Recently in race & ethnicity Category
"Is The Help Helping? A Roundtable Discussion on Race, Gender, and History as Fiction," with
It will take place on Wednesday, September 14, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in the Bailey Library, on the second floor of Andrews Hall, City Campus, UNL.Prof. Anna Williams Shavers, Cline Williams Professor of Citizenship Law, UNL Law College
Dr. Kwakiutl Dreher, Ethnic Studies & English, UNL
Dr. Jeannette Eileen Jones, Ethnic Studies & History, UNL
Dr. Patrick Jones, Ethnic Studies & History, UNL.
I'm really excited. I can't wait to see what they say.
[It's my pleasure to present guest blogger Emily Levine, scholar and friend. --JC]
One of the problems of The Help—and there are many—is that, contrary to the reality of black women’s lives in the south in the 1960s, the only physical violence against them that we see is perpetrated by one of the women’s husbands—a black man.
From the time of slavery, through reconstruction and Jim Crow, into the
civil rights movement, black women were subjected to violence, often sexual, at
the hands of white men. And if they weren’t directly assaulted themselves, they
lived under the constant threat of that violence. Anytime, anywhere. Sexual
humiliation, beatings, rapes, abductions were all part of the daily terror that
black women lived with. We do not see any of this in The Help, a book/film that purports to be about the lives of black
women during the civil rights movement, a movement that Danielle McGuire makes
clear in her recent book, At the Dark End
of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil
Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, was in large part
a product of and response to that very violence against women. (And just as the
wives of plantations owners were perfectly aware of what their husbands were
doing down in the quarters at night, the wives of men during the civil rights
movement knew what their husbands
were up to. Their silence was complicity.)
During the 1980s, I embarked on a concerted self-education about black women’s lives in America. My readings filled the silences left not only by mainstream American history, but the history of blacks and the civil rights movement in particular. They included Gerda Lerner’s Black Women in White America (1972, Lerner had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in Austria), books about Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Black Women's Studies (ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 1982). (I look forward to the publication this month of Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.)
At the Dark End of the Street is a welcome addition to that list. I saw McGuire give a lengthy presentation on Book TV (that’s CSPAN on the weekends when Congress isn’t in session) and am currently reading the book. As a historian, I’m impressed by McGuire’s research—her work in countless archives, newspapers of the era, and interviews with women who lived through that violence has unearthed stories, history, which had been lost.
McGuire opens the book with the story of Recy Taylor, who as a young married mother walking home from church in 1944 Alabama, was abducted at gunpoint and brutally raped by six white men. The investigator sent by the NAACP to document the case was a young activist named Rosa Parks, who McGuire makes clear—in case people still don’t get it—was not, ten years later, a tired woman on her way home from work wanting to rest her feet, but a seasoned civil rights worker acting as part of a planned resistance. A resistance not just against having to sit at the back of the bus, but against the daily humiliations and assaults black women were subjected to riding the Montgomery buses.
The Help gives the impression the
most black women had to put up with—bad as they were—were indignities like
having to use separate toilets. While no trifling matters, these sorts of
things just don’t reflect terror that these women lived with. The Help also gives the impression that
these women were just too afraid to speak out about the humiliations they faced
working as domestics and that they needed Skeeter to prod them. On the
contrary, in the face of beatings, attacks on their homes, the inability to
protect their daughters, and the knowledge that justice might never come to
their attackers, black women did
speak out. Publicly. Individually and as part of actions by organizations like
the NAACP and women’s clubs. Their bravery was stunning.
We owe it to these women to acknowledge their stories, their lives. The Help doesn’t help. While it is good at portraying heartbreaking daily moments of life as a domestic in white homes during the 1960s, it doesn’t begin to show black women as the strong, active, political fighters and organizers that they were. As an antidote, I encourage you to read At the Dark End of the Street. I have always felt that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, to know the history. The history that McGuire gives us is chilling. It is not the feel-good self-righteous story of The Help. It is much more powerful.
Just read the preface; it’s more of a page turner than Skeeter, and Minnie, and Abilene. McGuire writes:
. . .yet analysis of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, which present it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like ‘Bull’ Connor. The real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African American women’s long struggle against sexual violence—has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African American’s daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement.
Emily Levine is the editor of With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History (U of Nebraska).
From Emily Hammerl, these links:
Multiple takes on the problematic aspects of The Help, including the difference between the UK and US versions, plus an announcement of a Twitter discussion on August 28th, #100voicesrespondtothehelp.
"Reading the Help," by Susannah Bartlow, a white feminist whose "goal is to step into necessary solidarity with black feminists."
Claire Potter's "For Colored Only? Understanding The Help Through the Lens of White Womanhood" in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Jezebel.com's critique of the way popular magazines' takes on The Help have appealed to readers' taste buds/nostalgia, "Recipes for Shit Pie as Inspired by The Help."
From Julie Holden, these two: David Denby's review in the New Yorker, and Helena Andrews' piece, "I Was 'The Help,' or Why Cicely Tyson Freaks Me the Hell Out."
From Ashley Lawson, "Eudora Welty's Jackson: 'The Help' in Context" by W. Ralph Edwards on NPR Books.
And from Christin Geall, "On 'The Help,'" at Feministe, about the disturbing "nostalgia for ugly times."
Thanks to Ada Vilageliu Diaz for linking to a piece by Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher ed at Penn, in The Chronicle of Higher Ed yesterday, "The Strength of African-American Women and American Racism," in which Gasman writes,
Thanks, everyone! The "foster interesting discussions" part is what we're hoping to work with here in Lincoln, where the Ethnic Studies faculty is planning a panel. Something like, "Why The Help Isn't Helping."We both enjoyed the film in spite of how difficult it was to watch at times. Although it wasn't entirely historically accurate, many of the the themes in the movie were important and could be used to foster interesting discussions among people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Or maybe, by provoking discussion, it is. We'll see.
Mark your calendar for Wednesday, September 14th, 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. in the Bailey Library in Andrews Hall at UNL, where Professors Jeannette Eileen Jones (History & African American Studies), Kwakiutl Dreher (English & African American Studies), Patrick Jones (History & African American Studies), and Anna Williams Shavers, the Cline Williams Professor of Citizenship Law at UNL's Law College, will speak.
More later on that.
For the moment, I'm done--so done--with The Help. Off to see Colombiana.
You may have read Jennifer Williams' piece in Ms., which reminds readers that The Help's so-called "untold story" of black domestic workers' difficultie in a racist society has actually been amply explored by such black women writers as Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid. Williams calls The Help
You may have even read the open statement by the Association of Black Women Historians: "We do not recognize the black community described in The Help. . . .":the perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America. Those filmgoers can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past, even as the recession deepens already profound racial gaps in wealth and employment.
My favorite line from their statement calls the book/film "troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.". . . The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. . . . The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.
And apparently there's nostalgia aplenty, which has not hurt author Kathryn Stockett. She's just become "the first debut novelist to join the Million Club," selling over a million paid copies of her book on Kindle, and I think I heard that it's already sold upward of 3 million copies in hardcover and paperback.
You may have read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece, "Why Hollywood Keeps Whitewashing the Past," which calls The Help
And you might already know about Nelson George's criticism of The Help for its "false sense of authenticity" and its "candy-coated cinematography," which "buffers viewers from the era's violence."a college-educated white liberal's wish-fulfillment fantasy of how she would have conducted herself had she been time-warped back to the civil rights era. I wouldn't have just stood by and let it happen. I would have done something! Something brave!
You may have seen how Latina magazine jumped on The Help's bandwagon with its little featurette about "our favorite Latina 'help' roles of all-time!"--and the response by Latina Fatale, "Shame on Latina Magazine!"
But my very favorite so far might be what Roxane Gay says in her piece "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help." Gay sees The Help as "science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in."
Sigh. Science fiction. An alternate universe. Cowboys & Aliens. Why are mass audiences loving these visions right now?
Several of my women's studies and ethnic studies professor-friends have seen the film lately, and I'm hoping they're going to weigh in about all of this here on the blog at some point. (At UNL, there are also tentative plans to host a panel about the issues the book/film raises. More on that later for local readers.)
In the meantime, to well-meaning nostalgic sci-fi fans of a postracial fantasy world: You is kind, you is smart, you is important. But have you ever read The Bluest Eye?
Since childhood, I've had the socially undesirable habit of remaining stupidly oblivious to gossipy or scandalous things. (You know that expression, "If you can't say something nice, come sit next to me"? Well, I usually have only the most tediously nice things to say. It's a weakness. Cocktail party suicide.) So anyway, I'd let the whole thing glide past my consciousness--until today, when it came up as a curveball question from another faculty member in a mock interview. (Our graduate student, I'm proud to say, handled it beautifully.)
After the mock interview, I checked out the story, and I was interested to read this commentary about it by one of the graduate students involved. I liked the way she talked about the fear and vulnerability of students from the working poor who try to acclimate to the strange norms of graduate school:
I connected with that; I could identify. She then suggests, however, that this vulnerability made her subject to Chávez's manipulation, since she saw Chávez as a role model, as someone whose own class markers suggested that she'd succeeded in academia despite not being originally from a financially comfortable background. Ergo, if she's doing sex work, then I should do sex work.I was afraid every day that I was in grad school, not because I was incapable of the intellectual work or lacked ambition, but because I kept making small social gaffes.
I'm sympathetic to a great deal of what she writes, yet I'm also a little tired. Thank goodness, for example, that no one in my graduate department ever pushed students--to my knowledge--into sex work, for heaven's sake, or organ harvesting or intellectual property theft. Moreover, one likes to think one would have made one's own choices based on one's own ethics, whatever the pressures may have been. And that if one made errors in judgment--decisions one later regretted--one would, as an adult, take responsibility for those. (In fact, it seems to me like that's what half of adulthood consists of. Sigh.)
Which (turning now and arguing with myself) I suppose the graduate student has done, and I wish her well. She has taken responsibility, she has thought about it, and she has learned something. And though it was hard to be certain from the pieces I read, maybe she functioned as a kind of whistle-blower, too, which is always a hard and brave thing to do. In which case, I wish her doubly well.
I felt so uncomfortable when I read about some of the choices Chávez made (at least as they were being reported; you know how sometimes media reduce or distort things). It's great to be a pro-sex feminist, and it's great to have fun parties. And of course, her own free time is her own business. But if she indeed suggested that students try sex work, especially to spice up their creative writing, that's troubling.
I really feel like students--of any level and age--are an almost sacred trust, that they are vulnerable, even if they're in their seventies, and that we as teaching professionals need to err on the side of professionalism, carefulness, and boundaries. Our job is to provide a crucible or petri dish or pick-your-metaphor where their creativity can grow, where they can explore their choice of material, where their work can be heard and helped and honored. I have had students who wrote the wildest, raciest, boundary-pushingest stuff, and I've had students write gorgeously about very "safe"-seeming material. But it comes from them, from their impulses and creative ambitions, not from mine. I'm there to listen, to support, to help with craft. To hear it into speech.
My classroom may be unspeakably tame, but I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say I prefer it that way.
I would like to add, just to defend the field, that this issue--the issue of confusion around boundaries, professionalism, and sexuality--is not at all specific to creative writing. Almost all women of a certain age can report the blurring of sexual boundaries in the academy in a variety of disciplines, and the white male tenured profs who practiced it were generally not subjected to major investigations. In some situations, it was even kind of a norm, something to negotiate, navigate, roll one's eyes about, and little more. (I remember leaving a reception at a distinguished scholar's home when I was an undergraduate and having him try to put his tongue in my mouth as part of his cordial good-bye. Ugh. Some of you probably have more troubling, serious stories.)
So I wouldn't say, Oh, those creative writers. They're wild. They don't have boundaries. While artists are known for pushing boundaries and experimenting in all kinds of ways, the sexualization of students by professors definitely happens across the disciplines, and unscrupulous people in all kinds of academic departments exploit those power relationships to their own ends.
Finally, "Ms. Chávez has accused her accusers, in complaints to the university and the state, of discriminating against her because she is bisexual and Hispanic" (this, from the Chronicle piece). When I first read this, I was initially like, Oh, no. Really? Is this really the time to play those cards?
But then I thought about the generations of sexual exploitation in the academy by white male heterosexual professors. Would such a national fuss have been made if she'd been white and male and had simply restricted herself to unphotographed, uncommercial activities with students?
And finally-finally, phone-sex work pays $40 an hour? When TAs are lucky to make $15K a year, that's pretty alluring. (Come to think of it, it's a damn sight more than lots of tenured professors make.) Ultimately, that discrepancy is far more troubling, in terms of what it says about what we value as a culture, than the actions of the particular individuals caught up in this situation.
But that's an old story.
A complicated case, this raises issues that aren't easy to untangle.
Here's wishing peace, justice, clarity, and rapprochement to everyone in the English department at the University of New Mexico, who could probably all use a nice long vacation at this point. And if you're on the job market this fall, you might want to think through some of these issues yourself--because if our mock interview today here at UNL was any indication, you just might get asked about them.
I'm a little nervous. Among the pieces Grey's going to do is one about what it was like for him to read my memoir The Truth Book, something he put off for four years after its publication, aware that it probably wouldn't be pretty. Wise child. But he took the plunge, and responded with words. I've read a paper copy of the piece, and that alone was intense enough to leave me torn up for a while. It won Grey a slam in Ohio, so, though I'm obviously saturated with bias, I'm not the only one who thinks it's strong work. So this evening should be interesting. It's kind of a rare and special privilege to now be in a two-generation cycle of making art from hard things.
On the topic of making art from hard things at a broader sociopolitical level, i.e., surviving U.S. history, the inimitable Honorée Fanonne Jeffers posted a bracing piece on why Women's Equality Day still doesn't feel so equal:
So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.
As far as how this woman's work is faring in the world of publishing, I received my contract for ISLAND OF BONES in the mail yesterday--hurray! But gentle readers, it looks like there's an error in it. A minor, dinky little error that, sigh, nonetheless means I can't just sign and be done, which I have so been looking forward to, because I don't like to celebrate until the ink is on the dotted line, and I do love to celebrate. Now: more waiting. C'est la vie.
Congratulations to poet Carrie Shipers, whose collection Ordinary Mourning is just out (as in yesterday) from ABZ Press. To read three of her striking poems, go here.
Also right now, in the USA, an estimated two and a half million women--most of whom are women of color from the global South--labor as domestic workers, making possible the labor and leisure of all those who choose to leave the care of "the most precious elements of [their] lives: their families and homes," to others. Ai-jen Poo's essay looks at our interconnections, sketches out a feminist bill of rights for domestic workers, and calls for change:
The upside-down concentration of the world's resources and wealth in the hands of a small minority at the expense of the vast majority is in fact unsustainable for everyone. Domestic worker policy demands that we recognize and value the basic care that we all require to live and provides a model for reshaping our economy to serve our collective human needs.
It awaits paint and a floor. Oh, and furniture. But it's standing, and I love it.
Thanks so much to whoever nominated one of my blog posts as "Best Writing Advice" for Jane Friedman's blog at Writer's Digest. The titles of all 20 blog posts look fascinating and useful; link to the list here. What a nice surprise, to be in such good company. Thank you!
If you live in Lincoln and need to buy some gifts (or spoil yourself), shop tomorrow, Saturday the 24th, at Ten Thousand Villages in the Haymarket. Ten Thousand Villages is an amazing enterprise, period, but tomorrow, ten percent of their profits tomorrow go to Voices of Hope, a center that helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. So get your shop on and do some good. Thanks, Ariana, for the heads-up.
I'm very excited to have received, just yesterday, an acceptance from Indiana Review of my creative nonfiction piece "Hip Joints." It's about sexual harassment and strip mining in West Virginia in the '80s, when I was a high school senior and my boss at the factory hadn't yet heard of women's rights. (Pre-Anita Hill, sexual harassment wasn't a term very many people anywhere knew, and it sure hadn't trickled down to rural Appalachia back when I was sixteen.) "Hip Joints" (which are what we manufactured at the factory, but you can see the possibilities) is an ecofeminist piece that also incorporates issues of ethnicity. I'm happy that it's going to have an audience soon.
Here at UNL, there's one week left in the semester, and it's total crazy-time. Students are writing their final papers, and graduate students are defending their theses and dissertations and taking oral exams--which means we professors should really have cloned ourselves by now to handle it all. Somewhat counterintuitively, I've taken to revising a chapter of THE DESIRE PROJECTS every morning before the work-day starts. (I had been revising one chapter a week, and calling it good.) This makes me much happier. I can go around blithely, knowing I've paid my dues to writing first.
In other news, my Little Sister Amara turned 16 this week, my marriage to the HH turned 15, and Grey is counting down the days until his college graduation. Spring is always such an exciting time. And damn, it's good not to have to wear a coat everywhere!
We've just been reading Wide Sargasso Sea in class, so my mind's on how a dominant voice--backed by money and the power of the metropole--can erase and madden someone else's truth.
And how generous Hegemony is with its answers! Here are just two that scratched their fingernails across my brain this week.
David Denby, reviewing Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer in the March 8, 2010 New Yorker, refers in passing--admiringly--to Olivia Williams "one of the rare actresses who seem more intelligent and beautiful as they get angrier." Just in passing, mind you. It's not his focus; it's an aside.
But pause. Let that sink in. So . . . the majority of actresses, then, seem more stupid and ugly as they get angrier? Do women in general, David Denby? (Is it any wonder that so many women have trouble expressing anger directly?) Is that true of male actors, of men?
On to #2. Nathaniel Rich, who turns all of 30 tomorrow, is perhaps surprisingly young to be the senior editor of fiction at The Paris Review, but then, he's had unusual opportunities. His father is Frank Rich, who writes for the New York Times; his brother Simon writes humor for the New Yorker. He grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Yale. He worked at the New York Review of Books straight out of college.
Hegemony. Money. The metropole.
Why does this matter to you, writers? Well, at the Paris Review, a most desirable publication venue for any writer, Nathaniel Rich serves as the decider, the gatekeeper. His taste determines what gets into the journal's pages.
So I found it rather fascinating to stumble across this window into his desires. It appeared in Canteen Magazine this January in what Rich's own website describes as "an autobiographical nonfiction piece." Its title, "Over Ernest," suggests that it's looking back at youthful folly; that the author's early infatuation with Hemingway is now outgrown. Still, its opening paragraph is fascinating:
While being fellated by a native woman.There was a time—not as long ago as I’d like to believe—when I imagined all novelists as Ernest Hemingways, hero-adventurers who shot tigers, fought in wars, seduced wild-eyed women, gambled their life savings at high-stakes poker, won duels, lost duels, and wrote frantic bursts of prose while standing upright in their rented rooms in Havana or Saigon or Beirut. I didn’t fully understand the standing-upright part, but I had read that Hemingway worked this way. At first I figured it had something to do with the immense ferocity of the act; surely he was too wired with genius to sit down at a desk. The more I thought about it, though, it occurred to me that the reason Hemingway wrote standing up was to allow a woman (his muse, no doubt) to more easily “inspire” him while he was in the midst of his demanding labor. This image—of the great writer madly scribbling masterpieces while being fellated by a native woman—haunted me. If this was the writing life, who wouldn’t want to be a writer? . . . I had just turned 21 years old.
Gentle readers, we recently read and discussed in class an excerpt from Madwoman in the Attic, that groundbreaking work of feminist criticism from the 1970s. The students were shocked by the wildly sexist things that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century male writers said about the blood-congested male drive they saw as essential to writing works of literary genius.
How backward, we all said.
Yet here we go again, in 2010. (Hey, it's working for Avatar.)
Okay, so Nathaniel Rich was young and oversexed when he fantasized about Hemingway. Okay, so surely the essay will later take his younger self to task--I couldn't tell, because Canteen only excerpts the first page. (Invited to read more--by subscribing, at $10 an issue--gee, I declined.) Okay, so it was 9 whole years ago.
But not as long ago as I'd like to believe.
Always modest, Lorraine says she's still stunned and ecstatic. It's going to be a whirlwind until March 23, when the winner is announced. Wow!
Regarding the issue of representing latinidad, Lorraine says that she "intended to produce stories for [the colllection] that would shift the focus from the performance of ethnicity that essentializes cultural experience. . . ." The L.A. Times includes a lengthy passage from a lovely 2-page interview, which you can access in full at BkMk's webpage for the book:
Lorraine's also co-editing a new collection, The Other Latino, that addresses this very issue--the expected performance of Latina/o ethnicity--from multiple perspectives. It's due out next year from University of Arizona Press.
Q: Your collection has many Latino characters, and they all interact with characters from other backgrounds. Did you intend this bicultural or multicultural dimension of the book from the start, and do you think Latino writers face any special challenges in writing about Latino characters and culture for today’s varied literary audiences?
Lopez: This is a complicated question, and I thank you for asking it. For me, I did not set out to do more than explore characters beyond their cultural definition. As mentioned, I wanted to avoid that performance of identity that essentializes cultural experience. I am not interested in providing the usual themes, characters, and props that many associate with Latino literature. These do not characterize my experience as a Latina, so why should I artificially simulate such things to validate stereotypic notions? I can think of no reason to do this, except to gratify expectations of others....
I am not out to give anyone (including myself) what he or she might be expecting. In speaking to other Latino writers, I find that we similarly resist gratifying expectations that our characters perform in culturally expected ways, say, rolling tortillas, bopping around the barrio, or gathering wisdom from a sweet abuela. More and more, Latino literature is evolving away from such stereotypes, and becoming more interesting and challenging in the process.
In the meantime, lift a glass to Lorraine!