- Every Child Left BehindThe Many Invisible Children in The Help
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“Madame, Could I Interest You in a Pair of White Kids?”
A popular caricature postcard from the 1920s shows an African American woman shopping with her three young children. A white saleswoman holds out a pair of white gloves to her and asks, “Madame could I interest you in a pair of white kids?” The double entendre, white kid-leather gloves and white children, reflects the ubiquitous image and reality of African American women taking care of white children in American culture. The word “mammy” doesn’t even have to appear on the postcard for the image to be evoked through the size, shape, and color of the African American woman. Similar depictions of black motherhood tied to white childcare were popular and contentious well before the phenomenal success of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help, and the subsequent award-winning film.
The Help opens with a chapter named for and supposedly written in the voice of the African American domestic worker Aibileen Clark, and devotes the first seven paragraphs to the white child Mae Mobley, whom she is hired to babysit. Here is the reader’s very first glimpse into Aibileen’s inner life: “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime” (1). Aibileen doesn’t mention her own son Treelore until later, and it is his absence that makes Aibileen more available to her employers’ children. Aibileen doesn’t reflect on the day of Treelore’s birth but instead introduces him in terms of his death and ties it directly to her employment for white families: “I lost my own son, Treelore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty-four years old. The best part of a person’s life” (2). Not one of Aibileen’s eleven chapters are devoted to any substantial memory of her twenty-four years with Treelore; we learn only that he liked to read, wore big glasses, and wanted to write. She tells us that she was proud of her son and then describes his death. In two paragraphs, she introduces her son and takes him away. By contrast, Mae Mobley is described using very specific details, including her last name, and the week, month, and general time of her birth. Taking care of white babies is more than what Aibileen “does”; it is her primary identity as one of the main characters. By emphasizing Aibileen’s relationship to Mae Mobley and “her” other seventeen white children, her own son is effectively erased and Aibileen is established as a black mother who belongs to white children—the cornerstone of the complex and long standing Black Mammy stereotype.1
In my book Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory, I make a case for what I call a literary “Mammy Trap” in my reading of authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Faulkner. Despite their best intentions to introduce more complex African American characters into their work, the stereotypical Black Mammy seeps into their fiction as part of the vocabulary of plantation fiction. One of the most consistent traits assigned to the stereotypic mammy character is that, over her own children, she demonstrates a strong preference for the white children of the families who own or employ her. For example, in both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Sound and the Fury, the characters Aunt Chloe and Dilsey (respectively) dismiss and punish their own children as part of the prescriptive mammy characterization that the authors are unable to write around or against. This reveals that the mammy...