Help for The Help

Let me say at the outset that I have not yet watched the movie version of The Help – the box office hit about black domestics in the deep south and a gutsy young white journalist who exposes their plight to the world.  But I have both read the book and lived the era.  Having grown up as a white southerner, I found myself in a storm of nostalgia recalling the separate but unequal nature of our lives as I sped through this moving novel.

I do not recall with precision the maids who cleaned our houses and often watched over me as a child, but I am aware that they were all black and that they lived in the “other” section of the city of Norfolk, VA where I grew up.  There were literally only a few blocks that separated us from the “colored” section of town, but a continent might have better defined the space between us.

As my wife and I read The Help, we were both amazed at its authentic voice of the blacks that we remembered (and thanks to some business connections of both our parents, we had an unusually large number of black contacts on a daily basis).  So it came as both a shock and an annoyance when I began to hear and read complaints that a white author could never legitimately capture that voice.

Among those complainers was Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC, who spoke on Lawrence O’Donnell’s otherwise excellent The Last Word.  I listened slack-jawed to this very young academic’s seemingly unwarranted attack on an outstanding piece of American literature, and it immediately brought to mind the missing Disney classic Song of the South that featured the Uncle Remus stories compiled and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white reporter and fiction writer  from Atlanta.  Anyone who has ever read the adventures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear to their children, nearly tearing up with laughter at the hilarity and universal messages of these wonderful stories written in such thick slave dialect that they almost read like a foreign language, will never come away converted to racism by them.

But we have nearly eradicated these tales from our literary memory in order to meet a certain politically correct standard.  Driving my 42-year-old daughter home from the airport with her four children and college professor husband the other day, I asked her if she remembered me reading those stories to her and her younger siblings.  “I’ll never forget,” she told me with a smile of happy memories on her face.  She is as liberal on racial issues as they come.

Now comes the effort to marginalize The Help.  It may not be as memorable a piece of writing as the Uncle Remus stories, but it is a wonderful, uplifting and important story about overcoming racial animus in the south, and the bravery of a few whites and blacks who came together to do so.

It occurred to me that – as a Jew – I had also been represented with inauthentic voices many times.  After all, Fiddler on the Roof was written and performed by people who had never been in a shtetl, weren’t necessarily Orthodox, and might not even be Jews.  Why shouldn’t I question its right to exist?.  Why shouldn’t other minority groups complain when they are represented by people who have not earned the right to perform the role of those who have actually experienced the events.

It is deeply offensive to me that people want to take away my right to see the world from different perspectives and make my own decisions about what is real and what is fiction.  What is the basis of authenticity in fiction, and who is the arbiter?