Thursday, August 11, 2011

Inconvenient Facts: The Whiteness of Memory in "The Help" Versus the Ugly Realities of Jim and Jane Crow America

Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism. Its villains, Junior League bigots who wear smart little suits to cover their scales, are so cartoonish that viewers won’t risk recognizing themselves or echoes of their behavior in them.
The heroines—a privileged, liberal, white Mississippi woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (a particularly good Octavia Spencer)—are much easier to identify with. The project that brings them together, a secret oral history of maids’ lives in Jackson, may spotlight the domestic side of racism.
But other than a mention of unenforced minimum-wage laws and a scene of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder, the movie is disengaged with the public legal framework that let white women treat their white servants dreadfully in private. In The Help, whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem.
I took in a few movies yesterday and saw quite a few exuberant movie goers leaving The Help all excited and comparing the book to the film. There were middle aged and older black women who were pretty quiet and sat on a bench talking about the movie. I also saw a group of twenty and thirty something year old women full of giddy excitement as they enthusiastically mused about The Help's "transcendent," "empowering" themes and characters. I reserve judgment about The Help as I have not and will not see it: but after reading about the movie, talking to folks who have read the book, and listening to the trusted reviews of black women who called The Help "loathsome," I will take a pass.

Like Captain America: The First Avenger and X:Men: First Class, The Help appears to be one more data point in which the white washing of history and nostalgic memory are ways of dishonestly negotiating racial realities in post-Civil Rights, Age of Obama America. As always, and as I am so fond of saying, once more politics is popular culture and popular culture is politics.

Alyssa Rosenberg continues in The Atlantic with her sharp observation that:
Indeed, the movie, which necessarily sacrifices some character development in the name of space and speed, also conspicuously cuts out powerful illustrations of racial violence. While we get soft-hued flashbacks to Skeeter’s memories of Constantine, the black woman who raised her, there are no such flashbacks to the violent, unnecessary death of Aibileen’s son.
In another scene, Yule May, one of Minny and Aibileen’s friends, is arrested for stealing a ring from her employer. The shot shows white police manhandling and cuffing her, but when they swing at her head with a baton, the impact of the weapon against her skull is cut out of the frame. An incident of racial violence that illustrates the cost of the main villain’s quest for separate bathrooms for African-American servants is left out of the movie entirely. Even a notably gory miscarriage scene from the book is reduced to a blood-soaked nightgown and an artfully smeared bathroom floor visible only for a moment.
One way to deal with the “shitty things” in our past that Louis C.K. refers to is to downplay their existence and persistence; to cover them up in candy-colored dresses and the memorable sight of Allison Janney, as Skeeter’s mother, in a turban; to tell us that Medgar Evers was murdered but to show us John F. Kennedy’s funeral instead. The film’s timidity shows that we’re not even close to eliminating racism in America. While Skeeter may have Richard Wright’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in her bedroom in Mississippi, The Help is a pastel ghost of those predecessors.
The Whiteness of memory involves a necessary a flattening of history. Often, in the white savior genre, black agency is made secondary to the opportunity of white folks to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of history. While the Other is included, the White gaze necessitates the centrality of whiteness--and a reframing where the evils of white supremacy are a device for good white folks to show that white supremacy was an aberration and not the norm governing American social and political life. A sideshow in our own freedom struggle, Black people's agency is muted as a mere means to the ends of the recuperative project that is Whiteness in "colorblind" America.

In my conversations with folks, especially younger, "post-racial" United Colors of Benetton types, about the intersections of race, politics, social, political, and cultural life in America there is 1) a deep avoidance of the role of institutions/structures and the impact of power on their life chances; and 2) a misunderstanding of Jim and Jane Crow as something so long ago, and just an inconvenience that was overcome by a bunch of people marching with Dr. King.

As hinted at by some of the reviews of The Help, there is an avoidance of the true depth and evil of white supremacy in segregated America and how the colorline ordered life from the cradle to the grave--where one could buy clothes (or even if a black person could try them on before purchase), walk on a sidewalk, or be buried upon dying were governed by racialized law whose primary intent was the "preservation" of "social order" through the oppression of African Americans and the false elevation of Whites.

Moreover, the laws governing Jim and Jane Crow were signals to social custom, guidelines for day to day life practices, and a normative project for how the races ought to be situated relative to one another. In black and white, when presented in stark relief, they upset the fuzzy nostalgia of the flattened history offered by the white savior genre of popular films of which The Help is apparently part of.

For your consideration, some inconvenient examples of the Racial State in practice, most pointedly taken from laws governing some of the more common aspects of life in these United States:

Pool and Billiard Rooms It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards.

Cohabitation Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars.

Juvenile Delinquents There shall be separate buildings, not nearer than one fourth mile to each other, one for white boys and one for negro boys. White boys and negro boys shall not, in any manner, be associated together or worked together.

Mental Hospitals The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients, so that in no case shall Negroes and white persons be together.

Barbers No colored barber shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls.

Burial The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons.

Amateur Baseball It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race.

Circus Tickets All circuses, shows, and tent exhibitions, to which the attendance of...more than one race is invited or expected to attend shall provide for the convenience of its patrons not less than two ticket offices with individual ticket sellers, and not less than two entrances to the said performance, with individual ticket takers and receivers, and in the case of outside or tent performances, the said ticket offices shall not be less than twenty-five (25) feet apart.

The Blind The board of trustees shall...maintain a separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race.

Promotion of Equality Any person...who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Fishing, Boating, and Bathing The [Conservation] Commission shall have the right to make segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercise of rights of fishing, boating and bathing.

Telephone Booths The Corporation Commission is hereby vested with power and authority to require telephone maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons when there is a demand for such separate booths. That the Corporation Commission shall determine the necessity for said separate booths only upon complaint of the people in the town and vicinity to be served after due hearing as now provided by law in other complaints filed with the Corporation Commission.


Chris Sharp said...

CD: I think I'll skip that movie but, dusting off my history books once again (actually they never get dusty), this sounds like an updated version of the "Lost Cause" movement after the civil war. Only this time its the 21st century white liberals trying to rewrite history instead of the defeated Confederates, so they can distance themselves from their collective guilt about being white and some of those laws you printed. You could probably fill a few books with them if you could do the national research, and some of them are alot worse.

If you think segregation ended after the Civil Rights movement, I invite you to come down to Florida. Several years back, I read a story in the Tallahassee paper about a black Maryland Congresssman (maybe Elijah Cummings) who was in Tallahassee on business and who wanted to have a drink on a Sunday afternoon. Since Tallahassee is dry on Sundays, they went down to a little town called Perry about 35 miles away. Lo and behold, the only bar that was open on Sunday was the Perry Package Store, which just happended to be segregated even in the late 1990's.

I couldn't belive the story when I read it so the next time I passed through Perry on my Harley, we stopped in the Perry Package Store for a cold one. I'll be damned if it wasn't segregated just like the newspaper said. It was pretty shocking to see and for a very brief millisecond, it made me embarassed to be white. (I really hate when that happens)

Instead of staying on the white side and silently feeling guilty, I went to the back room and drank with the brothers. I'm sure I had more fun hanging with them that I would have with the white crackers out front. Luckily I don't live in Perry because the white folks in the front room did not seem too pleased at the race mixing.

What was even stranger is that most of the people in the back seemed resigned to what was happening and when I asked one of them about it, he just said that's the way it is around here. This was less than 10 years ago. I'm not saying I am some sort of civil rights hero or anything for what I did that day, I just wanted to sit and have a good conversation over a cold beer, but some people really think this sort of stuff doesn't happen in America anymore.

I have never understood the white guilt thing or the need of some white people to, as you say, "rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of history." It is sad for alot of reasons, but one of the worst secondary effects of it is that it blinds alot of otherwise good people to the reality of what is still happening today. I've done alot of things in my life that I am ashamed of (I'll plead the fifth here) but I really don't see the point of spending the rest of my life trying to "white wash" what I did, instead of trying to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them.

We cannot change our racist past and I think alot of white people would be better served if they spent their time learning their own sorry history, and examining the current state of affairs instead of trying to make amends for a past we cannot change. It happened it was ugly and it destroyed alot of people's lives, now let's learn from it and move on.

If you realy examine the history of white racism in this country, instead of trying to white wash it (what a great phrase), it's kind of like sausage being made; once you see it, most people would never want to eat it again. On the other hand, some do.

Plane Ideas said...

CD..I found Professor Perry's review stunning..

chaunceydevega said...

@Chris. People want simple stories. They are compelling. If individuals were willing to do a little work they would find much that would surprise, reaffirm, and also challenge them...without having to engage in a dishonest recuperative project. But then again, power isn't interested in truth.

@Thrasher. She does get in their butts.