The Strength of African-American Women and American Racism

A couple days ago I went to see the film The Help with a good friend. My friend is African-American and is originally from the South. Prior to seeing the movie, I read a lot of commentary written by historians, critics, and friends of all racial backgrounds on the film. Some people loved the film, regardless of their race, while others were disgusted by its portrayal of a white heroine telling the story of black women, and still others refused to see the film.

As someone who studies the history of race in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to see how Hollywood portrayed racism in Mississippi in the 1960s. I asked an African-American friend, who had mentioned wanting to see the movie, to go with me so that we could talk about it afterward.

We both enjoyed the film in spite of how difficult it was to watch at times. Although it wasn’t entirely historically accurate, many of the themes in the movie were important and could be used to foster interesting discussions among people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Despite the end of “legalized” segregation in 1964, we continue to have great difficulty discussing race in America.  And, regardless of one’s views of this movie, it offers a lot about which to talk.

The characters we enjoyed most in The Help were the African-American women (Aibileen and Minnie). We considered them the main characters, rather than the young white woman played by Emma Stone. Unlike many of the film’s critics who took issue with the white female “savior” character (Skeeter), we thought the black women, in many ways, saved Skeeter. Aiblieen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer) demonstrated immense strength, restraint in the face of great oppression, and generous warmth. In doing this, they taught the young white journalist Skeeter much about herself and life. If there were any “saviors” in the film, to us, they were the African-American women who endured immense racism on very personal levels daily, yet still cared deeply about the children of the families they served. Imagine the compassion one must have to love children who you know will one day grow up to mistreat you (in all but a few cases).

One of the other themes that we gleaned from the film was the sense of giving among the black women. These women cared enough about future generations to sacrifice themselves and put their lives at risk. As a scholar who often writes and teaches about philanthropy, especially African-American philanthropy, I thought the black women in the film exemplified the rich history of self-help and communal uplift that has existed among African-Americans since the 1600s.

While we watched, we were reminded of the varying roles and opportunities available to white and black women throughout history. Each year, I teach a graduate course on the History of American Higher Education. In it, I have several discussions focused on women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and their college experiences. When we get to the section on white and black women during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, students begin to realize that middle-class white women had choices (although they still faced discrimination) that black women never had. First and foremost, white women had the choice of whether or not to work outside the home. Oftentimes, my white female graduate students come into the class thinking their mother’s and grandmother’s lives mirror those of my black students’ mothers and grandmothers. They quickly find out that this is not the case.

Some of the commentaries written about this movie talk about it being a “feel-good” movie for white people. I disagree. Nothing feels good about watching racism, Jim Crow, and oppression, and I worry about anyone who leaves the movie feeling good. Most people I saw leaving the theater were somber and a bit ashamed of our country’s history. Even though the film has somewhat of a “Hollywood ending” for a couple characters (namely, Skeeter), the viewer is left knowing through the character of Aibileen (who is fired from her maid job) that these brave black women are going back to the grind of serving white people. Nothing has changed for them; however, much has been retained in terms of their self-worth and integrity.

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