The novel and the subsequent movie “The Help” were many things, but an accurate rendering of the Civil Rights Movement they were not. But that is the way “The Help” is being treated by some schools across the country that have been putting it on reading lists intended to teach students about the Civil Rights Movement, according to a disturbing story in Slate.
As the author of the piece, Jessica Roake, passionately states, “The idea that The Help should be used as some kind of primary text for understanding the black experience in this country is ludicrously offensive.”
Roake sites a high school in Ohio that assigned the book as the lone summer reading for every English class, from ninth-grade language arts through 12th-grade British literature. That’s some scary stuff.
This isn’t meant to denigrate “The Help” as a work of fiction. It is what it is—one white woman’s sentimental account of the tensions between white women in Mississippi in the 1960’s and the black women they hired to clean their houses and raise their children. I don’t think the author, Kathryn Stockett, intended for her book to be a definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. I’ve met her before—very nice lady. But no one should confuse her with James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison.
“To my mind, if you’re going to assign The Help to teach about civil rights, you might as well assign Life Is Beautiful to teach about the Holocaust,” Roake writes. “Both rely on a simplification that makes a hard subject seem palatable and resolved, while giving viewers that lovely self-righteous feeling that keeps us from recognizing the discrimination around us now. People didn’t make concentration camps happy places through clowning, and the legalized system of oppression that ruled the South for more than 100 years was not undone by white girls and their mammies.”
“The larger American culture may often deny history’s harder realities, but it is essential that teachers do better,” she writes on Slate.
Roake helpfully includes a long list of powerful works by authors like Baldwin, Ellison, Richard Wright and Anne Moody that are much more appropriate to the task of educating students about Jim Crow and the inspiring movement that took it down.
Author Martha Southgate was so disturbed by this gross misuse of “The Help” that she started an online petition on Change.org to urge the National Council of Teachers of History and The National Council of Teachers of English to “encourage schools and teachers to stop using ‘The Help’ to teach the history of the Civil Rights Movement.”
This is what her petition states:
“We were alarmed to read in a recent article in Slate that many high schools are assigning Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as a text of choice (sometimes the only text of choice) in both English and history classes as the basis of their teaching on the Civil Rights Movement. One could hardly think of a worse choice, not because of its literary merits or lack thereof, but because of the way in which it utterly distorts the real story of the Civil Rights Movement and the thousands of people, most of them African-American, who fought and died to end American apartheid. Given the amount of extraordinary scholarship–and for English classes-far superior fiction–available on the Civil Rights Movement (some of which is cited in the Slate article) and the amount of intelligent critique of The Help available, it is appalling that educators and school districts would choose something so historically inaccurate to teach history and critical thinking about race and rights. As educators, invested in accuracy and the growth of young minds, please use your position as leading organizations in secondary schools to do what you can to stop the use of this book in this way and to fight for an accurate teaching of a crucial part of American history. Ignorance is not bliss—it’s dangerous.”
Thank you, Martha, for breaking it down.
You can sign the petition here.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.