This tension between the public and private spheres is why I decided to suck it up and go see a movie that I had planned “The Help” is taking up a lot of room in the academic blogosphere nowadays: you might want to visit Chauncey De Vega (who you should be reading regularly anyway), field negro, Color Lines and live Tweets from Melissa Harris-Perry to start yourself off.
More commentary, some of it in the mainstream press, can be found here (hat tip), and probably on your Face Book feed. When “The Help” begins, aspiring journalist Skeeter returns from four years at Ole Miss to find that the Black servant who raised her, Constantine, has mysteriously disappeared from her family’s employ and no one will say why.
As Skeeter comes to consciousness that the system in which she was raised is unjust, she sees an opportunity to “help the help,” as it were, and at the same time promote her career by writing a book about what life as a servant in the Jane Crow south is “really like.” Here I would like to note that in addition to having misleading racial politics, this movie has no feminism either (I have not seen much commentary about this.) Skeeter doesn’t find it depressing that the newspaper work she is offered in Jackson is a housekeeping column, and she doesn’t find her lack of knowledge about housekeeping a barrier to accepting the job.
Skeeter assumes that she can get the expert knowledge she needs from a friend’s maid, Aibileen, but doesn’t see what she is doing as theft or misrepresentation.
Instead, we have a southern version of Mean Girls (With Mammies.) It is a world in which servants are passed down from mother to daughter in their wills, without any character in the movie saying the word “slavery.” Instead of politics, white women are consumed with, and consume, excrement.
“Hilly’s Law” mandating separate toilets goads Skeeter into an act of retaliation and public humiliation that she only survives because of her race and gender privilege; and Hilly fires Minny for using the family toilet when using the “colored” toilet would require going out in a tornado.Aibileen and Minny, the two principle Black characters, are moved to act because of a personal form of humiliation that stigmatizes their private parts as unclean.Instead, real women like Aibileen and Minny were moved by radical class and race consciousness that wedded them to a social movement designed to relieve Black people of public humiliation, end racial restrictions to the use of public and commercial space and create democracy.Hilly’s racist project, other than humiliating her maid, Minny, at every turn, is to ensure the complete and total separation of the races.She hopes to do this by passing a state ordinance that mandates that all white households have a separate “colored” toilet, banning their Black maids from the family bathroom.Problem #2: the idea that Black people were a source of infection for whites was a truism of white housekeeping beginning in Reconstruction, as Tera Hunter has pointed out.But middle class whites also believed this about working class whites, and it was not an idea peculiar to the South: see Judith Walzer Leavitt on Typhoid Mary.White girls, who have good reasons not to love their own mothers, cannot maintain their authority and love anyone once they are grown; hence, adult white women are neither good mothers or good daughters.The evil Hilly, for example, has no children and slaps her own mother in a nursing home for showing disrespect to her racial rule. We apologize for any inconvenience, and thank you for your visiting.Full disclosure: I was raised almost entirely by my white biological mother without the assistance of paid domestic labor. Although I have overheard the word colored used intimately and fondly, I am outside a community that privileges me to actually speak it except when I am giving a lecture about segregation. For a white person to describe African-American people as “colored” is too closely associated with the forms of thinly-veiled race hatred masquerading as civilization that characterized middle class white racism in the 1960s.