from a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
Caring for Self & Justice to Others in a Contemporary Novel
The popular and also controversial 2009 novel The Help tells of the complex relationships between white people and their African-American maids in racially segregated Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60s. Both the novel and last year’s Hollywood film of it have taken people very much, and have also met with intense objections. Some people feel the author, Kathryn Stockett, who is white, was presumptuous for daring to think she could see and present what black persons felt.
While I feel the novel could definitely be deeper, I believe The Help is valuable in having people more conscious of what others endure. And I think that, with at least some success, Ms. Stockett used her imagination to try to get within the feelings of people different from herself. For example, she wrote in a short essay that accompanies the novel:
I don’t presume to think that I know that it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something that any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand it is vital to our humanity.
The word vital is in italics.
I see these sentences as showing Ms. Stockett’s desire to have good will—which Aesthetic Realism says definitely we have to go after if we’re to feel taking care of ourselves and justice to others are the same. And the novel provides many examples, of which I’ll give just a few, of the two ways a woman has of taking care of herself: by having respect or having contempt; by feeling she has a deep kinship to others, or by feeling she’s superior to them. Aesthetic Realism shows, with a seeing that’s new in history, that ordinary contempt is the cause of the brutal injustice that is racism. “Contempt,” writes Ellen Reiss,
has a person see the idea that another is equal to oneself as insulting and desolating: if all those people are equal to us, then “we [are] nobody”! [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1346]
The novel’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan, is a recent college graduate who wants to be a writer. She’s been advised: “Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.” Though she’d grown up not questioning the horrific racism of the Jim Crow South, this begins to change, and she decides to compile, in complete secrecy, a book of interviews of African-American women who work as “help”—maids in the homes of people she knows.
Understandably, the idea strikes these women with terror; they know what’s happened to black people who tried to vote or accidentally used facilities designated “White Only”. They have been beaten and lynched. Says one maid, Aibileen Clark, who is perhaps the novel’s deepest character: “Miss Skeeter, I do this with you, I might as well burn my own house down.” Her friend Minny Jackson, vocal in her hatred of white people, asks suspiciously: “What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?” But after much inward debate and many discussions, these women decide to work with Skeeter on the book. Then, after the brutal murder of the beloved Medgar Evers of the NAACP, the outrage in Jackson’s black community is so great, many other maids agree to be interviewed. They stand for hundreds of men and women who courageously risked their lives during the years of the Civil Rights movement, because they felt passionately that fighting for justice to others was exactly the same as taking care of themselves.
Caring for Oneself: Through Contempt or Respect?
A character who shows most vividly the desire to have one’s way and take care of herself through contempt is Skeeter’s friend Hilly Holbrook. Hilly is a smiling tyrant; she orders her elderly mother around, tells other women with whom they should be friends and what they should wear—and gloats when they cower and obey. She’s also blatantly a racist: she speaks to and about African-Americans with hideous contempt. The “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” she’s written—a proposal that the law require every white home to have a separate bathroom for the “colored” help—makes this clear. She says: “Everybody knows they carry different diseases than we do.”
Hilly’s purpose is despicable. But we need to see—and the author needs to see: what this comes from is the same contemptuous way of seeing people that, in an everyday way, makes for coffee-break conversations between women that wipe the floor with men—and also, on a larger scale, for discussions among executives that strip workers of their rights, and talks in the halls of government that make the feelings of human beings unreal. It comes from the ugly way of seeing I had as I teamed up with my mother and sister to make father’s feelings into nothing. All of these begin with people thinking they’ll take care of themselves by lessening others.
“The big thing people have not known about racial prejudice,” writes Ellen Reiss, in some of the most important sentences I know:
is that it does not begin with race. It begins with…how one sees the world. Race will never be understood and racial prejudice will not end until people can learn the following from Aesthetic Realism: …Race is an aspect of the aesthetic structure, the sameness-and-difference structure, of the world. This structure is what we see as we see two different things, ocean and sky, inextricably part of one horizon; as different words join together to make one sentence; as a tree’s trunk and leaves are different yet for each other, sweetly and powerfully coherent with each other.
Skeeter is the only one of Hilly’s friends who objects to her racist proposal—and it’s part of what instigates her to write this book. But Aibileen, who works for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, knows this plan for a separate bathroom is meant for her, and she feels she has to hide her rage. Aibileen feels that people owe something to each other and she’s angry when she sees her white employer Elizabeth Leefolt treat her own young daughter very badly, because she’s not as pretty or “cute” as her mother thinks she should be. And Aibileen is also a keen observer of people in general, sensing that their injustice not only makes them mean, but very unsure of themselves.