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Who is telling the story?

January 20, 2010

Storytelling has power; how and what that power influences depends on who is telling the story. I recently finished The Help, a novel about black women “domestics” and the white women for whom they worked in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s.  The book is written by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who grew up in Mississippi. I heard an NPR interview with her which noted the buzz the book was generating.  I was curious about it.

I read the book with what I thought was a critical eye and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I felt better informed about how it really was then for black people and therein was where I got trapped.  The book is described as fiction and yet there are significant parallels between the main white woman character, Skeeter, and the white woman author. This provides a slippery slope into thinking it’s really a true story.  Sliding down that slope becomes an even faster ride when you read reviews that describe its “authenticity”, with “perfect pitch” voices telling a “universal story.”  The ride down the hill feels especially good if it confirms a reality I want to exist – such as a white woman “doing good”  in the midst of the horrors of racism.

Recognizing how easily my socialization makes it for me to go down that slope, I’ve learned to seek more details about who is telling the story.   Here’s what I found:

The author based the book primarily on her experiences with her family’s black maid who died when the author was 16. The book was written 20 years later. The author interviewed one white woman and the black woman who worked for her during that time period for additional background. That’s it for an “authentic” story about the experiences of black women written by a white woman?

Who is telling the story is also a relevant question about those who review stories written by others.The positive reviews for this book were abundant.  In the past, that often would have been sufficient for me to dismiss doubts  arising within me.  Now, I dig deeper and look for reviews written by people who dissent from the majority and particularly those written by people of color. This has opened my eyes to perspectives that often would not have even have occurred to me in my too-isolated island of whiteness.

I took particular notice of this comment by a woman who started a “Dissenting View of The Help” discussion on Amazon.com (which had 1,200 5-star ratings for The Help from readers):

I should have written this long ago, when those who were emphatic that this book’s voice was authentic were plentiful on here. Unfortunately, because many African Americans and others who don’t care for this book (including myself) have either chosen to 1) stay silent 2) ignore it altogether because they’re tired of books who talk about slavery and civil rights using sympathetic white main protag as a guide 3) Don’t frequent Amazon. This silence has been taken as validation for this novel.

Dissenting View of The Help

My intention is not to demonize Stockton. I am glad that discussion is being generated about race because of the book. I’m concerned, however, that many people may be forming their view of black maids of that time primarily from this book (which is fiction and written by a white person) without having the corrective lenses of the writings of  black authors about that time, thus creating reality gaps and perpetuating myths. We know how this works from the misinformation and significant omissions in the United States history many of us were “taught” in school.

What are the stories we are reading and who is telling them?

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4 comments

  1. It is, of course, the question we never ask if we are members of dominant group. The speaker is invisible, at least as long as the story supports the dominant narrative. If it seems hard to see behind the veil, if we don’t yet feel confident in asking who the story teller is, we have some resources, try any of the books http://www.amazon.com/s/184-0247361-7767365?ie=UTF8&index=blended&field-keywords=howard%20zinn by the newly departed Howard Zinn. If you read the Seattle Times try reading Imagine 2050 http://imagine2050.newcomm.org/about/

    Great questions! Who is telling the story? Who is at the table when a decision is made?


  2. Hello, Be Suspicious! I appreciate your comments and your referrals to resources that can increase our awareness and help us imagine different questions to ask.


  3. I grew up white in small town Mississippi in the 1960’s. I liked The Help. I identified with the “white” main character, Skeeter. I only wish I’d had the courage to stay there and fight the deep racism that exists there to this day. I ran for it the day I turned 18, never to return except to visit family. I was outraged but mostly really frightened by the hatred and racism I grew up surrounded by. I NEVER understood it. I ALWAYS felt compassion towards the black people in my home town, and utter confusion towards the white racists, which was well, probably all the white people I knew, to one degree or another. I think the book was at the least cathartic for the white woman who wrote it, maybe a way of processing her “utter confusion” having grown up in that environment. As children regardless of color, at that time and place, we had no power to speak anything. Now, many years later and as far away from that small town as I could get, I practice “unity” to the best of my ability. I practice “reconciliation” to the best of my ability. It’s so important that those of us who are awake to this, do so. I wish more people could see that, white and black alike. Many white people who believe themselves to be way better than the “racists” practice obliviousness and it’s insidiousness makes it no less dangerous.


    • I appreciate hearing about your experience of living in Mississippi, Christi. Not having lived in the south, I’m aware that my telling this story (the post) has limitations that are important to acknowledge. Thinking about your naming of “utter confusion” brings to mind a speaker I heard at a conference last June. Professor Becky Thompson, then the Director of Women’s & Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado, spoke about the impact on the psyche of white people who observe racist actions, particularly at young ages, and have no framework within which to put them and/or are raised in a culture of silence that forbids discussion of such horrific things. She suggested that such historical and painful memories live in our bodies and psyches and can lead to denial, avoidance, and unacknowledged or misunderstood anger. She emphasized the importance of getting in touch with those repressed feelings in order to begin healing them and talked quite a bit about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.

      I agree with your assessment of the danger of obliviousness by those white people who think they could never be racist. How can one not be racist when living in such a racist culture? Thanks for writing.



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