The Long Struggle for Equality

The journey of African-Americans towards equality is well-documented in American history. For years, African-Americans struggled to be recognized as equals and that their rights be acknowledged by their fellows. This struggle occupies hundreds of pages of the history books and it took a while before major reforms were instituted. The proverbial light emerged after the long tunnel when their rights were finally recognized. However, what everyone thought was the culmination of a long struggle was really the commencement of an even longer struggle. Deeper and darker abysses started to emerge, creating even bigger gaps which still reverberate in the contemporary.

In her debut novel, The Help, Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett transports the readers to 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The political and social climate was turbulent owing to the political reforms recognizing the rights of African-Americans which were slowly taking shape. Expectedly, majority of the American Deep South was not receptive to these changes. In The Help, Stockett paints a vivid picture of the prevailing attitude in Mississippi after these changes were instituted through the stories and voices of the most overlooked unit of the Mississippi household – the helpers.

The story follows the stories of three main characters: Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Aibileen is a maid who tends to the Leefolt’s household and also takes care of their child, Mae Mobley. Her only son, 24-year-old Treelore, passed away because of an in-work accident. Minny is Aibileen’s closest friend and confident. She has been fired from nineteen jobs because of her honesty and unfiltered language. Her most recent employer was Mrs. Walters, the mother of Hilly Holbrook. After an embarrassing encounter with Minny, Hilly vowed that Minny will never find employment in any white household.

“I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it.”

~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Unlike Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter was born to an affluent family that owned Longleaf, a cotton farm located outside of Jackson. Despite their affluence, Skeeter was raised by Constantine, a colored maid. While Skeeter was still studying at the University of Mississippi, Constantine disappeared. After her graduation, she probed into Constantine’s disappearance but she was only met with silence, and incohesive answers that invited more questions. In pursuing Constantine’s disappearance, Skeeter noticed the stark difference between the treatment of her friends’ maids and their white employees. This inspired her to write a book about the plights of colored maids in Mississippi households.

In writing about the Deep South maid experience, Skeeter was fulfilling her lifetime dream of becoming a writer, one that her mother was vehemently opposed. However, it proved to be no walk in the park as Skeeter struggled to gain the trust of the maids. At the start, the maids remained mum about their own experiences and refused to coordinate with Skeeter. They were all too cognizant of the inherent dangers of African Americans speaking out in early 1960s Deep South. How will Skeeter, a rich white young lady, make a connection with the maids whose experiences she want to document? How will her new endeavor affect the general atmosphere that prevailed during the period?

The Help jumps alternatingly between the perspectives and voices of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Each painted different versions of what it feels like to live in the 1960s South – from the dinner parties, to fundraising events, to sporting and social events, and even the simplest domestic and household activities. Out on the streets, violence and abuse towards the community Aibileen and Minny belong to are escalating. The escalation of violence also inspired fear and whilst the social and racial boundaries were clearly defined, it was also divisive.

On the surface, The Help is a witty and entertaining narrative about Aibileen, Minny and their fellow maids’ experience in an increasingly harsh environment that refuses to accept change. With political reforms still being vehemently debated in the courts, in the households, and in the schoolyards, the social standing of African Americans is hanging on the thread, and in the Deep South, the reverberation of the inequality is felt in the entire social spectrum. Despite the shift in the general attitude and the political atmosphere, discrimination and racism remained a public concern. There was also a disparity in the privileges afforded to each side of the spectrum.

“It’s something about that word truth. I’ve been trying to tell white women the truth about working for them since I was fourteen years old…Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life. Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling.”

~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Nowhere is the disparity most palpable than in the education system. The maids were cognizant that the education of their children plays a seminal role in elevating them from the quagmires of poverty. A character ruminated, “My boys are equally as smart, equally eager for an education. But we only had the money for one and I ask you, how do you choose which of your twin sons should go to college and which should take a job spreading tar? How do you tell one that you love him just as much as the other, but you’ve decided he won’t be the one to get a chance in life? You don’t. You find a way to make it happen. Any way at all.” However, they were never afforded the same privilege. When the first African American child entered a “white school”, the uproar was felt from every corner. The dissent was openly discussed in various walks of life. Conservative politicians passionately challenged the development, citing that segregation must be kept in order to maintain the integrity of the education system. For all the racial slurs and discriminatory eyerolls it has invited, it was still a milestone in the long struggle for equality.

Segregation was a seminal subject that permeated all throughout the story. There were discussions on the proposal to make employers build separate bathrooms for their African American maids. This was on top of the approved separate entrances for the maids. There was also a physical division with the river acting as a proverbial wall dividing the two sides of the spectrum. On one side is the white neighborhood with its well-manicured lawns, well-kept gardens, and organized houses. On the other side is the tawdry housing that the African American workers occupy; it was bereft of order.

The Help, however, is no mere “Deep South” novel. Stockett wrote a fascinating and riveting narrative that expounded beyond discrimination. Themes of freedom and respect were woven into the rich tapestry of the novel. Whilst gaining rights is their biggest goal, every one wanted to earn integrity and the respect of the people whose houses they clean and whose children they take care of. Domestic abuse, substance abuse, and social classes were also vividly explored through the various characters’ lives. The historical contexts were firmly captured and gave the story a powerful backdrop.

What kept the story together were the characters, who were diverse not just in colors but in personalities. Each was interesting and has her own depth that gave the story compelling textures. Aibileen was, by nature, timid, calm and observes social practices religiously. She was the antithesis of Minny’s sassy character and honest tongue which gave the story another personality. The cast of characters was dominated by females but it never ran out of personalities. There were bossy leaders like Hilly to blind followers like Mrs. Leefolt. There were visionaries and there were those who chose to stand back. There were also strong characters and weak characters.

The sun is bright but my eyes is wide open. I stand at the bus stop like I been doing for forty-odd years. In thirty minutes, my whole life’s . . . done. Maybe I ought to keep writing, not just for the paper, but something else, about all the people I know and the things I seen and done. Maybe I ain’t too old to start over, I think and I laugh and cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everthing new.

~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Despite its dark and heavy themes, The Help remained light and pleasurable. Stockett’s writing and language was consistently accessible , from the opening pages until the conclusion. She managed to underscore seminal and timely subjects and themes sans the graphic and violent images they usually are usually coupled with without diminishing the subject’s and the theme’s relevance. She wrote the story in a witty and entertaining manner but she never veered away from what she was trying to underline. She remained resolute and her conviction was well translated into the pages of the novel.

Beyond the horizon, hope for a better future beacons. Change may take some time but tiny steps go a long way. While the white population was depicted as a largely racist and discriminating group, there were a select few weren’t a chip of the old block. There were maids who shared amazing experiences with their considerate and humane employers. It would take years for the changes to be truly felt but the shifting attitude is a step towards the right direction.

Stockett navigates a profound territory in her debut novel, shining the spotlight on her native Jackson, Mississippi. What she has conjured is an interesting and insightful human interest story through the lives and personalities of Aibileen, Minny and the Jackson maids. It does not, however, reduce itself into just another human interest story for it explored seminal and timely subjects. It maybe set in the 1960s but its moral implications reverberate in the contemporary where shocking events such as the death of George Floyd still invites deeper discussion on discrimination and inequality. While discrimination, abuse, and violence remain prevalent, literary pieces echoing important voices and messages like The Help will transcend time and place.

Rating

96%

Characters (30%) – 29%
Plot (30%) – 30%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

To be honest, I was reluctant at first to pick up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The only thing I associate it with is the movie that helped gain Viola Davis recognition for her acting chops. It took quite a while to convince me to lift the book although I did buy my copy several years aback. I guess the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, further exacerbated by the case of George Floyd, has made it imperative to read more literary works surrounding the inequalities in contemporary America. The Help was an eye-opening and thought-provoking read that gave further insights into the history of this struggle. It was also entertaining and, at times, I do feel that it was written like an apology for inaction. It didn’t, however, diminish the relevance of the story of the Mississippi helpers.

Book Specs

Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 444
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…

There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who want to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary to tell…

About the Author

Kathryn Stockett was born in and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing. After completing her collegiate degree, she moved to New York City where she took up a career in magazine publishing. She also worked in marketing.

Post-September 11 attacks, Stockett began working on what would be her debut, and so far, only novel, The Help. It did take her five years to complete and after several rejections from various literary agents, she finally found an agent who represented her. In 2009, The Help was published to both critical and commercial acclaim. The novel’s commercial success flourished as it climbed The New York Times Best Seller List and would be published in over 40 languages. The novel was also adapted into a film.

Stockett is rumored to be working on her second novel.