When not employing outright Klan-style violence, groups like the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the White Citizens’ Council silenced integrationists, civil rights workers, and even moderate sympathizers through the more genteel power structures—banks, courts, businesses, and politicians—they ran. Everything from libel and blackmail to severe economic reprisals and police violence were used on anyone remotely connected to integration. Historian Joseph Crespino writes, "Because of the Council's influence, no place in the United States … came closer to resembling the repressiveness of apartheid South African than did Mississippi."
The White Citizens’ Council is the group to which The Help’s villain, Hilly Holbrook, belongs, and though she is a vile creature, she is ultimately silenced through the subversive actions of two black women. This kind of resolution trivializes the power of the White Citizens’ Council—essentially a racist cabal of upper-class Southern whites—and diminishes the tremendous courage and sacrifice of the real people who fought this power. The problem was not that a few bad apples like Hilly Holbrook were especially cruel to their maids. Hilly Holbrook would have been one of countless white citizens who enforced a racist caste system, decades in the making, that crushed resistance through reprisal and violence. Brave individuals risked everything to fight this brutal repression, and their struggle demands an accurate historical telling. These gains were not achieved though sympathetic white girls and poop pies.
There are so many excellent books that use the power of narrative to bolster historical understanding—books that are richer, deeper, and just so much better than The Help. Those seeking fiction that focuses on Jim Crow and racial injustice can read Invisible Man, The Street, Passing, or the more recent Bombingham. For riveting, narrative nonfiction about the forces and shifts that shaped race in this century, Sons of Mississippi and The Warmth of Other Suns are essential. Anne Moody’s memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi is a vivid, historically detailed look at black life in rural Mississippi, written by a woman whose involvement in the civil rights movement is made all the more remarkable because of the often terrifying historical context she provides.* She Would Not Be Moved sheds fresh light on Rosa Parks and dissects the sexism and racism that transformed a dedicated activist into a tired old lady in the public eye. James Baldwin’s writing remains clear, compelling, and moving, and The Fire Next Time and Go Tell It on the Mountain are classics. 12 Million Black Voices presents lives of black people—in both the rural South and urban North—in the 1930s, with prose by Richard Wright accompanying powerful photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, among others. Of course, there are even more unsettling stories, like Your Blues Aren’t Like Mine and the lyrical A Wreath for Emmett Till, but because they seek to capture the actual brutality and ugliness of Jim Crow, they’re often deemed too disturbing for students—which should be the point but is often the problem.
Because if you’re really teaching students how to think about history, the content must be deeply upsetting at times. A serious study of history requires a confrontation with the failures of courage and conscience that have often marked our times. Acknowledging this history doesn’t diminish the gains our society has made; it makes them all the more extraordinary. Glossing over actual history for ahistorical, largely blameless fictions like The Help doesn’t give young people nearly enough credit. Some educators assign these books under the misguided assumption that white kids will relate to a book about the struggle for equality only if it features a white protagonist and a “happy” resolution. But in my experience, teenagers are far more fluid in their conception of identity than older people and far more cognizant of unhappy endings and ambiguities than infantilizing adults think they are. As long as there’s a point of connection—and injustice is one to which all teenagers relate—students devour stories of people different from themselves.
To my mind, if you’re going to assign The Help to teach about civil rights, you might as well assign Life Is Beautiful to teach about the Holocaust. Both rely on a simplification that makes a hard subject seem palatable and resolved, while giving viewers that lovely self-righteous feeling that keeps us from recognizing the discrimination around us now. People didn’t make concentration camps happy places through clowning, and the legalized system of oppression that ruled the South for more than 100 years was not undone by white girls and their mammies.
Of course, we teach the Holocaust with Anne Frank’s diary or Elie Wiesel’s Night, books that don’t shield young readers from the realities of history nor from the way history echoes into the present. Racism is not a problem that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Skeeter fixed, as demonstrated by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the everyday lives of high schoolers of color. But that’s the kind of stagnant historical understanding I see in students who only read neat narratives of struggle and redemption. I’ve heard dozens of white students talk about how “crazy” things were before the civil rights movement changed everything, with no sense of present connection (“Now we have a black president”) or the struggles that persist today. I have also seen the opposite—young people righteously incensed over racial injustice in Black Boy, glued to a documentary about the Scottsboro Boys, able to make modern connections about discrimination through The New Jim Crow, poring over pictures of life in the segregated South.
When I asked a student about The Help essay her school had assigned about black life under Jim Crow, she told me that the saddest part of the book was when Aibileen had to leave Mae Mobely, the little white girl she cared for. “It was so sad,” she said, “because she loved Mae Mobley, and Mae Mobley loved her, but Aibileen got fired even though she didn’t do anything wrong.” Her takeaway was not unjustified—the book and the film set this scene up as a wrenching, tear-jerking moment, so it was simply hitting its intended mark—but it points to the awful, intractable problem with using The Help for historical purposes. This student will be fortunate enough to read other texts and explore better history, and I’m sure her understanding will grow deeper. But until that time, she will believe that taking away a black woman’s ability to care for an adoring white girl best captures the racial injustice of 1963 Mississippi.
Correction, Dec. 2, 2013: This article misspelled the first name of author Anne Moody. (Return.)