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  • Black Women’s Memories and The Help
  • Valerie Smith (bio)

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Skeeter’s lack of knowledge about her beloved Constantine’s life suggests the asymmetry in the relationship between the black maids and the families for which they worked. The maids attended to the most intimate details of the lives of the families that employed them. Yet even the children who believe they love them know next to nothing about their private lives.

“Nursemaid with her charge,” Arkansas, ca. 1855, Ambrotype/Tintype photograph filing series, Library of Congress.

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The past several decades have seen an outpouring of literary and cinematic texts that take what is commonly known as the modern Civil Right Movement or the southern freedom struggle as their subject. The recent resurgence of interest in the Civil Rights era among writers, musicians, and performance and visual artists acknowledges the transformative impact of the activism, rhetoric, theology, and iconography of the period. Not only did the Civil Rights Movement substantially alter the socio-political (and spatial) configuration of relations within the United States, but it also exerted a profound influence on other political movements for equality around the world.

Mainstream representations frequently confirm popular constructions of the Movement as a primarily southern phenomenon that occurred from the mid 1950s through the late 1960s. In this view, the Movement is a chapter in a progressive, ameliorative vision of United States history where southern extremists were pitted against cross-racial coalitions led by morally courageous and spiritually inspired individuals. Through shared sacrifice and exemplary action, activists triumphed over white supremacy, delivering the nation from its past injustices into a bright future of freedom, equality, and opportunity.

This interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement, common to Hollywood films such as Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), Martin Davidson’s Heart of Dixie (1989), Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home (1990), Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), or made-for-television films such as Robert Dornhelm’s Sins of the Father (2002) (to name only a few) has maintained some measure of currency because it encourages viewer complacency and self-satisfaction. It allows Americans to identify post-Emancipation racism with its most obvious symbols and perpetrators, confine it to the Jim Crow South, sentimentalize its spiritual discourse and sainted martyrs, and convince ourselves that those days are over. It allows us to believe that with legalized segregation behind us, the doors of American opportunity are now open to all. Numerous scholars have sought to understand this fascination with the Civil Rights era in the United States. Herman Gray, Jennifer Fuller, and others contend that cultural products—literary texts, television series, films, music, theatre, etc.—that look back on the Movement tell us at least as much about how contemporary culture views its own racial politics as they do about the past they purport to represent, often conveying the fantasy that the United States has triumphed over and transcended its racial past.1

Both versions of The Help—Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel and the eponymous film directed by Tate Taylor—generated considerable controversy upon their release. Their popularity testifies to the hold the Movement era retains upon the American cultural imaginary: the novel spent 100 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, and the screen adaptation was the thirteenth top-grossing film of 2011. The film and novel both recall several of the tropes that recur throughout [End Page 27] many popular representations of the genre: they center on white characters; they locate racist behavior in the most ignoble characters; and they sentimentalize relationships between black workers and their white employers. Yet even as these works invoke the American cultural memory of an earlier period, they also challenge the conventions of representing that period by foregrounding black women’s memories. While the texts depend upon the exploitation of black women’s experiences, black women’s acts of remembrance constitute sites of resistance within the dominant narrative.

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Not only did the Civil Rights Movement substantially alter the socio-political (and spatial) configuration of relations within the United States, but it also exerted a profound influence...


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pp. 26-37
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