Monday, August 8, 2011

The Appropriation of Culture in Fiction by Donna Hill

Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, a soon-to-be motion picture, tells the story of a young, na├»ve white woman who stumbles upon the idea of writing a novel based on the lives of black maids living in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.  Her goal is to give voice to these voiceless women who have devoted their lives to raising white children and cleaning the homes of their parents. On the surface, the novel is entertaining.  Beneath the surface, however, is a little discussed issue of cultural appropriation.   Stockett, in her goal to bring authenticity to her novel, takes on the personas of the maids, Aibileen and Minnie, delivering their stories in first person.  In doing so, she usurped the culture and identity of another group and used it for the purposes of telling her story.
            In the article, The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation of Identity in Fiction: A Writer’s Choices in Cross-Cultural Writing by Stephen J. Quigley, he states “Since the first-person point of view has the least amount of psychic distance and therefore the highest level of appropriation in cross-cultural novels, it follows that this mode can do the greatest amount of cultural damage to the appropriated.” (March/April The Writers Chronicle, 57).
For example, Stockett  assumes the voice of the black maid, Aibileen.  “You’d never know it living here, but Jackson, Mississippi, be filled with two hundred thousand peoples.  I see them numbers in the paper and I got to wonder, where do them peoples live?” (12) “This is a real predicament, see. I gave this Miss Celia woman Minny’s number at home, but Minny working today cause Miss Walter lonely. So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool.  If Miss Walter answer the phone when Miss Celia call, then the whole jig is up.” (26) 
In handling these scenes, Stockett does not relay the information from an objective viewpoint but from the viewpoint of the maid, stepping into the persona and culture of a black woman.  Quigley explains this further in his reflections on a statement made by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, (Stop Stealing Native Stories) who argues that stories are more than entertainment; they are power.  “They reflect the deepest, the most intimate of perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture thinks.” 
Case in point; all of the black characters speak in a broken dialect, giving the reader the impression of a slow thinking, not intellectually capable individual, while the white characters are completely free of even the slightest language nuances of Southern whites.  In doing this, Stockett creates in the mind of the reader a perception of these black characters.
Stockett’s treating of Aibileen implies an intimate knowledge and experience in a culture of which she has no part. This is a technique Stockett uses throughout the novel in characterizing all of the black maids, effectively silencing them by telling her white version of black life, to then be accepted as fact by the dominant society.  And according to the scholar bell hooks, who is referred to in Quigley’s article, he notes that, “though she (hooks) generally avoids discussions of cultural hybridity, she does argue time and again how the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hereinafter referred to as the WSCP) steals the Other’s culture and in doing so, silences them.” (58)
Even within the text, the primary white character, Ms. Skeeter, manages cultural appropriation.  She has the opportunity to get the writing job of her dreams at a New York publishing house if she can develop a substantial topic.  In the interim she gets a job at a local paper as a columnist, similar to Eloise. She is to provide housecleaning tips. Knowing nothing about cleaning she enlists the help of one of the maids—Aibileen.  “Would you mind if I talked to Aibileen? I (Skeeter) ask Elizabeth.  To help me with some of the letters?  Elizabeth responds.  Aibileen? My Aibileen?” (78)  Once Ms. Skeeter has received Elizabeth’s approval, she approaches Aibileen.  “So maybe I could read you some of the letters and you could . . .help me with the answers.  After a while, maybe I’ll catch on and .  . .  There is no way I’ll ever be able to answer cleaning questions myself. Honestly, I have no intention of learning how to clean.” (79)
Ms. Skeeter goes on to have a successful time at the newspaper gathering her answers to the questions from Aibileen.  It is clear from the character’s own statement that cleaning was not in her plans and she had no experience, but was only mildly disturbed at using the knowledge of the maid and taking on her voice in the column to serve her end goal.  The appropriation blossoms fully in a later conversation with Aibileen who tells Ms. Skeeter that her son—who was killed—wanted to be a writer.  “He read a book call Invisible Man. When he done, he say he gone write down what it was like to be colored working for a white man in Mississippi.” (85)
Later, Ms. Skeeter receives  a letter from the publisher in New York who tells her that if she can come up with something original, she is free to write to her again.  “I wonder if I’ll ever write anything worth anything at all.  I turn when I hear Pascagoula’s (the maid) knock on my door. That’s when the idea comes to me.  No. I couldn’t. That would be . . .crossing the line.  But the idea won’t go away.”  (89) Taking the idea of Aibileen’s dead son, Ms. Skeeter makes it her own and begins her quest to gather stories from the maids about their experiences of working for their white employers.
The book is ultimately published to much fanfare as well as chaos in the town as the employers recognize themselves but swear that it’s not them.  Aibileen is dismissed from her job and Minny is fired from hers. Meanwhile, Ms. Skeeter goes off to New York to begin her life as a novelist.
According to Quigley there are pros and cons to appropriation.  He writes, “After having considered the implications of appropriation of identity and culture in cross cultural texts, writers who mean to appropriate culture and identity (as in the case of Stockett and her fictional character Ms. Skeeter) in novels must see that they have two obligations when they decide to appropriate; first they must try to effect empathy for the appropriated culture rather than damage it; second they must give back to the culture from which they appropriated.” (60)
The only beneficiaries in both instances are the novelist Stockett and her fictional character Ms. Skeeter.  Stockett soared to literary fame and her novel is being made into a major motion picture.  Ms. Skeeter left the bigoted town of Jackson, Mississippi to pursue her dream, leaving tattered lives behind. Although the novel attempts to lead one to believe that since the employers had been “outted” they would behave better, there is no real indication that would be the case.
Unlike the nonfiction work of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, that successfully appropriates culture when the writer immerses himself in the black world, living the life of a black man and bringing to public attention a first hand understanding of the tragedy of racism in America, Stockett’s work The Help does not achieve that same success because of the POV by which she chose to tell her story. Additionally, the appropriation both fictional and factual does not benefit the appropriated culture.

Quigley, Stephen. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation of Identity in Fiction: A Writer’s
      Choices in Cross-Cultural Writing. Writers Chronicle, March/April 2011.

Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2009. Print.