Friday, February 24, 2012


We have read much of The Help and now seen the movie several days before the 2011 Academy Awards presentations. The film has been nominated for Best Picture. Seemingly, everybody else has seen fit to offer some comment with most groups and individuals (aye, the great majority) enthusiastically supportive with others stating it didn’t go far enough while others indicate it went too far and was degrading to African-Americans. We have an opinion as well

Whilst the good author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, is from Jackson, Mississippi, she attended and graduated from the University of Alabama, so don’t give Ole Miss any of the credit for the inspiration of this eye opener. It does, however, unflatteringly portray some former Ole Miss students as closet bigots or outright racists. The Help (film or book) probably won’t be used as a recruiting tool for the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League either. Having said that I never met anybody at Ole Miss that I could label as racist– at least by their overt behaviors. I would like to know where my Ole Miss classmates are now in their thought processes and overall value systems. Are they comfortable in the 21st century? I am confident they have evolved.

I guess those students that angrily approached a young and very naïve man as he ate lunch and later dinner with James Meredith in the Ole Miss cafeteria and demanded to know his name probably fit the bill as racists. Those experiences certainly changed my life and like a hot knife through butter opened my eyes to racism in this country – and not just in the Deep South. Before then, I just didn’t comprehend the nature and scope of racial discrimination.

Stockett opportunistically and intimately reflects what was routine in Jim Crow, civil rights-era Mississippi and punctuated the class and racial divide that, while leagues better, still exists - everywhere. So, the events portrayed in The Help are offered within the context of the times but are the tip of the iceberg – just part of the story - merely one aspect of the interaction between the races in a violent, disparate and fiercely segregationist Mississippi society. We feel that the movie can’t be all things to all people (or micro-analyzed), so let’s glean what we can and make that part of whatever ultimate solution we embrace - together.

I wasn’t surprised when The Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) criticized the African American dialect used in the film. They may have cost themselves some credibility considering their very important work. It appears the ABWH wanted a documentary from their tone. I know many raised in that part of the country (including some African Americans) who say that the dialect was pretty much “right on” from their experiences though I surely understand the ABWH’s stereotypical concerns.

It seems that some may be embarrassed with their own linguistic history and now that they have arrived, carry blinders with them. We wonder out loud what they would say about the Gullah dialect of the coastal Carolinas, Georgia and Florida? Or how do they reconcile African American Vernacular English (AAVE), aka Ebonics with English as accepted and practiced in 21st century North America? Given their historical and cultural importance, I would like to see more studies in this area to include those from African American ethno-musicologist at Yale University, Professor Willie Ruff, who credibly maintains a strong influence from the Scots-Gaelic among early slave populations. It’s all about education.

One of the takeaways of The Help is that it offered the ABWH fodder for their press release and all the dialogue since. But, we need to take it further and address the issues they legitimately broach. The Help has garnered widespread acceptance and support so let’s harness that mainstream energy.

The mantra Lest We Forget works well here and we need to keep hammering away at our Youth in a world that seems to be getting more politically correct and divisive every day. We are amazed at the selective historical data the younger generation embraces. Few know little about how we got to the present times and seemingly don’t care since they think it doesn’t apply to them now (LOL). Better to sensitize them under the guise of entertainment? For me the book/movie is a reminder that we still have a long way to go and a great way to continue to grow the dialogue on this very important issue.

Many treat The Help as oral history though it is historical fiction based on the personal experiences and observations of the author. Would that Stockett was in her maturity in the 1960’s and had the courage and bravery at that time to compile those reminisces and life stories of the real heroines – the maids/nannies featured in The Help. We note that Stockett could have been legally arrested, tried and convicted under Mississippi law had she engaged her literary effort in 1962.

We need to remember, Mississippi then had a popular though pitiful clown of a segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, who told his constituents that, “God had made the black man different in order to punish him.” That horrifying statement formed the basis of thought for many. I well remember the Ole Miss vs. Kentucky football game on September 29, 1962 in Jackson where Barnett gave his now infamous halftime I Love Mississippi speech. Yea, there were flags flying but Ole Miss was beating Kentucky, there was a lot of bourbon flowing in the stands and it was a euphoric celebration. For all they knew it was just another Win in Ole Miss’ undefeated 1962 season. Truth: They had no idea what was really happening or what was in store for them. Barnett ran for governor again in 1967 and even over the space of five years he had become a pathetic joke placing a distant fourth in the Democratic primary. Like many other staunch southern segregationists he never changed his mind or apologized. Barnett is now gone and those of his ilk are also going the way of the wind. And now we have The Help

One respondent on a The Help internet thread opined for me when he offered, “I found it touching and emotional and not in the least bit campy, but really rather melancholic and I don’t think it trivialized anything. It was meant to tell a side tale or subplot taking place within a momentous time in US history, and it did just that.”

And, The Help unhappily reminded me of a horrifying truth - that I remain acutely embarrassed and respectfully apologetic that I personally did not do more.


Ned Buxton

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