cover of The Help by Kathryn StockettI had something of a epiphany about The Help by Kathryn Stockett a week or so ago. It wasn’t my idea, but I can’t share the source since it came during an event that requires me to respect the privacy of others. So, forgive my caginess on how this came about.

Here’s the epiphany: white folks like The Help because we get to feel good that we identify and empathize with the black women in the book. Look, mom! I’m not a racist! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the empathy. Maybe, though, there’s a tad of something wrong with the self-congratulation. This was an epiphany because I recognized that self-congratulation was exactly what I was feeling, unconsciously, when I read The Help.

I first read The Help as a selection of the Diversity Book Club that I attend. At that time, controversy had yet to surface about the book and we had a revealing discussion. That meeting drew a crowd, some participants that never attended our book club before or since. Many of them were women who were in their teens or twenties during the time period of the book and from the south and were both black and white. I felt somewhat outside the discussion being a bit younger and from the border state of Missouri. I felt, however, that I witnessed a healing conversation.

One of the basic points that came from that discussion did not make an appearance in the more simplistic story of the movie. The black women were dominated by the white women — that’s clear in the movie. But, in the book, the white women were dominated by the white men, a root cause of the need for the white women to find some expression of power in their lives. We happened to be all women the night of our book discussion and that was an issue that helped develop a bond.

By the time that the members of the same book club watched the movie together, the controversy was in full swing and that effected the ensuing dialogue to some degree, but we carried the collective memory of our original conversation. On balance, we felt that, for us, The Help did more good than ill.

I am sure that many white people who read and loved The Help, or saw the movie, aren’t even aware of the controversy. Those that are aware may have reacted, as I did, by ignoring the controversy for several weeks or months. I didn’t want to diminish the things I learned from the book or the following discussion with outside objections.

Ultimately, Amy of Amy Reads and Amanda of Opinions of a Wolf forced me to confront the controversy with The Real Help Project. Their project was to read the books listed by the Association of Black Women Historians in An Open Statement to the Fans of The HelpAlthough I haven’t participated, I’ve been paying attention. I suspect some of those books will be making an appearance in our book club in the next year or two.

Here’s my challenge. If you identify as white or Caucasion and loved The Help, great! But don’t let the conclusion be “I am not a racist” because that’s an end point. Instead, let the conclusion be “I am an anti-racist white” or “I am a white ally of people of color.” Those statements are beginnings.

Let me assume that if you read The Help and are reading this  blog post, that you would like to take your next step as an anti-racist white by reading another book.

  • A starting place might be one or more of the books from the Association of Black Women Historians’ Open Statement – The Help. The list is at the bottom of that page and includes both fiction and nonfiction selections.
  • For Black History Month (or any other month), I recommend The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns. One of the questions that arises from The Help is: if it was so bad in the Deep South for blacks, why didn’t they leave? The Warmth of Other Suns tells the stories of the people who did leave in the context of a wider history that is fundamental for understanding the twentieth century in the United States. If you don’t already believe that African-American history is American history, this book will convince you.
  • Another good book to read after The Help is Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry, Book Review: Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry. This was the January selection of the Diversity Book Club. It could be read as the story of what happened to the daughters and granddaughters of the women in The Help and how they are struggling and coping in the present time.

For a more immediate way to take action, visit and comment on the blogs that have been participating in the various events of the Black History Month Blog Hop, hosted by Mocha Girls Read and Reflections of a Bookaholic. Here are the link lists:

logo for Black History Month Blog Hop -- Black BooksThis post is my entry into this week’s event, Black History Month Hop: Black Books. I’m also looking forward to the final event, from February 26th to 29th, The Best of…, which is all about lists. I don’t have any ideas for posts (yet, anyway) but I can’t wait to see everyone else’s lists!
Signature of Joy Weese Moll


Comments

Musing on The Help — a challenge to white readers — 4 Comments

  1. I loved this book. And I was shocked by the members of another book club I belong to. Some of the women didn’t think it was based on facts. (Mostly twenty something group) Go figure! Love this post Joy!

  2. Thanks for this post, Joy. I did read The Help after much encouragement from peers. It was better than I expected in terms of being “a good read.” That is, aside from any political or social context, the story was better than I had expected. When something is “too” popular, I tend to downgrade my expectations (which may mean I’m a book snob). I expected a schmoopy, fluffy, feel-good book, but it was gritty and tense and there was a growing sense of impending doom throughout the book that kept me reading. I had already heard a little controversy about the book by then – a complaint, I guess, that it took a white woman to bring the story to light, rather than black women doing it for themselves. One of the things I got out of the story was how white women were stuck in their social roles and black women were trapped in their social roles, and how dangerous it was for a woman of either color skin to step outside what was expected.
    I will check into the further reading in the Open Letter. As a person whose roots are in the southern U.S. (my parents both grew up in New Orleans in the 50s), and as one of two people who worked in an otherwise all-black office for 4 years, and as a strong supporter of civil rights for everyone, I find myself quite interested in digging a little deeper.

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