So I recently watched The Help. Just about everyone has had something to say about this book/film, so I’m not sure how much new I can add to the debate. These two pieces – one from Bernestine Singley at the blog ‘Before Barack’, and one from John McWhorter at The New Republic – are particularly interesting since they frame the two competing sides of the liberal debate: it’s a subtly racist movie that perpetuates the image of dependency and glorifies the past; or it’s not, but its critics are, and they are overlooking the nuance and subtly that is included and the value of making it into a widely accessible, if silly Hollywood movie. Both sides make convincing arguments, so I’m not really going to address them here.
The film brings up an interesting, and totally separate historical problem, though: the issue of oral history interviews.
In May I participated in a seminar debate about the problems of the colonial archive. It was a round table discussion at the Institute for Historical Research and it involved mostly graduate students and early career researchers in history and historical sociology. Given the extent of the literature on working in the colonial archive, from Ann Laura Stoler to Caroline Steadman, we weren’t sure we’d have anything conclusive to add. But people’s experience of doing imperial and post-colonial history clearly provided ample storytelling opportunities: from friendly, dusty and practically abandoned archives in Canada; to beautiful and easy to use archives sponsored by a member of Burma’s junta; to frustrating and awkward oral interviews in South Africa.
It was the last of these that I thought about throughout The Help. Because of the nature of research on apartheid, the historian talking about this topic pointed out that it is expected of researchers to include oral interviews in their work. This seems, on the face of it, to be good history. At least, the stories of those involved in the movement against apartheid will be recorded and included in the historical narrative. But as this historian pointed out, this approach raises its own challenges. First, the selection of interviewees seems to depend on their involvement with networks of people who are involved with academics to begin with, meaning that a lot of the stories are told from similar perspectives. Second, that there is a sense that the interviews are becoming an ‘industry’ in themselves, except it is an industry in which oral interviews – the participants’ life stories – are extracted and told for (admittedly marginal monetary, but more significantly, career) profit.
While Aibileen and Minny (and the others? not sure) are paid for their participation with the book in The Help, it is a one-off payment. Skeeter, meanwhile, spins their stories into her career. They are reluctantly cajoled into telling their stories to ‘change things’, but as far as the movie makes clear, the only things that really change are that Skeeter gets a high-paid New York job and Aibileen loses hers. The ‘risks’ taken by the different groups reflect the unevenness of those risks that face researchers and research participants: Skeeter loses friends and her marriage prospects in Jackson and so flees to a better job and acceptance in New York; Minny and Aibileen face violence (Medgar Evers is shot in the middle of the film), intimidation, unemployment. The stakes are rarely that high in history, but there’s still an uneven power relationship that calls into question the ethics of telling other people’s histories. And many of these power dynamics are still in play long after the subject of the research is dead.
This problem is exacerbated because history is always telling the past through the eyes of the present. The Association of Black Women Historians wrote about The Help that ‘it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.’ It objects to the story on this basis, and to a certain extent, I object for the same reason – it’s really not a story about Aibileen and Minny, it’s a story about a supposedly ‘courageous’ white woman who finds herself through their struggle. This is objectionable because the film tries to make it a story about both things, and in doing so, makes the instrumentality of the black women into their natural narrative position, because the real ‘subject’ of the movie is Skeeter (the romantic character with a-historical hair/costume is always the actual subject; most of the time, her ‘black best friend’ doesn’t really have a life beyond the screen.)
But on the other hand, the movie just does what all stories/histories do. Because the take-away lesson from the seminar on archives was that actually the major problem facing historians interested in conveying the struggle of the archive or the problems with oral interviews is that history as a discipline is narrative focused. In the end, we’re all writing a story. Kathryn Stockett really could only tell this story through her own eyes. And those were going to be white, female, southern, post-Civil Rights eyes. Eyes that (like a lot of the people seeing the movie and loving it) want to believe that they would have done something to help people from their privileged position in the past. Eyes that like to identify with the white hero/ine who helps the powerless and oppressed. Eyes that really want to live in a post-racial world. And, most importantly, and potentially frustratingly, eyes that read stories and want recognizable structure and heroes to rescue the helpless from the villains. And even when we’ve moved on from heroes and villains, for historians, this can be ‘rescuing’ the perceived voiceless in the past.
Academic historians have largely begun tackling these issues by recognizing their own role in the story-telling process, their own biases, their own interpretive problems, and their interviewees’ and archives’ biases and lacunae. But popular history and popular understandings of how history is done still have a long way to go if Skeeter’s ‘help’ of the the ‘helpless’ maids is still taken at face value.