Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Help and The South

The Help:

I have heard a lot of buzz about The Help. Most recently, I attended a guest lecture where bell hooks railed on the book for almost an hour. I think bell was largely being unfair. This novel is at once mediocre, complex, trifling, keen, clumsy, charming, detestable, and engaging.

I started blushing on the first page. Roughly two-thirds of the book is written from the perspective of poor black women. The voice for the first of these, Aibileen, is embarrassingly stereotyped. She uses no form of to be other than be. Her tenses are muddled, and it felt like Ms. Stockett just used "Find" and "Replace" on Microsoft Word to turn every of into a. (I would love to see a video of Stockett going over the manuscript to herself, working on those accents.) And some of the philosophies of these black women are absolute white Yuppie nonsense. One of the maids realizes it's her calling in life to help one of the little white kids develop a healthy self-esteem. I have known many a black woman, but I have never met that one. I was almost ready to give up on the book after the first two chapters, but I felt like Minny was less offensive and much more engaging. Through the whole book, though, I couldn't stop thinking, why would a white woman choose to write a book in the voice of two black women? It is so easy to botch, and it can make you seem so racist so fast. I figured Ms. Stockett was just a down-right fool.

Then I read this quote she has tucked in the back of the book. "There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism." So says Howell Raines. And so I wonder why Ms. Stockett chose this as her exclusive subject matter. I no longer think she's a fool—she's either courageous or crazy.

bell hooks accused Stockett of oversimplifying race relations. To an extent I agree. "Why not also show the rage, the anger, the hatred, as well as the bonds of affection?" asked hooks. But I don't think bell is being entirely fair. Stockett does have several tense scenes between the help and the white women. At one point, one white woman refers to her help as her friend, and the maid sets her brutally straight. But had this been a Richard Wright novel (which I feel does more justice to the the complexity of race relations and the deadly naïveté which accompanies so many of the people who think they can immediately change things), our white activist protagonist, Miss Skeeter, would have wound up dismembered in a furnace rather than waltzing into the rosy ending of Stockett's novel.

Which leads me to my two major complaints about this book. First, I cannot stand Miss Skeeter. She is shallow, selfish, rude, treacherous, and mostly a heartless opportunist. Yet this is the character white readers are supposed to be able to connect with. Because she went to Ole Miss and never got a boyfriend, she's been somehow enlightened and can see her society through the lens of a retrospective futurism which belongs more in 2011 than 1964.

Second, this book wants so badly to pay homage to the great Southern writers. Stockett invokes the names of Faulkner and Harper Lee like an incantation. The very structure of the novel screams Faulkner. But Faulkner she is not. She actually gives up on the polyphonic stream-of-consciousness narration for one chapter, and we get a regular third person narrator. That chapter is, artistically speaking, the biggest blemish in the book. It screams that her ambition was beyond her capability. It was clumsy, and this narrator sounded exactly like Miss Skeeter, anyway. I know why she gave up—there was too much going on for her to keep it all in one voice. I wish, then, that we had heard the events of the evening from multiple people. Faulkner was so good at this. Just remember that most infamous five-word chapter from As I Lay Dying, "My mother is a fish."

The South:

(Image by Walter Anderson)
 But I would be lying if I were to say I didn't get a lot out of this book. Like Stockett, I was raised in the South, but left it as an adult. I too know the difficulty of being a displaced Southerner. Looking at the South from the outside, I can see so many faults I had not noticed as a child, but I am even more fiercely devoted to the richness and beauty of life in the South. No slighting word against Mississippi remains uncontested in my presence. I'm so quick to refute any doubters with Walter Anderson prints (I have a huge one hanging above my sofa) or rattle off a list of the great Mississippians.

The South—especially Mississippi—is a huge paradox. A rich literary heritage and the highest illiteracy rate. Rampant obesity and obsession with body image. A social structure which is at once all-inclusive and entirely alienating. And so it is difficult to do Mississippi justice, which I think is why all of us displaced Mississippians get so defensive of our little state. For instance, I hate Haley Barbour's swelling guts, but I still cringe when Stephen Colbert cuts into him.

Also, I think it's difficult for people outside of the South to understand how powerful the collective thinking is down there. When I first came out to college in Utah, I was shocked to see some people walk into class wearing cloaks and toy swords. They looked like rejected extras from Lord of the Rings. I thought this was some sort of college anomaly—some way of getting back at their parents who prematurely forced their children to stop playing dress up. Then I found out that in California and other places, kids would dress up like that to their High School classes. I really could not believe it. No one would dare dress up like an elf and walk into Oak Grove High School. You'd get the mess beaten out of you.

Another great example of group-mentality in the South is how Mississippi absolutely shut down these fools who came to protest the funeral of a soldier. Everyone from the law enforcement to the local yokel seemed in on it. If we don't want something to happen, we will collectively find some way to make sure it fizzles out and dies, for better or for worse. I mean, we invented Jim Crow laws. We are the kings of sticking it to the Man and having our way regardless.

And of course what any Yankee will think of first when thinking of the South is racism. This is a touchy subject for Southerners. For one, I can't listen to any Utahan tell me about how racist Southerners are against black people, when this fool has never met a black man in his life, and he treats any Mexican as a non-human. "But it's different. They're Mexicans!" he will say.

That said, I've only recently realized how racist I was as a kid. One question The Help explores is where does racism begin? Stockett concludes that it comes from the authority figures in the homes and schools of white children. I disagree. I remember being mortified by the idea of a black person and a white person being in a relationship together until I was in my later teens. I don't think my parents felt that way at all, nor would any teacher dare say such a thing in one of my classes. I also remember being in first grade and thinking that black kids were somehow inherently smelly and dirty. I certainly did not learn that in my home. These are embarrassing things to admit, but I do so because anyone who knows my family knows I did not learn those things from them. I think I just picked up that paradigm from the collective mentality of southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

But subject as I was to the collective mentality, I was also keenly aware that I was not a pure Southerner. There isn't a lot of social room for Mormons in the Bible Belt. Of course I had friends in high school—great friends—but we looked like the U.N. in comparison to other groups in the cafeteria. Not only did we have the standard trio of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, we also had a Jewish girl, an Episcopalian, a Mormon, and occasionally a Catholic. Also, we were chummy with some Asians. But as a Mormon, I always felt like I never really fit into Southern society as a whole. I've never been comfortable wearing or seeing JESUS SAVES T-shirts because being in a religious minority, religion was an intensely personal and even private affair. (This is something I really struggled with when I came to Utah. I wasn't comfortable being comfortable in a majority.) And being "cast out of the synagogue," so to speak, has real social consequences.

I think because I always felt excluded from the socio-religious aspect of Southern life, it affected how I felt about other things. For example, when we moved from Tennessee to Mississippi when I was eleven, I was amazed to see someone driving around with a confederate flag hanging out of his truck. My first thought was, "This guy is going to get shot." And even after I saw how common it was in Mississippi (it's on the state flag, above), I never really got comfortable with it. (Chalk this one up as another Southern paradox: unquestioningly patriotic and inexplicably anarchic.) Also, before I went to college the only places I had lived were (in order): Hammond, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Franklin, Tennessee; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Nevertheless, when I first moved to Hattiesburg, I was accused by several people of being a Yankee. Take another glance at my resumé. Nothing on that list could possibly be perceived as Yankee. But there was something about me that clearly did mark me as an outsider. Even though I don't think my Mormonism per se was showing, I think that was the root of my "otherness" in the South.

All that said, any time I feel a warm breeze, I can't wait to go running back to the South. It's my home, and I love it—incongruities, paradoxes, insanity and all. I love the sight and smell of rhododendron wonder that is an azalea in bloom. I love the taste of cornbread and molasses. I love the blankets of soggy heat that fall down on you the minute you step outside. I love the melodic intricacies of Southern speech. I love the no-nonsense wisdom of old Southern women. I love the courtesy and hospitality of the Southern home. I also feel like I owe the South a huge debt for raising me and teaching me and giving so much of my personality. It is a beautiful, wild place.

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