"This isn't about me." That's what eager, well-intentioned and lily-white aspiring writer Skeeter tells the nervous African-American maid Minny in "The Help." It's her pitch to try to get Minny to open up about her experiences as a domestic, and her feelings on the roiling racism of Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. But it's also one of the most telling moments of what's shaping up to be one of the most controversial and surprisingly divisive movies of the year. Because novelist Kathryn Stockett wrote a book that wasn't just about her. And that has a made a lot of people very uncomfortable.
[. . .]
On Monday afternoon in Times Square, the audience for "The Help" was surprisingly packed and unmistakably diverse. For a few hours, a variety of young people and older matinee goers, men and women, black and white, sat down together and watched a movie about what happens when black and white people sit down together. Then, as Viola Davis walked down a Jackson street, the lights came up. And for every member of the audience, an opportunity for conversation began. (“Why the ‘Help’s’ critics are all wrong,” Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon, 16 August 2011)
Nothing new to see here
The debate about The Help in which MEW is engaging is the same debate that has dogged books written by whites about blacks for years, going back at least to Mark Twain's masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--in which the protagonist learns to recognize the humanity of his friend Jim, but, incidentally, not of all black people ("I always knowed he was white inside," Huck says toward the end of the novel.) In my view Stockett's book is only partially about the black experience; it is also about a Southern woman's dawning understanding of that experience. Of course Skeeter's understanding is incomplete, as was the understanding of just about every Southern man and woman of that time. Yes, there were Southerners who were genuinely evil--the murderers of Emmett Till, Bull Connor, etc. But most people in the South were simply people who had been raised with racism as part of the fabric of their everyday existence, and to whom it had never really occurred--or only fleetingly--to question that racism. Most of these people were even capable, like Skeeter and Huck, of loving individual black people while not questioning the overall racism of societal structures. (Huck doesn't exactly become a revolutionary with the intent of knocking down the edifice of Jim Crow, just as Skeeter does nothing more than write her little book and Atticus Finch does nothing more than try a single court case that doesn't change anything.) But the experience of whites--flawd people that they were--is part of the story too. Stockett's book is about a young woman who is just beginning to understand the rotting foundation upon which the society she has grown up in is built. And stockett was no more wrong than Twain to try to give her black characters a voice. They are real characters, just as Jim is--he is in fact the only consistently responsible, compassionate, grown-up person in Twain's novel. I am sick and tired of the moral superiority of those who claim that no white Southerner can speak intelligently about race. Let's not forget that whites in Chicago and Boston rioted about integration, too, and before that allowed institutional racism, in the South and elsewhere, to go unchallenged. Racism is, unfortunately, a legacy of our whole nation, not just one region of it, even if it was worse in that region than anywhere else. Those who don't like Stockett's book, or Twain's either for that matter, are entitled to their opinions, but it doesn't make those of us who did enjoy both works clueless racists. I understand that it is important to absorb the perspectives of black writers who did, in fact, live the experience, but that does not mean all other voices must be silent. (recovering lawyer)
RE: Yes, there were Southerners who were genuinely evil--the murderers of Emmett Till, Bull Connor, etc. But most people in the South were simply people who had been raised with racism as part of the fabric of their everyday existence, and to whom it had never really occurred--or only fleetingly--to question that racism.
Terrorism of a people isn't seen or felt to be abnormal owing to the fact that one was raised to see it as a fact of life, but because the people doing the terrorizing (or who see it as a matter of course) are perpetrators suffering from mass dissocation. In regards to the Germans in Nazi Germany and Americans in regards to the Iraq war, Lloyd DeMause explains this phenomenon this way:
Examples of mass dissociation of perpetrators are legion. Lifton documents how Nazi doctors "double" themselves and create an "Auschwitz self" to divest themselves of responsibility toward those they experimented on. The Nazi commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, when asked if the Jews he killed had deserved their fate, replied that "there was something unrealistic about such a question, because [we] had been living in an entirely different world," that is, the world of social alters. Jews weren't particularly personally hated. Their blood just had to flow in order to purify the blood of Germany. And America, in the 1990s, had to conduct a genocide of over a million Iraqi children through our embargo in a trance-in fact, no one noticed we were killing them! They weren't human because they weren't real. We were just punishing evil Iraqis. The Nazis used to say they were just cleansing Europe of Jewish pollution. How could one ask if Jewish children deserved to be killed? "It never even occurred to us," Höss said. We were just "good Germans" and "good Americans" when we killed millions of children. The most important psychodynamic of history is people's ability to switch deep into their social alter, identify with the perpetrator and periodically persecute helpless people who represent ones' own childhood self. It is the social alter's duty to remove bad, sinful children. As one German policeman ended his description of his execution of Jewish children:
...while leaving the execution site, the other comrades laughed at me, because pieces of the child's brains had spattered onto my sidearm and had stuck there. I first asked, why are you laughing, whereupon Koch, pointing to the brains on my sidearm, said: That's from mine, he has stopped twitching. He said this in an obviously boastful tone...
The psychohistorian asks: "Did he wonder incredulously what could possibly justify his blowing a vulnerable little girl's brains out? Do Americans wonder why they must gratuitously kill a million innocent, helpless Iraqi children?" The answer is that it is precisely because children are innocent and helpless that they must be obliterated, to punish them for our own imagined sinfulness. (Emotional Life of Nations)
Southerners weren't evil -- which is a unhelpful, nonsense concept -- but people who'd in their childhoods collectively suffered from a simulacrum of the abuse they ended up suffering on black people. Blacks had to suffer, because to these poorly nurtured whites they were full of the badness they themselves felt possessed of and needed some neat way of hefting principally into someone else. In readily accepting as normal a culture that evidently would seem hateful to anyone more (loved and therefore more) sane, even if born in the South and never exposed to outside ideas/possibilities, they demonstrated in their everyday simple acceptance of slavery their intolerance for their own neediness, and therefore their claim to some goodness/purity.
As every psychologist will tell you, the more abuse, the more ensouled
I said this on Matt's thread, but just as a reminder to those ostensibly more bold thinkers out there, being the subject of constant abuse guarantees the evolution of your personhood, of your capacity to emphathize and be spared some of pronounced sadistic or masochistic impulses, will be stalled. That is, in truth, the more you reveal about how awful the treatment of black people was, the harder case you make for us to really believe you'd ever truthfully yourself ever be able to show things simply from the black perspective. If you couldn't show them as principally heroic in the masquerading-as-uninflated, simply-honest-accouting mode, and had to show them as grown-ups know they had to have become after knowing a life of torture, submission, and fear, my guess is you'd actually lead the effort to again making whites and their evilness the principle concern, in hopes that our narrative needs would mostly apply to the tortured blacks the noble status reality would guaranteed steal from you.
The black community drew together and supplied the support and love that whites would wholesale deny? I would recommend not taking a closer look at that one either, and in fact leaving this actually oppression-supporting argument for soul-nurturance fully alone. (The great thing about this depression is that you know it'll be narrated by a future generation as an occasion to forego idleness and selfishness and develop community -- something, that is, like ginormous pointless sacrificial wars, to make a people "great.") They brought it with them from Africa and found some means to keep it alive? Again, I wouldn't touch it: not just my poor demon-possessed, jealousy-moved and other-fearing peasant Celtic and German ancestors weren't doing all that well even just a short while back. How we all love the folk, though, with their community focus, common touch, and faith in things unseen.