Observed, Defined, Explained: Why "The Help" Misses the Mark in Telling Black Domestics' Tales

Shantella Y. Sherman | 9/9/2011, 8:48 a.m.

"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.