Race Revelations: The Power of Story in The Help

This post is part of a series called Race Revelations. Meredith preached this at her church in late September and posted it on her own blog.
I thought it was such an interesting addition to the conversation on race – challenging and honest.
More information about the series can be found here.

To preach about The Help is a task fraught with complexity and controversy. Truth be told, I have been wrestling with the story, the book, the movie long before I knew anything about this sermon series. At first I was excited to share some of the reasons I find the book so compelling, and also to share some of the concerns and questions that the book leaves in its wake. Like every other story we’ve discussed this month, The Help was a book before it was a movie. When the movie came out, and swept awards season, it seemed a cultural moment worthy of attention. That and, frankly speaking, the story moved me (and likely many of you).

But you know, after thinking about it, there is so much of me that wished I hadn’t agreed to this book: in some ways the conversation seems overdone. People either love it or hate it – so much so that the movie became the object of boycott du jour. The story has unearthed layers of pain in our nation’s history and social fabric, and if it has revealed anything at all, it revealed that the past is rarely the past and that we are far from living in a post-racial society (whatever that would mean).

It is true that the story of The Help is a captivating mix of relationships, tropes, stories, clichés, and history. The characters, for the most part, are believable and intriguing, and, if you are from or have spent much time in the South, the story is equal parts horrifying and intimate.

The Help is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi; JFK was still president and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., was stepping up as leader of a Movement. The story is primarily from the first-person perspectives of three women: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are both African-American maids who have spent their lives tending house for white families, and not just caring for white children, but in many cases raising them.

Skeeter is the daughter of a prominent white family who own a cotton farm. She has just finished college and comes home with dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother’s dream is for Skeeter to get married. Skeeter frequently wonders about the sudden disappearance of Constantine, the maid who raised her. Skeeter’s family tells her that Constantine abruptly quit, and went to live with relatives in Chicago. Skeeter does not believe that she would leave without telling her, and pursues anyone she thinks has information, but no one will discuss the former maid. In pressing Aibileen for answers, the two forge a relationship, which gives Skeeter an idea.

She decides that she wants to investigate the truth about being a colored maid in Mississippi. Skeeter struggles to communicate with the maids and gain their trust. The dangers of undertaking writing a book about African-Americans speaking out in the South during the early ’60s are not lost on these women.

There are two primary criticisms of The Help: First, the movie and the book are not historically accurate. Second, it seems problematic that a white woman is telling the black maids’ stories for them. To the first, the only response is agreement. There are many moments in the movie that simply do not square with historical reality, and dampen the real danger of the Deep South in the 1960s, transforming real fear to generalized unease. I will say this: the book does a better job at revealing the nuance and complexity of the historical context than the movie, but it still does so imperfectly. There is likely no easy resolution to this, which points to the overall impossibility of historical fiction as a genre: for the purists, you will never be accurate enough; for those who just want a good story, good history doesn’t seem to matter as much. Both are somewhat flawed perspectives if you ask me. At any rate, what The Help reveals is an historical reality that we are still quite uncomfortable talking about – in truth or in fiction.

The second criticism is a more difficult one: I suspect that The Help and its attendant license with historical fact would not be so offensive had the same story been written by a black author, even if it were a story about black women written by a black man. What seems egregious to those who voice this criticism is that this novel was written by a white, and thereby privileged, woman, and there is much validity to that. This criticism, though, also seems to assume that Skeeter’s role in The Help is that of white savior – that she takes on the project to rescue the maids from their plight. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think that’s fair.

The Help is not about Skeeter fixing the problems of the black maids. It is not about her profiting off of their discrimination.

That said, I do believe that The Help is first about Skeeter, not about the Civil Rights Movement. In many ways she learns alongside the rest of us. Her story asks us what does it take to become empathetic? Skeeter’s story in The Help is a coming of age – not only emotionally, but socially and politically. Part of that development happens as she learns empathy. She learns empathy by reaching out to listen. She hears and helps share the stories of The Other – and in 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, it doesn’t get much Other than older black Help. We see her development as her motivation changes throughout the book. She starts investigating because she wants to be a writer; she stubbornly pursues these untold stories for her own gain. As the book progresses, she stops seeing herself at the center of things, and gives over to the task of listening as the Other women speak and share. She wants to give them a way to share their story to others. So, while they do not need her to tell their stories for them, she offers them the freedom to speak and the emboldening power of sharing.

But I believe the real story of The Help is the power of story itself.

There is power in the stories of The Help, even in their dressed up, glossed over, on-screen presentation. The power of stories – in sharing them, hearing them, telling them for others, when they cannot – is a power we cannot and should not overlook. When Skeeter and Aibileen first started working on gathering stories they had almost zero luck finding other maids who would agree to talk. Following the brutal assassination of Medgar Evers, a black Civil Rights leader in their own community, many of them felt the push to speak out. They begin to tell their stories. The stories they tell are not all stories of abuse and oppression: they also tell stores that are full of joy and love, in addition to stories that are sad and painful, stories of injustice, stories of vulnerability. Perhaps the most powerful piece about the maids’ story telling was the solidarity they realized in sharing their realities. In speaking the truth of their experiences, other maids realized that they are not alone, and felt empowered to continue to share and speak from their collective experience.

So while the story is, inescapably, about a white woman, it is not about her invaluable role in enacting social change. Skeeter’s own transformation happened because she heard the stories these women told. Her role was not so much in telling their stories to the world as it was in showing that they had a safe space to talk openly.

Imperfect though it may be, a story like The Help is predicated on one very powerful question. In the afterward to the book, author Kathryn Stockett reflects on her own childhood in a home with a black maid. She writes: “I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question.” In the movie, Aibileen summarizes the power of her own story-telling experience, realizing, “No one had ever asked me what it felt like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.” This is not to cast a glaze over the troubling reality of our history of slavery, discrimination, segregation, but to acknowledge that healing and reconciliation – from the smallest scale, to the largest – begin with telling the truth – about who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve experienced. It also demands of us to listen, to remember.

While Skeeter is decidedly not their savior, she offered them something transformative in asking what it was like to be them, and being willing to listen.

And this is where a story like The Help can be meaningful for us: How are we going to be challenged not only to tell our own stories with strength and truth, but how will we receive and bear the stories of others? Recounting stories, even those not directly related to our current experience has transformative power. The transformation happens when those stories change from being stories about the Other to stories about ourselves. When I hear the stories of others’ experiences and begin to seek and understand my role in their stories – even, especially, if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient, then transformation begins. Perhaps then, their story – your story – my story – we understand as inextricably linked in our story.

We need to continue to talk about our own torrid past relationship (and current struggles) with race in the United States. We also need to continue to tell the stories, to have the conversation because the story isn’t over, and there has yet to be a happily ever after. When we tell that story as being part of our own painful history instead of what happened to others we open the door to the work of reconciliation.

With hope, stories like The Help push us – challenge us – to seek out stories – to seek out the truth of our collective stories. The stories of our past and our present will write the stories of the future. Without remembering our stories, we lose our very identity. The ancient Hebrews knew that, which is why story became central to their very worship. The work of both story-telling and story-hearing are works of love. The Message version of the Romans passage for today reads: “love from the center of who you are…” Love is not amorphous, it is not esoteric. “Love is the hard work that dismantles structures of domination and reconciles us to one another and to God. It is not trifle work.”[2] May we do the hard work of both telling the truth and hearing the truth.

Meredith Holladay holds a doctoral degree from Baylor University and is an associate pastor for spiritual formation. She is proud to call Louisville, Kentucky home (though she’s not Presbyterian), though she has called such far flung places home as Waco, Texas, Princeton, New Jersey, and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. She is a recent transplant to Lawrence, Kansas where she is associate pastor of spiritual formation of First Baptist Church. She blogs regularly again over at windowsdown.wordpress.com. She’s beautiful, brilliant, and way cool.