The Help and The Book Of Negroes
Maybe it’s unfair to mention the two books in one breath, but I can’t seem to escape that need.
The book The Help written by the American author Kathryn Stockett recently became a runaway hit among mostly women and is read and avidly discussed in detail by members of multiple book clubs across Canada and the US. The fictional novel is placed in the south of the Unites States, Jackson Mississippi, and relates events in a time period that started in 1962 where the winds of change racked the societies in the South at the time of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march for freedom and Jack Kennedy’s presidency, and the assassination of both. It tells about race relationships in a changing time though the lenses of a group of desperate, white housewives, with the leader Hilly Holbrook, a nasty, self serving and racist queen bee of the group. The other side: their black hired help, represented by Aibilene and her friend Minny who raise their bosses children, cook and clean and serve in many ways as ordered, underpaid, without any job security. The story’s recorder is one of the white young women, Skeeter, who becomes during the unfolding of the story a social outcast; she is the only white woman here without a man or children who works for the local newspaper.
The Book Of Negroes (in the US, Australia & New Zealand titled Someone Knows My name) was written by the American born, Canadian author Laurence Hill and highly praised. It also dealt with the issues of race relationships. The protagonist in this fictional story is a black woman, Aminata Diallo, who is the author when she writes this story at the end of her life.
This is where the similarities stop: the subject of race relations and the female protagonist as the writer. Only mentioning those two details would not do the work of Laurence Hill justice.
It is unfortunate that in The Help, in a time where the possibilities for the black heroines of the book were somewhat greater than in the time of The Book Of Negroes, Kathryn Stockett could not find a way to indeed let them have that power to actually be the author, while Laurence Hill did with his protagonist. His protagonist was the author of the book and she achieved it all, and yet, it was very believable and satisfying as a novel ending.
In The Help, Minny and Aibilene were vehicles for the heroism of the Skeeter character. What did Skeeter risk? Really nothing, as she came from money and did not have to work. She had everything to gain by getting the black women to take the greater risks for her: a job with the publishing agency, a name as an author, and a future away from her narrow minded racist home town. What did Aibilene and Minny risk? A whole lot more: their job and their income, their mate, possibly their children–as Skeeter’s maid Constantine did–and very likely their life, if caught by the KKK. That did not seem like a fair trade to me.
The author of The Help did briefly allude to the issues of political and race turmoil. Those readers not familiar with the American (and also South African) historic struggle for race equality might not be aware of how bad it was and how many people got killed and murdered for the abolition of slavery (1865) and the end of segregation–much later, in 1948. But that is another book or movie, I suppose.
That’s where Laurence Hill comes in. His story digs deep, way deep and comes up with a enthralling, devastating history, a treasure chest of facts and of attitudes well exposed. Readers of The Help would do well taking on Hill’s work next and go deeper. I found that a much, much better read, it moved me to tears, and showed me a world not known to me before. It’s emotionally rich and a humanistic work of creative writing. That’s how I would like to write.
Hill’s protagonist, Aminata, describes her many horrific and some good experiences, from being captured at age 11 by slave traders and shipped to a country in the New World without any of her relatives, far away from her home in Africa, during the disgraceful period when slaves were a normal fact of life for the white plantation owners in South Carolina, USA. It is an epic journey through history, across nations and continents and it describes Aminata’s battle of coming to terms with her identity, where she is, and her relationships with the rest of the world.
In my view the attitudes in much of the US was and still is for most part much like the European nations before the Second World War: the bad treatment of the disenfranchised, such as the Jewish, the Roma (gypsies), gays, etc. was predominantly acceptable to the general population and practised by everybody to some extent. The prevalent thought was that “those people” are not quite as human as them, so they were justified to treat them differently. Is it any different now? How about the millions of “undocumented” Mexican nationals in the US that are withheld US citizenship after decades of providing services to Americans, working often for lower wages than American nationals? How about the birth of the Tea Party and its continuing shenanigans calling for national anti-immigration laws, the hate for, and suspicion of people with Muslim or Arabic names?
The US has become pretty much ungovernable with the extreme intolerant opinions becoming stronger and the House blocking progressive solutions, with a large percentage of the population poorly educated, a large gap between rich and poor, and the many other social problems, including the idea of guns as a constitutional right, while its financial house is completely out of order.
Good for Kathryn Stockitt that she tried to bring up the difficult subject of race relations in terms that even privileged, bored housewives can understand. I’m hoping she is going to be successful in changing more attitudes, as we need all the help we can get here in north America. Now, please get The Book Of Negroes and start reading.