- “A Stake in the Story”Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby, and the Politics of Southern Storytelling
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In the afterword to the bestselling 2009 novel The Help, titled “Too Little, Too Late,” author Kathryn Stockett voices a certain trepidation about “crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person” and worries that she has told both too much and too little in her story of African American domestics and the white southern ladies they work for in 1960s Mississippi. She concludes her afterword, though, by suggesting the benefits of crossing that line, benefits that included discovering the commonality of black and white stories and the ephemerality of racial difference. Above all, she asserts that the novel enabled her to ask her real-life African American maid Demetrie, long since deceased, the unspoken question of her childhood—what was it like working for Stockett’s fragmented white family? “I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be,” her afterword concludes. “And that’s why I wrote this book.”1
Those concluding words appear to resolve her initial doubts—and therein lies one of the most disturbing aspects of The Help and its staggering success, especially when contrasted with another novel by a white writer about a white employer and her black maid in 1960s Mississippi, Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby. Published in 1988, Douglas’s novel was greeted with respectful critical, sometimes conflicting, reviews but virtually none of the popular acclaim that has made The Help such a striking cultural phenomenon. Stockett’s wildly popular novel quite simply appropriates an African American story and turns it into one of white guilt, redemption, reconciliation, and triumph, a transformation that is all too common in white southern storytelling and that is thrown into sharp relief by Douglas’s highly self-conscious postmodern novel. Can’t Quit You, Baby offers none of the resolution and reassurance that The Help displays to a contemporary audience eager for confirmation that the country’s legacy of racism and injustice has been left safely in the past. If anything, Douglas’s novel, in the words of critic Karen Jacobsen, “brings to the foreground what most of us would like to forget, ignore, or deny—the continued difficulty that black and white women have in forming friendships with each other.”2 Unlike Stockett, Douglas does so by consistently and uncomfortably questioning her own narrative authority to tell stories crossing racial lines and brings attention again and again to all those long-simmering tensions lying just beneath the surface of her storytelling—silences, habits of willed deafness and amnesia, refusals, and outright disavowals, and she does so by asking again and again what her own “stake in the story” is—and by implication, the reader’s stake in the story as well.3
Josephine Haxton started raising uncomfortable questions for herself and her readers from the outset of her career, when she made the decision to publish under the pseudonym of Ellen Douglas to avoid potentially embarrassing her conservative, devout family.4 That decision may also have had a good deal to do with her response to Brown v. Board of Education, which, she notes in her 2004 essay collection [End Page 39] Witnessing, had a lasting impact on all her reading and writing to follow, particularly her stunning 1963 short story collection Black Cloud, White Cloud.5 In that collection, story after story exposes the hierarchical, volatile, and sometimes explosive relationship of white employers and African American employees in a segregated society—what she herself called later “the world of black and white people together—the terrible world of masters and servants.”6 But it was in 1988 that Douglas...