Since the 1950’s, when America’s consciousness of race relations began to be raised willy-nilly (a good thing, one must see, long overdue), books on the topic of race have proliferated exponentially, from both black and white authors. My topic today centers around three books by three white female authors, and examines some ways in which the three books differ.
Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help perhaps attained the highest degree of somewhat mixed attention and notoriety because it not only drew excellent actors to it on screen, but also because it attracted a lawsuit, which hit the news as well. In the story set in the 1960’s, a Southern-raised white woman, nicknamed Skeeter, has her awareness of her black nanny’s life reality altered forever by getting better acquainted with her from an adult perspective rather than from that of a dependent child. She tries to help the nanny, Aibilene, and another black woman, Minny, by engaging in writing a book from their reminiscences of working for white families in the South. The entire community of black employees ends up contributing bits and pieces of detail, but this book is somewhat disappointing because as has often been said of other efforts of the kind, it has the sort of kindness that comes from noblesse oblige, from giving a hand up rather than offering a hand across. It’s a feel-good book in many ways, centering its disapproval on obvious villains and acts rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of the many tiny ways in which everyone can use lessons in cultural awareness. The lawsuit in real life which arose from this publication came about because even though Stockett apparently pledged herself not to use one of the contributor’s names (for this book has a meta-dialogue going on, in that it was researched in somewhat the same way that the fictional book was), she merely spelled it differently (fictional character, Aibilene, real-life nursemaid of her brother Robert, Ablene), with the result that Ablene Cooper was advised even by the brother to sue Stockett. Ms. Cooper apparently found the characterizations of her in the book insulting and embarrassing. All in all, this book is one stage, perhaps the first and most elementary, that a reader might travel on the road to awareness.
Another book takes a similar tack, but handles the entire relationship between the white child and her black caretaker more delicately (this time the white protagonist is a fourteen-year-old instead of being Skeeter’s home-from-college age). The child is instrumental in getting her black nanny, Rosaleen, out of a degrading job with the girl’s father and busting her out of a jail cell where she is being kept, beaten and weak, for a small offense and for defending herself against people trying to keep her from voting. Still, somehow, this child’s version of noblesse oblige is less insulting than that in the previous book, at least in the mind of this reader, precisely because the character is a child and cannot be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of adult discourse. In this book, The Secret Life of Bees, the child has a sense of natural justice regarding her black companion rather like that of Huckleberry Finn in that eponymous novel, as opposed to the high-handedness of Tom Sawyer. By a series of fortunate flukes and a sort of natural spiritual instinct, the two women find their way to the household of a group of black sisters with a connection to the girl’s dead mother, and learn the intricacies of the art of bee-keeping. This book maintains as well a spiritual element, in which the black women and the girl practice the worship of a Black Madonna, represented by a ship’s masthead they once came into possession of. This book is set in the 1960’s as well (in South Carolina), but the conflicts that arise from racial tensions and stresses are the background for the girl’s coming-of-age; Sue Monk Kidd has wisely chosen to center the novel closely to the subject of gradually evolving maturity and womanhood, and the child becomes a more mature adolescent in the company of her black saviors. This book is more affirmative of black politics and awareness because it reflects the reality that a young girl/teenager is more likely to be taken care of by a group of supportive women than she would be, or would be able to be, for them. The sisters are represented as caring for their own, and capable of caring for others, and as the centers of a vibrant and deeply spiritual community. This is perhaps the second evolution of awareness a person might pass through on the way to a more mature understanding of race relations.
The third book, Small Great Things, is a novel which takes place in contemporary times, in a hospital in Connecticut. The title is taken from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” I find it the most maturely conceived and executed of the three novels. First of all, the author took a notable risk: she is white, but chose to write not only from the perspective of a black labor and delivery nurse in a hospital, but also took the risk of entering the minds of a group of white supremacists, thus tackling the unenviable task of attempting to practice the old adage “to understand all, is to forgive all,” which is of course far from being literally true, but which has a germ of truth. She uses that germ and the huge overall injustice of what happens to the black nurse together, to show that though our situation is perilous, with difficulties complicating things from both sides of the racial divide, we can still sometimes win out over some of the problems we face. This book is a challenge to simplicity, particularly simplicities of the sort which arise in The Help. The nurse is attempting to take care of a white baby who comes under her care in the birthing unit of the hospital, but when the white supremacist parents see her, they demand that no black person be alloted to care for their child. The conflict comes for Ruth Jefferson (the nurse) when the baby needs to be resuscitated, and she is the sole responsible person available: does she go ahead and try to save the baby, or abide by the parents’ expressed and written instructions for no black person to touch the baby? She hesitates, and as another adage says, and as it is true for at least a while in the novel, “She who hesitates is lost.” The rest of the novel occupies itself with how the follow-up lawsuit against her (which deprives her of her job) affects her, and how her son begins to act out in response to his mother’s troubles, how her friends (and apparent friends) react, and what happens as well in the family of white supremacists. There is a certain amount of back story for both sides, which deepens and enriches our understanding of the whole conflict. As well, Ruth Jefferson is not pictured as a saint; she has her own moments of feeling petty or vengeful, which are truthfully related for the audience in the fictional courtroom as well as on the meta-level of the book, so that the courtroom scene isn’t an easy giveaway to one side or the other. For me, this book represents the best of the three books, with Sue Monk Kidd’s book coming in a good second. Stockett’s book, a book very popular with a lot of book clubs, just as the other two are, may certainly be considered a place to start in raising one’s own consciousness, the more especially if one has not read a lot of fictionalized accounts of race relations. I feel that if someone has not read these books before, now is the time to take advantage of being able to buy one’s books, of one’s Kindle account, of the cheaper prices of second-hand books, or of one’s local library offerings, to read them and sort out one’s own impressions. Keeping up with factual accounts is of course paramount, but fiction has a way of sneaking in that’s more subtle, and it can offer a range of suppositions and positions that can help people feel what their neighbors “across the way” feel, see what can be seen from other vantage points, and of course change their attitudes of prejudice. Fiction, in its subtlety, also can show us just how insidious such prejudice is, and we can see its trail where we never thought to be on its track. If I’m going to spend the post spouting adages, then surely the last should be “Know thyself,” which speaks to our ability to know the ways in which we ourselves, however enlightened we think we may be on either side of any situation of racial divide, fall short, with an eye to correcting ourselves. That’s all for today, and just in case you think I’m too solemn today, you should know that all three of these books are quite lively and not ponderous and preachy, though there are certain things worth preaching about, certainly. Shadowoperator