, by altruistic white Americans.