The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has not escaped controversy of the “can a white person write about black experience” variety. This “who can write what” question has plagued literary study as well as the popular imagination for a long time. I remember all the talk regarding the white female professor who specialized in African-American literature when I was doing my M.A.
As suggested here, I think it’s absurd to suggest writers can only write about their own experiences or from the point of their own social positioning. However, all this is complicated by the fact that white voices (especially white male voices) have been privileged in literary (and other) worlds. We must be wary that our privileged voices don’t drown out or silence those also trying to speak.
In the case of Stockett’s novel, I found it to be a beautifully written, page-turning narrative that, at its core, intends to break down the privilege/oppression web. Yes, she is a white woman, but does this mean she cannot write fiction aimed at eradicating racism and employ black characters to do so?
She has been criticized for the dialects she uses for some of her black characters. For example, Erin Aubry Kaplan, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” While the “linguistic quirks” of white characters didn’t play a huge role in the narrative, I felt the novel portrayed a number of “white quirks” that revealed how whiteness is constructed and maintained not only via language, but via dress codes, social activities, schooling, and storytelling.
This last one – storytelling – was one strand of the novel that I fell in love with, and that is particularly pertinent on this three-day Martin Luther King, Jr weekend. Aibileen, one of two black female protagonists who voices the narrative (the third narrator is a white female), tells stories to Mae Mobley in hopes she can inoculate this little white girl from growing up racist. As “She just loves hearing about peoples from outer space,” Aibileen tells her about he day “Martian Luther King” came to Earth and even though he “Looked like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head” people treated him differently “Cause he was green” (296).
This story within a story speaks volumes about the intent at the heart of The Help – yes, it’s by a white woman, but can white women not use their voices to try and dismantle privilege and eradicate racism? As a white woman myself, I understand that how and when to speak/write is a very complicated matter – that just because one CAN speak/write, doesn’t always mean one should – that having a privileged voice can make it hard to quell the impetus to speak in order to make space for Othered voices. (And, as an opinionated POWP, I find it hard to keep my damn mouth shut!)
I hope, just once in awhile, I might say or write something that helps to eradicate injustice – I hope that I might be of help in the way I see Stockett’s novel helping the actively anti-racist cause.