By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen’s Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild – either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.
Description of African-Americans in Margaret Mitchell’s popular 1936 novel Gone With the Wind.
In 1936 Margaret Mitchell published Gone With the Wind, a White fantasy of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era complete with White supremacist portrayal of enslaved Africans and her vision of who they were after emancipation.
These fantasy “darkies” had no lives, dreams or aspirations outside of serving their enslavers. Her view of slavery portrayed the enslaved Africans as being content, happy childlike creatures who were devastated when the South lost the war and wanted to remain living with their “owners” in slave-like conditions.
The “bad negroes” were the ones who could not wait to leave the plantations, who took off to fight for their freedom, who tried to become politically engaged during Reconstruction. In Gone With the Wind the Ku Klux Klan are the “good guys,” the saviours of the day, putting the “uppity negroes” in their place with dreadfully violent acts.
The contempt and disdain in which she held African-Americans comes through loud and strong when she wrote about the Africans who had recently been freed from slavery: They were, as a class, childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders. The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom.
In spite of the White supremacist language of the book peopled with one-dimensional stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans, it is considered the most beloved Civil War novel. Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for Gone With the Wind. By the time the book was made into an equally popular movie released in 1939, more than 1.5 million copies had been sold.
In spite of their popularity with White Americans, the book and movie caused some distress in the African-American community. Letters of protest were written by African-American individuals and organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. The demands and suggestions of African-Americans were largely ignored by Hollywood and the rest is history.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, more than 60 years after the release of Gone With the Wind and another wildly popular book written by a White woman (Kathryn Stockett) and made into a movie is causing anxious moments and dissatisfaction in the African-American community.
The Help, published in 2009 (the movie was recently released) tells the story of a group of White women and the African-American women who work in their homes. According to Stockett, her reason for writing the book is in memoriam of the African-American woman who was her “family maid”. In the 1.5 pages where Stockett reminisces about the woman who cooked, cleaned and raised two generations of her family, she writes: “Our family maid, Demetrie, used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don’t count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.”
Stockett would have been shocked out of her complacency by the answer Demetrie would have given her because it is obvious from the stereotypical depictions of African-American “maids” in The Help that the author is clueless. The African-American “maid” characters are contrived and caricatured, especially their speech where the author struggles with African-American vernacular (ebonics).
If Stockett really wanted to write authentically about the lived reality of African-American women working in the homes of White families during the 1960s then she would have read some books written by African-American women telling their stories. Books including This Little Light of Mine, Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter, Coming of Age in Mississippi and From the Mississippi Delta are the stories of African-American women who lived what Stockett has tried to write about.
African-American women do not need their history rewritten to glorify White women with a fictitious young White writer charging in on her White steed to rescue a few hapless “maids” who idolize and rear the children of their “White families” as they silently suffer the abuse dished out from a handful of “bad egg” type employers.
The history of that period is well documented with African-American sheroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Ida Mae Holland, Winson Hudson, Daisy Bates and countless others who suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse, emotional trauma and spirit injury but continued to fight the good fight. When those women and young girls were brutalized and traumatized by their employers (male and female) support came from their community, not from White women.
The images that tell the stories of the role that White women played during that time, including their resistance to the integration of six-year-old Ruby Bridges’ of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana and 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford’s integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as a member of the Little Rock Nine are available on the Internet including: http://meme527.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/elizabeth-eckford/, http://www.rubybridges.com/pictures.htm and http://www.xavierherald.com/news/ruby-bridges-endured-racial-epithets-hatred-1.2111235.
Of course if Stockett had followed the example of some White women who have taken the time to research and write books like Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi (by Grace Halsell, published 1969) and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (by Danielle L. McGuire, published 2010), her book would not have been as wildly popular as it is (279 copies at the Toronto Public Library and a “hold” list of 1,693) and most likely would not have been made into a movie.