Historians on ‘The Help’: Vanessa May and Rebecca Sharpless Respond

Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help has joined the million-Kindle-sales club, thanks in part to the recent release of the film based on the book. The film has drawn raves from some, rants from others. Historians have taken up a spirited debate over fact vs. fantasy and the portrayal of a critical era in America’s civil rights history.

We welcome a pair of guest posts today from two historians who have spent a lot of time studying the lives of women domestic workers of the early twentieth century. Vanessa May is author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940. Rebecca Sharpless is author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South,1865-1960. Their insight helps us to better understand what the film leaves out as well as what it gets right. –ellen

From Vanessa May:

The Help, the movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel about black maids in Civil Rights-era Mississippi, has received a lot of criticism since its release. Instead of piling on, I offer a counter-narrative: the true story of what it was like to be a black maid before the Civil Rights movement.

One critique of The Help is that it takes the racial terror out of the 1960s by ignoring the bombings, shootings, and beatings and replacing the Ku Klux Klan with snotty Junior Leaguers who were mean to their maids. This criticism misses the point.  The truth is that terror and violence were not limited to political marches or assassinations. There were plenty of both in white homes, not just in the South and not just in the 1960s.

For example, in 1939, Bessie Brown was working as a maid in Westchester, New York.  One day, her employers, the Altshuls, refused to pay her wages. Brown told them that she would not leave until they paid her what they owed. Mrs. Altshul reacted by calling Brown “an impudent ‘nigger’ b—-.” Then, Brown recounted, Mrs. Altshul kicked her while Mr. Altshul, “grabbed the telephone out of her hands, hitting her over the head with the receiver.”

Brown immediately marched down to the police station to press charges for assault. The clerk initially refused to take her complaint, saying that “Brown must be drunk because the Altshuls were ‘nice’ people, and that he would not lose his job for a ‘nigger.'” Eventually, the clerk relented and the case went to trial. Brown lost. Her lawyer tried to make the best of the defeat, arguing that the case “served its purpose” since “the Altshuls were undoubtedly humiliated at having to appear in court.” Hopefully, he said, “employers in Westchester will be more careful hereafter about the way they treat their help.” In 1939, that was the best abused black domestic workers could hope for.

The Help pushes that violence outside the white home. In the book, Minnie, a black maid, is repeatedly beaten by her husband but never by the people she works for. This is not to say there was never domestic violence in African American families (although it would have been nice if Stockett had acknowledged that white men could also be violent).

In reality, however, black women were much more likely to experience intimate violence at the hands of white men.  African American domestic workers constantly worried about being raped at work. Mothers warned daughters entering domestic service to stay out of white male employers’ way. As has been recently revealed, civil rights activist Rosa Parks was raped at age eighteen while working in the home of a white neighbor. Since slavery, the rape of black women by white men was as much a part of perpetuating white supremacy in the South as lynching or segregation. But, in The Help, the most black domestic workers have to worry about is whether the petty white ladies they work for will let them use the bathroom indoors.

The good news is that, although the maids in The Help need the plucky white heroine, Skeeter Phelan, to help them stand up to their employers, real domestic workers have a long history of standing up for themselves. In Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for The Help, black maids went on strike in 1866 for higher wages. In 1934 New York, black women, led by an African American domestic worker named Dora Jones, formed the Domestic Workers Union and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. They supported women like Bessie Brown in court. They wrote union contracts mandating paid vacations, an eight-hour day, and a living wage. They lobbied the New York State legislature for labor laws. In 1968, Dorothy Bolden, who had worked in white homes in Atlanta since she was eight years old, formed the National Domestic Workers Union of America. Under her leadership the union increased wages for Atlanta’s domestic workers and won a union charter.

Some of these efforts were more successful than others. Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize, even if The Help does not, black women’s long tradition of political and labor activism.

Domestic workers continue to stand up for themselves. Domestic Workers United, a union founded in 2000, lobbied for a domestic workers’ “bill of rights” that passed in New York State in 2010. Among other benefits, the Bill of Rights establishes a living wage, a 40-hour week, and paid vacation. Workers are now trying to pass a similar law in California, using the release of The Help to draw attention to their cause. It is as compelling, inspiring, and tear-jerking as The Help ever was.

Vanessa H. May is assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940. Read her previous guest posts on the ongoing struggles of domestic workers here and here.


From Rebecca Sharpless:

The first time I saw The Help on the “new acquisitions” shelf at the library a couple of years ago, I read the flyleaf and thought, “I can’t bear another novel with a wise African American woman as the protagonist,” and put it down and walked away.  A year later, in response to numerous queries, I finally read the book, and it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.  After more than a decade of researching and writing about domestic workers, I thought that Kathryn Stockett got a lot right, in large part because of her familiarity with the fabulous oral history narratives collected by Susan Tucker and her colleagues at Tulane, some of which were published as Telling Memories among Southern Women (LSU Press, 1988).

I understand the frustration with the novel and the movie that many of my colleagues have expressed, most particularly in the Open Statement to the Fans of The Help from the Association of Black Women Historians.   Stockett is a novelist, not a historian, and she and the movie’s producers tell a story loosely based in history.  And her interpretation is what much of the general population of the U.S. will see, not our carefully crafted academic monographs bristling with footnotes.

So what do I think?  The movie isn’t really about African American women.  You see that in the opening scene, when the first shot shows a white woman’s hands.  As numerous people have pointed out, it’s about white people’s fantasies about the love of black women, which Lillian Smith talked about in Killers of the Dream more than sixty years ago.  The movie reaches its nadir when Skeeter confronts her mother about the departure of Constantine Jefferson, who had worked for the family for thirty years.  Skeeter says that her mother broke Jefferson’s heart by dismissing her, and the screenwriters depict Jefferson looking at the doorframe of her soon-to-be vacated home, with Skeeter’s name written among those of her own children to mark their growth.  While it is clearly documented that white children loved African American women, it’s much less evident that African American women reciprocated that love.  And even if they were fond of the children, domestic workers often had relationships with their adult employers that were fraught with tension and dissension.

What I think The Help, both the novel and the movie, gets right is the importance of telling one’s own story.  A number of people have expressed their indignation at the character of Skeeter Phelan, who comes to rescue the African American women.  As a white woman who has written a book about African American women, I am sensitive to the possibility of overstepping my boundaries or simply Not Getting It.  But I always tell my students that, while an outsider’s perspective is different from an insider’s, it doesn’t have to be all wrong.

For decades, oral history interviews conducted by both African American and white researchers have documented the lives of domestic workers across the South.  There were a sprinkling of interviews before the 1950s, when one brave African American woman, Willie Mae Wright, did in fact speak out, to a white woman, Elizabeth Kytle.  Wright, a domestic worker in Atlanta, dictated her “first-person biography” to Kytle, who published the book, simply entitled Willie Mae, with Alfred Knopf in 1958.  While the book is not without its problems, Wright tells stories that are funny, stories that are harrowing, and she depicts vividly the struggles of the Jim Crow South.  Neither Knopf nor the University of Georgia Press, which reprinted Willie Mae in 1993, can verify Wright’s identity or her whereabouts.  But her words remain available to any who will read them.

Beginning in the late 1970s, domestic workers told their stories to interviewers for radio station WRFG in Atlanta, authors in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, affirming the crucial importance of narrative, of telling one’s own life.  Later university-based projects have continued the trend.  Nothing can substitute for the clarity of personal experience.

Women such as Willie Mae Wright and the fictional Aibileen Clark formed the core of the African American female work force for almost a century.  In 1940, 60 percent of all employed African American females were domestic workers.  For them, the indignities were innumerable, but so were the efforts to establish agency over one’s life, to survive those thousand small cuts with one’s head held high.  Most domestic workers moved to other employment at the first possible opportunity, even before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  By 1980, only 7 percent of employed African American women were domestic workers.  Oral history interviews reveal a world that is largely gone and which few African Americans mourn.

Rebecca Sharpless is associate professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South,1865-1960 and Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms.