Southern Discomfort

A NOVEL, A LAWSUIT & AN UNHAPPY LEGACY

Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help, which has been made into a movie scheduled for release this summer, made me intensely uncomfortable with its Gone with the Wind–style Southern dialect and depiction of lopsided relationships between a bunch of white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1960. Sometimes, of course, discomfort can be a good and even important thing, and Stockett herself suggests that’s what she was trying to evoke: “I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things,” she says in an author’s note, “that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.” So let’s do it anyway.

The book’s real appeal, it seems to me, is in its invitation to ease into a warm bath of moral superiority over the racist ninnies in the book, who worry about the diseases they might catch if the women who cook their food and raise their children were also to tinkle in their toilets.

But a little self-congratulation goes a long way, in print as in life. When Stockett also shares in the author’s note how she once ground her stiletto heel into the foot of a “drunk man from a rich white Metro North–train type of town” who spoke ill of Mississippi at a New York cocktail party, and then “spent the next ten minutes quietly educating him on the where-from-abouts of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Henson, Faith Hill, James Earl Jones, and Craig Claiborne, the food editor and critic for the New York Times,” she cemented my impression of her as awfully smug. And now we have a new window into Stockett’s possible motivations—courtesy of the lawsuit filed recently by her brother’s maid.

Ablene Cooper, a sixty-year-old Jackson maid who has a gold tooth, a dead son, and a job minding the children of Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law, is suing the writer over alleged similarities between her life and likeness and that of a maid in The Help—an Aibileen Clark, who has a gold tooth and a dead son, and works for Jackson’s biggest jerks. Not only that, but according to Cooper, it was the brother and sister-in-law who encouraged her to file suit.

“Ain’t too many Ablenes,” she told the New York Times. “What she did, they said it was wrong,” she added—the “they” in question being the author’s brother and sister-in-law. “They came to me and said, ‘Ms. Aibee, we love you, we support you,’ and they told me to do what I got to do.”

It sounds as though Stockett is really being sued for embarrassing her family—another Southern tradition. But while the author’s appropriation has all the subtlety of the attack on Fort Sumter, cases like this are almost impossible to win. Whatever happens with the low-yield suit, Cooper is once again in the situation of at least looking like her white employers are the ones calling the shots. And with the damages sought set at only $75,000—just low enough to keep the case out of federal court—the whole exercise seems disrespectful to the longtime maid, who would have been better advised to write her own darn book and cash in on the upcoming movie in a way that would have allowed her to become a former maid.

Cooper has described the parallels between her life and that of the character in The Help as plain “embarrassing”—and just wait until Viola Davis, who plays Aibileen in the movie, drags her onto the big screen this August. Now that she’s on record as saying that all this talk about the unequal relationship between maid and employer is so humiliating, it will be hard for her to change her mind and be interviewed alongside Davis later, too, won’t it? (Good thinking, aggrieved brother and sister-in-law!)

So am I really arguing that Stockett oughtn’t to have written the book? No, nor even that I shouldn’t have bought it, since some of the discomfort I feel just might have to do with my own identification with the character of the writer—the author of the tell-all book within the tell-all book—who purloins pretty casually from the lives of others. That character is also a Southerner (my mom’s family is from Kentucky) whose confidence in her own moral superiority is perhaps not as appealing as she imagines.

When I think about my own experiences with the African-American woman who helped my grandmother raise my younger cousin after his mom died—and with her daughter, who was my first black friend, or so I thought—I am as embarrassed as Ablene Cooper says she is. On her deathbed, my beloved grandmother lifted her head and told the hospital aide bending over her, “Why, you’re colored.” “Yes, ma’am, I am,” the woman said. And until I know better what in the world to do with that, I guess I had best not pass any final judgment on either Stockett or her litigious brother.

 


Related: Another Kind of Victory, by Melinda Henneberger

Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: 
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Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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