Want to learn about civil rights history? Don’t just rely on ‘The Help’

December 5, 2013

Slate’s Jessica Roake wrote a compelling piece this week about a private school in Maryland using Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller “The Help” as one of three books to teach 10th-graders about black experiences in the Jim Crow South.  Other schools in the country also are using the 2008 book and the 2011 film for teaching purposes.

The Slate piece jettisons us back again to Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan’s Mississippi. Not everyone wants to go there. Many remember the full heat of Jim Crow’s dehumanization and violence. As the Association of Black Women Historians  wrote in 2011, “The Help” resurrects the “Mammy” stereotype. “The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it,” the association said in an open letter to fans of “The Help.”

My dear friend Sharon Egiebor, an entrepreneur and journalist, remembers how hard her mother waxed and buffed floors, ironed clothes and polished silver as a day worker in Kansas City. Her father, who studied two years at Tuskegee University, held down jobs like driving cabs and cleaning buildings until the successes of the civil rights movement opened up more employment opportunities for African Americans. He then worked a white-collar job with the state. Together, my friend’s parents raised 10 children.

For more than 30 years — until only days before she died in December 2006 — my friend’s mother worked in the homes of many wealthy whites. She worked for mostly considerate employers, but the highest pay she received was $60 a day.

In the late 1980s, an employer balked when my friend’s mother, after 15-20 years of employment, asked for a pay increase from $40 a day to the $50 or $60 she’d received from other employers. She also asked the person to pay Social Security. The woman refused.

“My mother was very upset, and said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’ And you know me, I’m young, I’m brash and I’m working at the [Dallas] Times Herald, and I said, ‘quit! You’re skilled. You will find somebody who will pay that rate,” Egiebor recounted.

“Not only was this a job, this was a job she took a lot of pride in. And I don’t think that came through in the movie ‘The Help.’  …The pride these women took in their work — in making sure these children were well-fed and cared for and felt loved and the house was in excellent condition when you walked out of it — I didn’t get that from that movie.”

She remembered how her mother built relationships through her work. “My mother brought people to Christ. She impacted people where she was, in the way that she could. And she didn’t do it with venom. And too frequently, ‘The Help’ wants to fall back on stereotypes of African American women.”

So can “The Help” teach students accurately about the fight for racial equality when its narrative is about white women and their black domestic workers?

Students can learn from the book, observed Dr. David Wall Rice, chair of the Psychology Department and Co-director of the Cinema, Technology and Emerging Studies (CTEMS) program at Morehouse College. But that doesn’t mean “The Help” is the ideal teaching tool.

“It really does have a limited scope, and it really does have a limited perspective,” Rice said. “When we look at pieces like ‘The Help,’ when we look at pieces like ‘Precious,’ ‘The Butler’ and even ’12 Years a Slave,’ you have books that are becoming more and more accessible through medium, through movies and things like that. And I think that even in those spaces where there are important stories to be told about folks who are relegated to the margins, or who have been throughout history, there are important stories to be told that allow for the deobjectification of them.

“So certainly there were people who were home workers, certainly there were slaves, certainly there were butlers, certainly they were people who suffered tremendous abuse through the context of deficiency and pathology. But it seems that as we engage black folks historically and contemporarily, we only feel comfortable dealing with folks who are in the margins.”

To teach about the civil rights movement, Dr. Rice recommends returning to the perspectives of the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. in works such as “Why We Can’t Wait,” or studying the speeches of Malcolm X.

“You go to the principals who were in the struggle because their perspectives are ones that are largely muted when we talk about the civil rights struggle. Because what we tend to do is we tend to look back on it as a glorious time, and certainly it was that. But the folks who were part of the struggle were people who were enemies of the state. And I think that to read their accounts, their perspectives, become very important to do so that we don’t lose the depth, the scope and the immediacy of what they were fighting for and what we still should be fighting for today.”

As I worked on this post, someone shared with me this 1997 article, “Black Domestics During the Depression: Workers, Organizers, Social Commentators,” by Phyllis Palmer. It’s worth a read. This passage alone illumines the yearning of domestic workers long ago:

The Supreme Court shortly declared the NRA unconstitutional, but the impetus for federally defined maximum hours of work and minimum wages remained alive and culminated in congressional passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. From 1934 on, domestic workers denied coverage under NRA and FLSA wrote Washington to ask for help and to inform policymakers about work conditions in the unregulated industry. A representative letter written in pencil on lined notebook paper asked Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to “please try to help the cooks in private homes to have some kind of working schedule about our jobs.”

We only get a small salary . . . when we keep the house, wash, iron the clothes, cook the meals, come to work at 7 a.m. [and] no limit to the hour we get off. No rest on the job, not an hour to lie down or sit down to rest. But we poor Negro women have to work. Our husbands only get a small salary to pay a few bills, that is rent and a few other utility bills, and we must help. And we don’t mind the work, but 18 hours out of 24 hours a day is killing our women.

She The People contributor Carla Baranauckas argues that “The Help” might prompt people to talk about race.

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