In 2009 Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a break-out hit. Book groups loved the story, and the book received strong reviews. The book has sold over three million copies, and the film opened last week to strong reviews. It promises to be a big hit at the box office. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet, but the controversy surrounding the story is a guarantee that book sales and tickets sold at the box office will soar.
For those not familiar with the story, it focuses on the friendship three women share. One is Skeeter, a young white woman who’s just graduated college and wants to become a writer, and two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny. Skeeter decides to write a book about the maids who work for white families in Jackson, Mississippi, and her book creates a stir in the town.
Although the conflict in the book about the reactions of Jackson residents is fiction, there has been a great deal of controversy in real life about the story and its characters. Perhaps the most outspoken is Ablene Cooper who worked as a maid for Kathryn Stockett’s brother. She claimed that the character Aibileen in the book and she shared several of the same characteristics, such as both have a gold tooth and work as maids for white families and both are called Aibee by the white children they care for. Ms. Cooper also stated she found the racial insults the character had to endure were embarrassing.
Earlier this year Ms. Cooper filed a lawsuit in Hinds County, Mississippi, seeking damages from Ms. Stockett. Such lawsuits are difficult to win. David L. Hudson, Jr., scholar with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University states, "We're talking about a work of art. There are strong First Amendment protections." Evidently he was right, because the lawsuit was thrown out of court on Tuesday of this week.
However, others stepped forth to voice their opposition to the book. The Association of Black Women Historians issued a statement describing their thoughts on The Help. The following is an excerpt from that statement:
Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.
What do you think? Have you read the book or seen the movie? Leave a comment about how you feel concerning the controversy surrounding this best seller.