Over the past couple of weeks, the reaction to the novel and film The Help has made for some illuminating reading regarding race, history, and literature. Among the most thoughtful pieces we've read this week was from the Association of Black Women Historians, who said:
[T]his statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
They outline their substantitive objections to the film in the statement, and conclude by saying, "In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment."
The statement includes a recommended reading list, which we reproduce below.
Like One of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress (Beacon Press)
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James (Riverhead)
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley (Penguin)
The Street by Ann Petry (Mariner Books)
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (Anchor)
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph (Cambridge University Press)
To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter (Harvard University Press)
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones (Basic Books)
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis (Smithsonian)
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (Dell)
The first book on the list, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life by Alice Childress, is excerpted below. The novel is comprised of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge. The book was originally published in the 1950s by a small publisher in Brooklyn (Independence Press), but Beacon Press brought out a new edition of it in 1986 with an introduction by the literary and cultural critic Trudier Harris.
The conversations in the book were first published in Freedom, the newspaper edited by Paul Robeson, and later in the Baltimore Afro-American. Childress is probably best-known for her book A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, and was also an accomplished playwright as well as a Tony-nominated actress. Before her success as a writer, she lived a life without economic advantages. In the introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Like One of the Family, Harris writes:
Chidress's upbringing and struggles in New York effectively influenced the kind of writer she would become. She says of herself: "I attempt to write about charactes without condescension, without making them into an image which some may deem more useful, inspirational, profitable, or suitable." She has also commented that she concentrates "on portraying have-nots in a have society, those seldom singled out by mass media, except as source material for derogatory humor and/or condescending clinical, social analysis."
Before these ideals could be realized, however, Childress had to serve a long apprenticeship. ... She pursued a variety of jobs, including assistant machinist, photo retoucher, saleslady, and insurance agent as she worked relentlessly to gain audiences for her work as a playwright, actress, and novelist. She also did domestic work for a few months; the day she quit she surprised her employer by throwing her keys at her head. The woman later asked her to return to work. This "only work" that Childress could find turned out to be valuable, for it provided her with firsthand experienece of the job situation she would later depict in Like One of the Family.
If You Want to Get Along With Me
from Like One of the Family by Alice Childress (Beacon Press, 1986)
Marge, ain't it strange how the two of us get along so well? . . . Now you see there! Why do you have to get so sensitive? . . . No, I was not reflecting on your personality or making any kind of digs! . . . Well, if you'll give me a chance I'll try to explain what I mean . . . I've known you for years and although you've got your ways . . .Yes, yes, I know I've got mine . . . but the important thing is that we go right on being friends . . . for example, remember the time you borrowed my best white gloves and lost them? . . . I know that I spilled punch on your blue satin blouse! . . . Now, wait a minute, girl! Are we goin' to have a big argument over how friendly we are!
I said all of that to say this. Today I worked for Mrs. M . . . and she is an awful nice lady when she wants to be, but she can get on my nerves something terrible. . . . No, I do not mean that you get on my nerves too, and if you keep pickin' up on every litte thing I say, I'm gonna get up and go on home. . . . Well, gettin' back to Mrs. M . . ., she can make me downright uncomfortable! . . . Yes, you know what I mean, she turns my workaday into a real socializin' session, and her idea of socializin' is to ask me a million questions. . . . "What do you do after work, Mildred?" and "Do you have a lot of friends?" and "Are you married?" and "Do you have a boyfriend" and "Do you save your money?" and "Do you like to read?" and "Do you people like this or that?" . . . By you people she means colored people... and I can tell you she can wear my nerve-cells pretty near the breaking point. . . . I know you know!
Well, at first I tried to get used to it because she is so nice in other ways . . . I mean like not followin' me around and dippin' into every thing I'm doing . . . yes, I appreciate that. . . . She lets me do my work, and then if anything isn't quite pleasin' to her she will tell me afterwards but it usually turns out that she's satisfied. Also I like the fact that she is not afraid of a little work herself, and many a day we've worked side by side on jobs that was too much for me to handle all alone. Also she makes the children call me Miss Jonhson. . . . Sure, whenever anybody has so many good ways, you hate to be pointin' out the bad ones. . . . But question, question, question... and it wasn't only the questions. . . . Honey, she could come out with the most gratin' remarks! . . . Honestly, she made such a point of tellin' me about how much she liked and admired Negroes, and how sorry she felt for their plight, and what a fine, honest, smart, and attractive woman was workin' for her mother and so forth and so on and so forth until it was all I could do to keep from screamin', "All right, back up there and take it easy!"
Well, the upshot of it all was that I began to pick her up a little here and there in order to put her on the right track. For example, I'd say to her, "What's so strange about that woman being honest and attractive?" Well, Marge, she'd look so stricken and hurt and confused that I'd find myself feelin' sorry for her. . . . No, I didn't stop altogether but I'd let things go along a bit and then I'd have to pick her up on something again, and over a period of five or six weeks I had to jack her up several times. . . . Girl! all of a sudden she turned coldly polite and quiet and I can tell you that it was awful uncomfortable and strained in the house.
I guess I could have stood the strain but it began to tear me up when she'd say things like "May I suggest" and "Do you mind if I say" and "If it's all right with you." . . . When I had my fill of that I came right out and asked her, "Mrs. M . . ., what is the matter, you look so grieved and talk so strange 'til I don't know what to think?" She looked at me accusingly and said, "I'm afraid to say anything to you, Mildred. It seems that every time I open my mouth something wrong comes out and you have to correct me. It makes me very nervous because the last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings. I mean well, but I guess that isn't enough. I try to do the right thing and since it keeps coming out wrong I figured I'd just keep quiet. I . . . I . . . want to get along but I don't know how."
Marge, in that minute I understood her better and it came to my mind that she was doing her best to make me comfortable and havin' a doggone hard go of it. After all, everything she's ever been taught adds up to her being better than me in every way and on her own she had to find out that this was wrong. ... That's right, she was tryin' to treat me very special because she still felt a bit superior but wanted me to know that she admired me just the same."
"Mrs. M ...," I said, "you just treat me like you would anybody else that might be workin' for you in any kind of job. Dont' be afraid to talk to me because if you say the wrong thing I promise to correct you, and if you want to get along you won't mind me doing so. After all, if I got into all your personal business and wanted to know everything about your life and your husband and your friends, pretty soon you would be forced to correct me even though it might make me uncomfortable." "Oh, Mildred," she says, "I didn't realize . . ." "Of course you didn't," I cut in, "but can't you see that it's unfair to push a one-sided friendship on me?" "Mildred," she says, "I wanted to be friendly." "Now of course you did," I answered, "but, for example, when you told me the other day that you're going to drop by my house and see me sometime I don't appreciate that because I never invited you, and you never had me to your house except to do a day's work." She looked down at her hands as I went on, "I don't think it's fair that you can invite yourself to my house and I can't tell you that I'll be over here for tea on Sunday afternoon."
Marge, she shook her head sadly. "You mean that there is nothing that we have in common, nothing that we can talk about?" "I didn't say that at all," I sad, "but let's just relax and feel our way along and not try to prove anything, and before you know it everything will go along easy-like."
She smiled then, "You mean you don't want to be treated special?" "Well, I do and I don't," I answered; "because I knew a woman once who was awful rude to me and said that was the way she was with everybody, no matter what color, and she didn't want to treat me special. I told her that if that was her general way then I'd appreciate her treatin' me special and I'd bet that other folks would like the change, too." Marge, Mrs. M . . . fell out laughin' and says, "Mildred, people are the limit!" ... And I guess she's right too. . . . No indeed, I don't take that time and bother with most folks because when I run into a mean, hateful one who comes chatterin' around me about "What do you do after work?" I just give her a short smile and say, "Oh first one thing and then another." And by the time she's figured that out, I'm in another room busy doin' something else! . . . That's right, but, as I said, Mrs. M . . . is a nice person, so I told her.