Choosing between The Help or Faces at the Bottom of the Well: On Reproducing Racially-Easy Work or Constructing Courageously

By Guest Contributor Blanca E. Vega, cross-posted from Race-Work Race-Love

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.” — Frederick Douglass

Writer’s block. This is how I woke up this morning. Confronted with the realities of beginning a dissertation and working full time as a college administrator, I came up with two words:

Writer’s Block.

I write about race and education. I research racial incidents on college campuses. Every day, in my inbox, I see some article about another racist incident, form of harassment, example of violence – I go to sleep with this, I wake up to this, I eat with this racial narrative.

I wonder about those folks who are color-blind. How do they wake up every morning?

So this morning I woke up with writer’s block. And I read on my twitter-feed that The Help received five Golden Globe nominations – a story about a young white woman who desires to become a writer and focuses her writing on her Black female housekeepers/maids.

Historians, sociologists, educators, and other writers have all critiqued the book that has turned into a movie. They have pointed out facts versus the fiction that one sees in the movie. Two very important critiques can be read here and here.

Essentially, The Help is a story about a color-blind, white woman who wants to be a writer. Someone who tells the story of Black women who are domestic workers. This is not the story of Black female domestic workers.

One need not look too far to see how the author’s standpoint affects her work. The movie’s title is a great example of the author’s perspective. An author who talks about Black women from a color-blind perspective wouldn’t be able to see her own white privilege in constructing the title. A color-blind author who writes about Black women won’t be able to see how she continues to reproduce a racist narrative.

She didn’t call it the ‘The Black Help”. She called it The Help. And I will add that when I caught a quick glimpse of a preview of the film and saw that the first person in the preview was a white woman, I thought “Wow. A movie about white female domestic workers. How interesting.”

Wrong. The Help implied The Black Help. Similar to using terms such as “disadvantaged”, “urban”, “Inner city” and “at-risk”, the title The Help is a manipulation of language to replace racial specifics. We use coded terms to mark bodies, construct race to make some bodies deficient (Black/Brown bodies) and others the norm (White).

This author, like many, is getting paid and rewarded to continue a cycle of racist reproduction. We are all involved in this kind of racist reproduction in one way or another. The Help is a great example of this: nominate Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for their roles as maids in addition to having the author of the book get accolades, a movie deal, and a pat on the back for seemingly being racially conscious.

These kinds of stories reinforce the need to maintain a racial narrative that is pleasing for and thereby dumbs-down the audience. To see Black women, really wonderful actresses, reprise the role of Mammy from Gone with The Wind, and receive awards for it, is disturbing, but all too familiar. We are all in collusion with racist reproduction of who Whites are and who People of Color are. But some of us are more willing to fight this than others. These stories also lead some of us to think that racial progress is occurring, leading to a bifurcated understanding of racial progress. In fact, Richard P. Eibach and Joyce Ehrlinger (2006) found that there is a difference in perceptions of racial progress held by Whites and People of Color. They write:

\White Americans tend to spontaneously think about racial progress as movement away from racial injustices of the past instead of thinking of progress as movement toward a system of full racial equality. In contrast, ethnic minorities seem to spontaneously think about racial progress as movement toward fully realized racial equality, and their assessments of progress accordingly take into account the distance we have yet to traverse to reach that goal… our results reinforce the point that a balanced assessment of progress needs to consider both the distance we have come and the distance that remains as we travel along the path to a truly egalitarian community (Eibach & Ehrlinger, 2006, p.76).

And, I want to believe that maybe Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have more choices than Hattie McDaniel did over 70 years ago, but nominations for this film tells us “not really”.

We have been fooled. They SEEM to have choices, but maybe they really don’t. The work that they have to choose from, work that reproduces racist perspectives is work that people will rely on for learning history. This kind of story is privileged. Why? Because it is easy.

And here I wonder why I have writer’s block.

Of course I have writer’s block! Writing against a racist system, such as the one that would dupe people into thinking The Help is great, accurate work means that I have to constantly fight what is normal.

It is easy for people to write books and produce movies like The Help. We all know the story like the back of our hands. Any of us could have written it! It is probably why some women love it so much. It is too damn familiar! We all know this racist narrative too well. It is in our novelas, it is in our history books, it has been made into law in Alabama – they have made concessions to allow for undocumented immigrant women to work as The Hispanic Help while making it illegal to go to school, drive, have utilities in their homes if there are no papers to prove US citizenship.

But undocumented women have permission to work as The Hispanic Help in Alabama. Walking around without papers is not legal. Being an undocumented immigrant domestic worker is legal.

As a race-worker, I have to constantly write against that kind of system that makes it legal to be racist. I have to reconstruct, re-write, and develop a new racial narrative. To be constantly conscious of this takes time and effort. Where the hell are the awards for that?

How do you interrupt the reproduction of racism? Luckily, we have our heroes. People who rarely get as much attention as do writers of racially-easy work. Critical race narratives like Professor Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well written precisely in the spirit of racial justice by interrupting our post racial notions of race relations in the US. Geneva Crenshaw, a prophetic lawyer, does the interrupting by questioning, guiding, and empowering a young lawyer into thinking outside of the subtle racism that has come into existence since the Civil Rights Era. Could she be made into a movie heroine? Could an actress like Viola Davis play that role and still get a Golden Globe or Oscar nod?

Or will people say “That’s not real enough.” Not real enough that some have described critical race narratives as “sci-fi”. The “other-world-liness” of powerfully analytical People of Color is fascinating but not as fascinating as the description of Black maids by a color-blind woman.

There are people who are writing against the “Nostalgia Movement (Code for When we were Openly Racist)”. While some are desiring for The “Good Ole Days” (as some of our presidential hopefuls have freely expressed) there are others who are reminding us that a racist narrative is powerful to and desired by a mass audience because it is racially easy and nice (for more racially-easy work, go watch The Help).

Race–workers, race researchers, race educators remind us that the first step is to be racially conscious and aware – but this is not enough

They remind us that we have to think, write, and share about a racial narrative that isn’t deficient, deleterious, and disappointing.

They use Critical Race Theory, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Testimonios, Street Lit, to construct a more robust racial narrative.

Work like The Help is racially-easy. And we all know the recipe: Develop code words and people may call you complex. Add “heroic” Black characters and you will be applauded for being well-intentioned. Add a couple of white characters that then find their souls and you just may get a movie out of it. Tell a sanitized Black story through the eyes of an innocent White woman — will get you an Oscar.

So is being a race-conscious writer/researcher really writer’s block? Or is it constructing courageously, constructing outside of the racist narrative that we inherited, that we continue to privilege, that we continue to reward? What some like to call “thinking outside the [racist] box?”

I think I prefer writer’s block now than to be racially-easy. Any day.

The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair. ~ Derrick Bell

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  • Sean C.

    Two of the three works you cited there are by black female writers, and both of the films based on them were made by black male directors.

  • Onyx

    Hi Matt,

    Off the top of my head I’d say Richard Price. He wrote the novel “Clockers” which Spike Lee directed. He also wrote a number of episodes of The Wire. Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day had a diverse cast that was done well imo.

    • Sofia Quintero

      Yes, I immediately thought of Richard Price, too. But read his novels and do start with CLOCKERS then FREEDOMLAND. The film adaptations of his work failure to capture their nuance and complexity.  You would also be supporting a novelist who teaches free creative writing workshops to young people in Harlem.  

      I find the work of Russell Banks,  Adam Mansbach and young adult novelist Paul Volponi interesting as well.  As far as film, I recommend John Sayles whose treatment of class is also compelling. 

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  • Matt Pizzuti

    I think you’re totally right about who should be telling whose stories; I don’t think a white writer could ever be as good or as appropriate as a PoC writing a story about PoC experiences.

     But if a white author does end up with cultural influence, is there not some responsibility to move the bar? I guess on one hand the white author could use her/his status to promote PoC writers and work, but that by itself seems like cop-out; white people need to also address their (our) own privilege and take responsibly for it. They (we) need to depict, in culture, what it looks like for a white person to unpack white privilege. Although there’s clearly nothing wrong with PoC writing the white characters addressing white privilege, I think the real-life author who is white has a personal responsibility to join that effort through the author’s own creative work. 
    Maybe by asking that question I’m unwittingly defending The Help because, as many commenters have pointed out, The Help was not really a story of black maids but about a white Southern girl addressing her white privilege – and perhaps any kind of financial gain a white author can come to by publishing such a story is intrinsically exploitative. But I’m still not sure if it’s THAT the story was written by a white writer but WHAT was in the story and what was left out of the story that makes it problematic. IS there a good example of a white writer dealing with race? Or is it more like having the work be criticized is an intrinsic part of the privilege-unpacking process (although this too seems like a cop-out suggesting white writers don’t have to bother trying to do it right)? Or is it that all works directly addressing privilege should be co-written? 

  • Mickey

    Maybe you should send him the DVD of “In the Heat of the Night” and tell him that your favorite part is when Sidney Poitier slaps the white man senseless after the white man struck him because he might like it as see what he says. 😛

  • Anonymous

    The fact that films like The Help are being made in the 21st century, and are being critically acclaimed, is a sign of how truly pathetic American culture has become.  Generally, some of the most popular entertainment among black people (Tyler Perry’s films and TV shows, VH-1’s rampage of blackface, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, etc.) is the kind of programming that black people were picketing 40 + years ago.  

    • Mickey

      I suggest we petition the powers-that-be  (NBC, ABC, CBS, etc.) and tell them to bring back quality shows featuring Blacks in a more positive light: The Cosby Show, Cosby, A Different World, Family Matters, The Jeffersons, 227, Amen, Gimme a Break (although my mother hated this show because she saw Nell Carter as a modern-day mammy.)

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  • Anonymous

    jen*, I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to give you the Gone with the Wind/The Help gift set for your birthday or next Secret Santa. #EyesNotOnThatPrize

  • PatrickInBeijing

    Umm, very well said!!!  But this doesn’t really count as writers block, when you can write so beautifully and powerfully!!  We need a new name for it??  Got any ideas??  Anyway, thanks so much, this was very very well said (I spend a lot of time explaining to my students why Gone With The Wind, and now The Help are not okay) I will link those who might get it here. 

  • Anonymous

    As a WOC who struggles with writer’s block all.the.time, I just have to thank you whole-heartedly for this post. Writing courageously, as you put it, takes a long process of mental decolonization, and there aren’t very many resources that allow for that (go figure). A challenge I’ve had is avoiding moulding my own story/stories into racially easy narratives; even when a story is drawn from my own life-experience, it took a while before I could avoid shaping it through white-colonial eyes.
    Anyways, thank you again. And best of luck in your writing! :)

  • McLicious

    I’m sending this to everyone who wonders why I don’t have the slightest interest in reading that book or watching that movie when I am “so interested in racial issues” or when I “like reading so much.”

  • STaylor in Austin

    Very well said and thanks for the Melissa Harris-Perry link, I missed that one. 

     It should upset me more that people of color don’t demand ( boycott) film, tv, and other media  rather than my being upset by white people making media for other white people.

     Why would they change.  The media industry doesn’t suffer one bit by making the Help or Blood Diamond or Glory or the Last Samurai ( basically every Zwick film that uses whites to tell the story of POC’s) and in fact they clean up at the box office by creating a safe kind of white guilt right before the happy or “noble” ending