The Help centers less around the African American maids as it does twenty-two-year-old Skeeter, a recent Ole Miss graduate whose journalism degree is called into question because she has no passion or understanding of the world around her. Hell-bent on finding an investigative piece to set her career in motion, Skeeter decides to investigate the departure of her childhood "playmate" – the family maid – Constantine.
In the process, she unearths both the symbolism and complexities of the Black women working for racist white families. Stockett does not move particularly far from her comfort zones. She may by no means be racist, but she certainly grew up with her grandmother's maid Demetrie, at the ready, and invokes enough of her upbringing to offer Demetrie no last name or even the prerequisite "Miss" young people afford elders. And while Stockett beams on about "loving" Demetrie, she does not pay homage or respect to her in this book or film.
Particularly annoying about Stockett's work is that it avoids the utter turmoil Mississippi faced during the civil rights era. Ole Miss, her character Skeeter's alma mater, was the real life setting for one of the most volatile state-federal showdowns in the country's history. Governor Ross Barnett adamantly defied President John F. Kennedy's desegregation mandate for the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), telling him, "you may run the country, but you don't run Mississippi!" To omit from the record through literary license the socialization that forced a president to send in National Guard troops to uphold the law of the land in Mississippi, trivializes the cultural landscape these women negotiated.
The untold story of Black maids and their ongoing, often clandestine activism deserves to be told – by the maids themselves. Navigating an often hostile and dangerous environment that was wrought with sexual assaults and physical trauma at the hands of their male employers, African American women mobilized through women's group and church and civic associations, to protect themselves.
Simply put, some things cannot be made light of. And while a not a work of fiction, Susan Tucker's Telling Memories among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers, offers a much more concise and accurate glimpse into realms of domesticity. Having been raised by her grandmother's maid Mattie Ellis, Tucker, wrote:
"As a southern white child, I had been given similar mocking deference and heard more convincing deference given to white adults. Moreover, I knew that between worker and employer many uneasy feelings existed that were masked within the deference and pity they gave each other. As a southern white child, I had played near the park benches where black domestics sat. I was quiet enough that they let me overhear their complaints, their moans about white employers. I knew, then, the mutual distrust, even contempt, that could exist between the privilege and the unprivileged."
She spoke with more than forty women -- both Black and white who employed Black domestics or were Black domestics employed by white families in the South. Tucker adds a tier of authenticity to an already rich oral history project, by offering her own experiences as an au pair in Paris in contrast to nuances -- looks, unspoken language, and mockery, she witnessed while in the company of Ellis.
Similarly Rebecca Sharpless, speaks to temptation of speaking for servants, rather than being a vehicle through which their voices are heard in the forward of her book Cooking in Other People's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 Sharpless writes: "Rather than working within the filters of the media and white people's sentiments and prejudices, I have strived to use the women's own words and ideas throughout this study -- as historian Psyche WIlliams-Forson's says, present African American lives "from the perspective of the people and not from the imagery that tried to define them." To render this task faithfully, one must listen to the voices of African American women themselves, and not only to those of the white people who would represent them to their own ends."
Other books and films that denote the existence of Black maids, their activism, their loves and concerns, include, Living In, Living Out" African American Domestics and the Great Migration, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, which details the lives of Black domestics in D.C.
Let it not be said that there is little value in works like The Help, but as with its literary predecessors, like Little Bee, and films like Corrina, Corrina, a narrative cannot be taken seriously when filtered through those of marginalized understanding of white men and little white girls, respectively. No sense clinging to mammy and telling her tales when she has a mind, mouth and battle scars of her own and is more than capable of having her own say.