In September, 10th-grade students at a Maryland private school were asked to write a historical essay about the black experience in the South during the Jim Crow era with “specific examples of prejudice” taken from their summer reading text. The three books the students could choose from were presented as equally valid sources for an American history essay on Jim Crow. The books: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Help.
The idea of introducing students to the history of America’s own violent, terror-driven apartheid era through a reading list that is two-thirds books written from the white perspective by white authors is absurd; the idea that The Help should be used as some kind of primary text for understanding the black experience in this country is ludicrously offensive. Yet The Help in particular has turned up on many reading and resource lists for English and history classes in recent years, and some teachers use the book and its movie adaptation as a way to explore the civil rights movement. One high school in Ohio assigned the book as the lone summer reading for every English class, from ninth-grade language arts through 12th-grade British literature. School reading guides and online study sites are filled with questions about the state of race relations in 1963 Mississippi, with answers drawn only from the “history” presented in The Help. One teacher on E-notes reassures a student asking about historical fiction that The Help is “considered to be [a] reliable account of the events and emotions of the times.”
The Help follows an aspiring writer, Skeeter, as she realizes the injustices suffered by the black women who have raised white children—including herself—for generations. Skeeter undertakes a secret project: stories from the perspective of “the help” (parts of the book are written in the “dialect” of Aibileen and Minnie, the two principal black characters). In the process, Aibileen shares her pain, Skeeter gets to move to New York, and Minnie bakes a pie so humiliating that it shames the white villainess, Hilly, into keeping their identities secret. Though Aibileen is fired and must leave the little white girl who loves her, she feels “lighter” and decides to be a writer herself. The book aims to assure readers that the lines that divide people are, as Aibileen says, “in our heads. Lines between black and white ain't there neither. Some folks just made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.”
Like The Help? Fine. The Help is a readable, sometimes charming, sentimental work of fiction, and this is not a critique of its merits as a novel. Want to use The Help to teach about the civil rights movement or the history of American race relations? No. As a work of history, or even historical fiction, The Help is at best a gross oversimplification and at worst a horrible lie of a book. When The Help is used as an educational resource, the terror-filled realities of the time are glossed over or omitted in favor of a heartwarming—and entirely fictional—idea that racial equality came about because white people realized their unfairness and did something about it. The book perversely downplays hard-won victories within the black community by transferring ownership of momentous societal shifts to good-hearted white Mississippians. What kind of historical understanding can we expect of students fed these kinds of fictions?
It’s easy to see why The Help is appealing to many teachers and curriculum committees. Kathryn Stockett’s writing is accessible, and it must be a relief for beleaguered teachers to present material that’s already familiar to students thanks to the Oscar-winning film. (Plus, screening the movie takes up three full 45-minute periods.) And The Help’s neat narrative enforces a noble idea of history: When a minority group peacefully demands full status and rights, the American people, as a whole, always come to understand that it is only right, proper, and American to treat people equally. It is an attitude that doesn’t dwell in details or complicated counternarratives. It’s easy to understand this kind of history and easy to teach. But aside from being willfully oblique, this idea of history also denies the ignoble aspect of our American story, the part that makes history whole and real. The larger American culture may often deny history’s harder realities, but it is essential that teachers do better.
The problem in 1963 Mississippi wasn’t solely that the Aibileens and Minnies carried the inhuman burden of the mammy. It was a set of objective circumstances that were horrifically violent and dehumanizing. Jim Crow was a time of systematic oppression, when an entire population was terrorized because of the color of their skin. Lines were not, as Stockett has Aibileen say, in anyone’s head. They were real. Rape, lynchings, firebombings, beatings, burnings, and police brutality were used as tools to control a group of people whose continued subjugation fueled a racist culture and economy.
And Mississippi? A state, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression”? Mississippi was the most dangerous state in the country for anyone seeking racial justice. Between Reconstruction’s end and the early ’60s, according to historian Charles Payne, the state recorded 539 lynchings, the highest rate in the country. In 1963, the year in which The Help is set, there were 21 reported acts of violence that fell within the FBI’s definition of terrorism—shootings, firebombs, murders—in Mississippi, more than any other state. And though this number comes from the exhaustively researched Political Violence and Terrorism in Modern America: A Chronology, the actual number of racially motivated crimes is undoubtedly far higher, as many crimes—like rape, assault, and harassment—often went unreported, unprosecuted, or completely ignored by complicit police. In March of 1963, after a particularly gruesome spate of attacks on civil rights workers, the Commission on Civil Rights recommended withholding federal funds from Mississippi for being “in defiance of the Constitution.” Mississippi was the front line for virulent, hardline segregationists and an epicenter of racial violence.