On Finally Reading The Help — The Concessions of Politeness

In Outline of a Theory of Practice, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that “the concessions of politeness are always political concessions” — a phrase that kept coming to mind as I finally read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help yesterday.

Much of the fuss about the novel has had to do with a white woman writing black characters and using dialect. Suffice to say, that issue would be more tolerable if the white people’s language was rendered in dialect, too. When I used to visit my (white) family’s southern relatives, I often needed my mother to translate words or phrases that were foreign to my northern ears. I suppose that the belief that white people always speak the King’s English and only all those others have a dialect is another element of racial privilege.

To get back to the concessions of politeness, there are two characters who really emphasize this point, both of them young black women whose rudeness is condemned by other black women (and not the Skeeter narrator): Gretchen and Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle. However sassy Minny is, she knows the codes of politeness that govern Southern relationships. And she learns to love white women, thereby emphasizing the novel’s point that “We are just two people. Not that much separates us.” But Gretchen hates Skeeter and Lulabelle defies the segregated nature of the domestic sphere in an aggressive, northern, and altogether modern manner. They are rude, impolite, and both Aibileen and Constantine must apologize for them before they swiftly leave the novel. It just all smacks of the ways in which young, black Civil Rights activists were criticized and condemned on the basis of their anger and direct action. Oh, I know that Minny gets to make a shit pie (a formulaic borrowing from Alex Haley’s Roots — which used spit to convey a similar point), but she still learns to love Celia, thereby guaranteeing her a job for life.

The last thing worth noting is that the only person who gets to march into the future in The Help is the white narrator, Skeeter, who escapes Jackson and her miraculously cured, racist mother to move to New York City with her now-desirable straight long hair and short skirts. This is an additional side-effect of not having any younger black women in the narrative. The future belongs to Skeeter alone. Aibileen and Minny get patience and the hope that things are changing at a glacial pace acceptable to whites.

Was this really written in 2009? And as Stockett’s afterword suggests, are we not allowed to criticize the legacies of slavery in Jackson, Mississippi because we’re not from there?

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