The “Help”: Why is the role of the black servant so popular still in our society?

24 Jul


When I moved to the South in 2003 I expected to run into some Confederates. Some still fighting the war, some still unhappy about the outcome, some wanting to “set the record straight” that it was not about slavery ( yeah right) and some Neo Confederates who would simply like to go back to the antebellum period where blacks were supposed to know their place.

I have encountered far fewer Confederates, old-style or neo than I anticipated. The revisionists seem to be the majority. They simply do not want to admit that other issues like states’ rights or sovereignty  and tariffs that they cite all go back to slavery. What the southern states wanted the right to do that was contrary to the federal government’s position was keep slaves. If you read the pro-slavery writers like James Henry Hammond ( who by the way moved his black slave mistress into his house, ousting his white wife–read the book James Henry Hammond:Secret and Sacred), they are not ambiguous about why the South needs to succeed and have sovereignty, and it is not about tariffs and states’ rights, except the right to own other human beings.

Many people that I discuss race with express dismay when I bring up slavery. Their position is that slavery was wrong, but is ancient history, over with, put a period and move on. I wish they were right, but they are dead wrong. Slavery is with us still from the embedded idea in our society that blacks are inferior intellectually, to the preference for light skin, even among blacks. If you look at it from a historian’s perspective, slavery was just yesterday, it is not surprising that we still have repercussions, and I am not even going to address economic disparities in this post.

One of the lingering residues of chattel slavery and the extension of servitude provided by white supremacy theory, which was different in the North , but equally prevalent following the Civil War years, and Jim Crow laws, is the fondness so many in our society have for movies and books about blacks serving whites and being happy about it. I once had a counselor I supervised, a very nice white woman with a master’s degree, assure me that her great-grandmother in Virginia had been so beloved by her slaves that they built her a waterfall because they knew she loved them, having come from the North where there were more waterfalls. The idea that slaves loved their masters is one of the most revered myths in some segments of our population.

What, you may ask, difference does that make in 2011? I would reply, “have you read The Help?” This book is a white woman’s take on how black women felt in the South while they were serving as the more modern version of slaves, e.g. maids.

All of you who would like to be a maid please raise your hands. All of you who would love the wealthy white woman ( wealthy based often on black labor by the way) who ordered you around please raise your hands. What?? I do not see any hands! It is dehumanizing to portray people as loving a degrading  and subservient situation. Were some slaves happier if they had good owners? No doubt. Were they happy to be slaves? Not unless they had been brutalized to the point of incoherence.

Could white women employers and black women employees bond over women’s issues and commiserate with each other, perhaps form some variety of affection for each other? Probably. But the idea that the person in power and the person under their control could have anything approaching  my concept of love or even respect is facetious.

Let’s put it in another context. You marry a man who loves you and you love, he proceeds to control virtually all aspects of your life, makes you eat in the kitchen while he eats in the dining room, makes you come into the house by the back door, in some cases will not touch you for fear your femaleness will rub off on him, but you live with him, you raise kids with him, you share all kinds of experiences with him. Do you love him? Maybe, but if so it is a sick, unbalanced and dysfunctional love. At least the husband and wife were, presumably, in love to begin with. I doubt white women hired black women they loved, or black women went to work for white women they loved.

When “Driving Miss Daisy” came out a lot of my white friends told me what a good movie it was. I went to see it and was horrified that they enjoyed seeing an older white woman alternately humiliate and abuse and then cozy up to an older black man. They did not seem to understand that the era it represented, like “The Help” was a time when black people in America had few rights and in certain areas of the country no hope of physical safety. Black women were routinely raped without any thought of punishing the white men who did so. Black men on the other hand could be lynched for looking at a white woman.How could anyone look back at that time with fondness?

When I was in grad school, decades ago, a professor of a class on the Old South told us black women in the period were considered only two ways, as the “Mammy” or as the “Jezebel.” One of them was a big breasted, kind, nurturing if tart-tongued mother figure, the other was a promiscuous vixen with no morals. He went on to say he did not think that our society has changed that much. To him today I say ” Amern.” We are caught in the time warp where black women are rarely portrayed as anything other than mammies or Jezebels, even in literature.

Of course, the question also arises why black actors agree to play maids and prostitutes with such regularity, but perhaps they are like Hattie McDaniel, the great actress, who when asked why she agreed to play a maid reportedly replied, ” It is better to get paid to play a maid than to be one.”

So, I evidently have to ask for forgiveness from the Southern folks I mistakenly labeled Confederates. Evidently the idea that black folks as servants is a warm and fuzzy thing, an opportunity for the races to truly bond, a win-win is more pervasive in our society than I thought. It is not a Southern thing, it is an American thing.  “The Help” is the book chosen by my black book club for September. It should be an interesting discussion!


1 Comment

Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “The “Help”: Why is the role of the black servant so popular still in our society?

  1. Kathryn Turner

    August 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I have not yet read The Help, but I can only imagine it upsetting and angering me. I was too young to remember Driving Miss Daisy, since it came out when I was only a child but the themes are all too familiar. I’m not sure I want to read another book about subservient black women written from a white woman’s perspective. Of course, I want to enter the discourse, but I feel like reading this book or watching the movie only lends power to its author and the filmmakers who are profiting from it.

    Also, I agree wholeheartedly that many in the South are not “confederates,” but there are still very many who carry that flag. As someone who is white and born and raised in the South, the disgusting things that come out of the mouths of whites around me who assume I share their beliefs is nauseating. It is particularly disheartening when it comes from my own family members who then torment me for my “liberal” political views. These are the same people who claim not to be racist because they have “black best friends,” who are often under their employ.

    Thank you for this post. It is certainly a discussion that needs to happen and continue to happen until positive changes are made. I would really like to see black women in roles we can respect and young women can aspire to. Mostly, I just want to see black women portrayed in realistic, multidimensional ways that do justice to the complexity of human life. All too often movie roles strip black characters of their ability to become more than a supporting role.


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