The Truth about the Civil Rights Era: Martha Southgate on The Help

The current issue of Entertainment Weekly (August 12) has a wonderful cover story on The Help, the blockbuster book that was made into a movie, opening soon. As part of the photo-heavy spread, Entertainment Weekly asked Algonquin author Martha Southgate, whose new novel The Taste of Salt publishes 9/27, to write about the book. Her piece is below. Be sure to pick up a copy of the magazine–one of our favorites around here–on newsstands now.

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24 comments on “The Truth about the Civil Rights Era: Martha Southgate on The Help

  1. Wow! I hadn’t thought of it that way. I loved the book, but I can see what Southgate means. Indeed, the white people weren’t the heroes of the movement, and too many books, including The Help, portray them that way. Great commentary.

  2. I agree with Ms. Southgate. I had other problems with the novel, too. Still, I did enjoy it because it brought back sweet memories of my own babysitter/housekeeper, who I loved (at 5 years of age) nearly as much as my own mother. She was a steady and loving presence in my young life. Politically incorrect it may be today, but that was the reality in 1967.

  3. Thank you, Ms. Southgate!! The novel is a fun little lark based on a preposterous premise, one white woman’s fantasy of what a civil rights story might look like. Beach chair romance, not literary fiction!!

  4. I’ve put off reading this book so far; now I may continue to do so.

  5. I’m Black, southern, and the granddaughter of a former domestic. I’ve been wanting to read The Help while dreading it at the same time.:-) I’m going to read it because I’m seeing the movie this week. The problem is not the subject matter of the book/movie; class differences and racial apartheid were a reality of the South. The problem is that whenever most White southerners write about this–from Peterkin to Warren to Faulkner to Stockett–they seem to have a hard time putting their class and race privilege to the side, and you have some Black writers who have issues of class privilege as well when addressing these issues. Thus, the issue of literary noblesse oblige continues.

    But I want to say again that the issue is not the subject matter; love between two people (whatever their race and/or class) is never politically incorrect. But even when those White charges of Black nannies were children, they had more power than the grown African Americans who were taking care of them. They could tell a lie that could get someone harmed or lynched. I’d like to see a story which acknowledges that unequal power differential, and which talks about the complexities and the complications of love in an unequal power differential. I am a Black professor–with power in the classroom. And I have two White female former students I couldn’t love more if they were my own children. Does it make it politically incorrect because I love them but I have more power than they do? No. What makes it politically incorrect is if I don’t acknowledge that I have more power. And what’s also politically incorrect is that nobody seems to care about the many Black southern writers who have written about this subject in the past and who can’t get people to buy the book in droves or get a movie deal for it, either.

  6. Hi Martha,

    I totally agree. I cringed when I saw the previews. Not on my list–I prefer Aliens and Cowboys.

  7. I call it the “bug under the jar”–approach. White writers/moviemakers have an enduring fascination with what makes black people tick–right down to trying to mimick how “they” speak, walk, etc, and a fetish for putting themselves at the center of the greatest story of triumph over adversity in U.S. history. It’s as if the glory of the Civil Rights struggle is just too good to leave to the true heroes and heroines.

    Try as they may in the movie trailers for “The Help” to infer that the film is about the black characters, we know that it is really the young white woman’s tale, the only reason Hollywood has ever seen for making a movie set in the Civil Rights Era.

    The question is whether the implication of such an approach–that white readers and movie-goers are so hopelessly racist that they could never embrace a narrative that didn’t have them at the center–is an accurate one even in 2011?

  8. I have found this book flawed from the beginning……but I am eager to see the movie, if only to send a message to Hollywood: YES! We’ll pay to see a primarily African American cast in a first-run film.

  9. I read The Help because its premiss so closely mimicked that of an actual book written in the mid-70’s about black domestics in the deep South. That book was interview formatted like the fictional one Stockett’s Skeeter character wrote. I wish I could remember its title, but I’m guessing it’s long out of print by now. It featured the auto-biographical accounts of relationships between several (10 or more, if I recall correctly) black maids and their white employers. While reading Stockett’s book, I wondered if she might actually have read that book, as her fictional maids’ accounts strongly reminded me of those I read in it. Skeeter’s book hypothetically was written and published approx. a decade before the one I read, but I didn’t think it stretched fictional plausibility. I really enjoyed Stockett’s book and felt it was well-written, but I do wonder if a similar book would have received such fanfare had it been written by a black author. I rather doubt it, actually. Btw, many of my female relatives (mother, aunts, and grandmothers) worked as black domestics for at least short periods of time, and I remember sitting and listening to their accounts of what it was like “working for white women.” Many times, Stockett’s characters’ accounts were spot on.

  10. Yes, the premise of this novel underlines a real white american pychological issue with our American past–the white narcissism that we can’t really put aside. We deeply need a way to address this directly, and we haven’t found it yet. The fantasy of white superheros of the civil rights movement has some kinship to the fantasy of the “kind father” image that slave owners developed for themselves–you still hear this in the south, and it includes the creation of an image of the oppressed as childish and unable to care for themselves. I don’t want to disparage the impulse to join the fight for another group’s freedom–to turn the peacecorp urge into simple girlscout childishness, but we have to find a way to look at an honest picture of our history as a country.

    The basic circumstance of the novel, the (troubled) love that rose between women working as domestics and the children they cared for, is very rich ground. The child’s love would have been entirely innocent and unconditional (and totally unaware of their own privlege), and the adult woman’s love must have been quite difficult sometimes, since many of them had children they couldn’t spend so much time with, who wanted for so much that their charges simply took for granted. I commend the novel for creating a psychologically palatable way to open more conversation, and hope that it might lead to deeper exploration of the history of our relationships and their power. I know the reason that this has become such a choice for book groups, especially in the south, is that so many white women still have such loving memories of their nannies, and have a need to reconnect with the maternal love and comfort of those memories in a way that doesn’t do the damage that real political evaluation of those relationships would do.

  11. Nice article Martha. It seems to me however that The Help was essentially a white story told by a white woman for a white audience. I’m don’t think it is realistic or even logical to expect the Black perspective to be told accurately. Throw in the fact that the film is a commercial endeavor; one quickly realizes the prospect of faithful a representation of this aspect of the civil rights story becomes a virtual impossibility.

  12. Brava, Martha! What an interesting and perceptive piece. You certainly got to the crux of the matter and why the attention this novel and film (and others like it which place white people at center of black folks’ lives and of Movement) have received is bogus. It is also troubling to me as an African-American female writer how often our voices are co-opted by white writers who know nothing of our authentic selves. Good job!

  13. Beautifully and eloquently explained Martha! This nation has spent much time and energy on homogenizing the Civil Rights Era so that it by default becomes the victory not of the oppressed; but that of the oppressor. Like you, I was repulsed by yet another attempt to convince me that dirt is not dirty.

  14. @Katy G: your comment IS the entire problem, in a nutshell. “sweet memories of your [mammy].” that woman only worked for your family because of the economic disparity that remains in this country, not because she just wanted to find a small white child to love. she probably, like most domestics, had kids of her own at home, who should have received the care she [was made to] give to you. yet, you folks say these things loud and proud as if we are supposed to reminisce in your sweet vision. don’t you realize you are having tender memories of modern day slavery? don’t you realize your own mother was supposed to raise you and not pawn you off on a surrogate? this very common “unrealization” of these “sweet memories” are the very thing folks are in an uproar about, and apparently none of the women like you who had a “sitter/maid/nanny/mammy (mother nanny) get it…get that this is indeed and has been a huge PROBLEM. we are not put on this Earth to be your nursemaids.

  15. Yes, Lisa G. I do understand all of that now, in my 50th year. I surely do “get it”. But at age 5? Not so much. Do not dare to tell me that my feelings at age 5 were not genuine. And no, I did not ask you to reminisce with me in my childhood memories. I was stating my own reality, not yours.

  16. Furthermore, my mother did not pawn me off on a surrogate because that was her choice. She would have preferred to stay home with me and my sister. But the economic reality was that she needed to work full time, and day care was not as prevalent then as it is today. You make several inaccurate assumptions in your post. Just because I’m white does not mean I’m unaware.

  17. I understand Martha’s point in the article, however I don’t think that The Help should be criticized so heavily. Yes, the author was a white woman trying to write in a black woman’s perspective, but I think that was actually a good thing. She may not know what it was like for the house maid’s in that time period, but she was trying to put herself into someone else’s shoes, which shows empathy to the situation rather than ignorance. Maybe the fact that it centers around a white character isn’t ideal for some people, but that’s what it is. That’s how the story was told.

  18. I NEVER will pay money to watch a film on the civil rights movement as told through the eyes of a white person. It’s a testament to the struggle that I can afford to go to the movies and I feel that I would dishonor those forgotten heroes by hearing their voices contained and controlled by condescending white liberals. They are just giving us the usual types. Fat ,black maids ala Hattie McDaniels and skinny petite white women ? Nice try Hollywood but I’ll pass on this. And the next until you get it right and let us tell OUR stories.

  19. Well said Martha, we all can do without Help this week and evermore…

  20. Well said. In fact, this is the reason I resisted reading the book in te first place. I should say I resisted finishing the book.

  21. I totally sympathize with Martha Southgate’s view of The Help. That being said, when this title was discussed in my book group last fall, I was amazed to find out that the dynamics of the black-white relationship was big news to one of my fellow members. She was a white woman who had never heard or thought about how black women might have had a love-hate relationship with their charges. I’m grateful to that book for opening up her mind even just a tiny bit, even if I felt lukewarm about the writing and the story.

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