In the summer I barely read emails. This summer in particular, I am too concerned with enjoying the midwestern summer while I sit outside attempting to write my second book before the academic year begins again and I become lost in the day-to-day grind. Deciding to check it a few days ago in order to simply rid myself of spam, or the ridiculous comment notices from Facebook of my so-called “friends” I have collected over the summer, I came across an interesting message. It was from a sociology listserv. It was titled, “Black Female Historians Slam ‘The Help.’” Since every female in my life to my mother has talked about no other anticipated movie this summer, the message caught my attention and forced me to put on my academic propeller cap and become engaged. Here is what the message said:
The Association of Black Women Historians has joined the tide of negative voices rising up against The Help. The group has released a statement urging fans to reconsider their support of the wildly popular film, saying it portrays African-American women in subjugated roles and relies on tired stereotypes of black men.
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy –a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
Now, I must confess, I have no inclination of ever seeing the film due to the fact that I simply do not gravitate toward heartfelt sobbing movies that neither make me want to put on ultra tight uniform and adopt a cool superhero name or ones that remind me to either laugh hysterically or be terrified of the dark. Nevertheless, I began to receive group texts from my academic Black female friends calling all to boycott the film. The comments made by them and the Association of Black Women Historians made me think and say, “You have got to be kidding me.” Now this may anger many of my Black female peers, but I was a bit upset. Why? My argument is not with the totality or rationality of their concerns, but the fact that the initial email also mentioned the depiction of Black males. The beginning of the email said the movie, “…portrays African-American women in subjugated roles and relies on tired stereotypes of black men.” If that is the case, why was there no mention to Black males in the official open-statement made by the organization? The next notion that seeped through my psyche was concerning the fact that over the past years, where was the outcry against, let’s see—The long list of Tyler Perry movies, Terry McMillian’s male hating movies, The Color Purple (1985), and the buffoonery and modern-day Amos and Andy Soul Plane (2004) just to name a few.
Researching the Black male reaction to movies such as The Color Purple I discovered a few accounts of Black males picketing the movie due to the demeaning manner in which males were depicted. Regardless of comments made by the great Spike Lee who believed the film was only produced due to the fact that the movie depicts Black males as “‘ “one-dimensional animals,’” the film received a larger Black female pool of constituents who rallied behind in support of the movie.
As I am writing my new book on the oppression of Black males in education, I have begun interviews with other Black males in regards to their perspective on education and why Black females are moving ahead of them (i.e., graduation in realms of public and higher education). One question that I ask them is, “Why has the plight of Black and Latino males not received a great degree of public attention?” Unanimously from the diverse pool, they all have noted that the reason is due to the fact that they are the invisible population—The Whipping Boys. One participant noted,
Black males have always been the population that receives little attention and the most overall abuse. It is easy in the world to make us look like the bad guy. Both Whites and Black females accept it. Look at the depiction of us in the media. My own people have bought in to this crap.
When I asked if Black females were the ones with the lowest graduation rates and killing each other in the urban streets of America, what do you feel would happen? One ex-convicted felon told me that, “Hell would pay. Black women know how to organize. They come out for their own. We barely believe we are worthy of life at times.”
This way of thinking and thus reacting to the presence of Black males through the social vehicles within the media today are nothing but a continuation of the influences of the white racial frame that supported the demonization and oppression of people of color. The power of the frame has undoubtedly influenced people of color as well. Therefore, today exists ingredients of centuries-old faming that have not withered, but have been overhauled and updated in order to go easily undetected in order to continue the centuries old thinking that Black males are simply “the inferior” and deserve to be treated as such.
The depiction of Black males males as dumb, lazy, and at times childlike in commercials and movies is rampant. You know: If we are educated, we have lost connections with our heritage as we drive in our expensive European cars alongside a blond haired beautiful female. If we are uneducated, we are violent, drug dealing, or buffoons. This happens so much that few like the Association of Black Women Historians and others deem it necessary to combat it. So I say to the opponents of The Help, do not forget about me… that is, us.