Yes, absolutely. Thinking The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a good “primary text” for exploring the American Civil Rights movement is stupid. Using it as an introduction, especially for students who don’t live in Mississippi (or the South), sure, I buy it. It’s not the best book out there, it’s not the most accurate story of southern apartheid, but it is an easy read and covers certain aspects that are relevant to beginning to explore the Civil Rights Movement.
Teachers would be better off assigning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Invisible Man to explore these topics; 100% agree with Ms Roake on this point. And, while I agree with her point that The Help is a gross oversimplification of what the 1960s were like for black people in Jackson, Mississippi, I’d like to point out that Stockett wasn’t writing a novel about black people in the 1960s: she was writing a novel about the black women who raised white babies. No, she could not remove the story and the characters from the context of the times, and she certainly strove to create an atmosphere of fear, hatred, injustice, inequality, and danger for her characters. She included the unnecessary beatings and murders of black people by whites, the high distrust of well-intended white people by blacks, and the ridiculous sense of superiority and entitlement that white people possessed (Skeeter’s mother, for example, fires a hard worker because of a slight from another person, ignoring years of dedication).
But reading the book out of context of the author’s intent is negligent on the part of the reader, and teacher, if we’re assigning it to students. Stockett was, herself, raised by a black maid in the 1970s, as an adult she took a good look at that relationship and wondered about it. In her, yes oversimplified, novel she is discussing a piece of American history, a piece of American reality, that doesn’t get much attention. I have lived my entire life in an area where, if we have nanny’s, they’re part time or Brazilian. Growing up I didn’t know a single person with a dedicated nanny, lots of babysitters, sure, but not one of my friends had someone who came in every day explicitly to clean their home and make sure they were fed. If parents couldn’t care for their child, it was because they were working and their kids were in day care, or spent their afternoons at the Boy’s Club. I have no firsthand knowledge. As an adult, I have met people who were “raised by the help”. I’ve had students and campers who see their hired help more than their actual family; I know a white, southern woman who phones the black woman who raised her every Mother’s Day before she phones her actual mother. But, even still, this is a foreign concept for me. That this still happens was news to me; and that these people are, often, still treated like second (or third) class citizens, is saddening. And, for people like me, with no firsthand knowledge, Stockett’s novel is actually quite useful.
Stockett, a privileged, white, Southern lady, wasn’t necessarily intending to write a seminal novel on Southern Apartheid or the Civil Rights Movement, as far as I can tell, she was writing about the black women who raise white babies. She was writing about that relationship, how strong it is, how it affects both the caretaker and the child. Skeeter, we see, doesn’t turn to her mother for love and affection, she goes to Constantine for motherly support. And she sees how unjustly her maternal figure is treated by the people who owe her, the people who hired her to care for their child so they wouldn’t have to. The Help is a story about women whose main difference is the color of their skin – it’s about these women sticking together and sticking up for one another.
Were I (when I am) a literature teacher broaching the topic of Civil Rights, I might use The Help to introduce the topic, but I certainly wouldn’t stop there. I’d want to impress upon my students the other issues of the novel as well, ones that also still exist. Hired help are still sometimes treated horribly by their employers, even to the point of enslavement. Many of the issues discussed in the novel have not been resolved in our country, they merely don’t get any attention. The only reason The Help is used as a text to discuss the Civil Rights Movement is because of it’s setting. If it were set in 2000, it would be a different story. A still relevant story, but a different story, nonetheless. Let’s not forget what a novel is about, please; let’s not try to make it something it isn’t.