Book Review: Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land

PromisedLandThe theme of “The Promised Land” runs throughout African-American history and culture. Enslaved people who accepted Christianity had faith that they, like the “Children of Israel,” would be liberated from bondage and live in the Promised Land. Searching for freedom and increased opportunities to carve out their own “American Dreams,” black migrants from the South fled their homeland for the industrial North during the Great Migration of the 20th century. In addition, on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked the Promised Land three times in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. King implied that he, like the prophet Moses, “may not get there with you,” but “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

In her book, Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land: Working Wisdom from My Grandparents’ Garden, Deborah L. Parker uses these biblical, historical and metaphorical references to discuss the contemporary search for the Promised Land. For African-Americans, the phrase has historically referred to “freedom” or a land of freedom, but Parker suggests no set definition, indicating varied and contested meanings. It can be a physical destination to which one escapes, but it can also be a mental and spiritual space. In fact, each person must mark his or her own “sacred space.”

Once that sacred space is claimed, it must be nurtured. Parker imparts the wisdom of the elders–lessons she learned growing up in a multi-generational family–to instruct readers on cultivating their Promised Land. Her narrative weaves in the practical advice of her maternal grandparents, Joseph Everett and Pearl Cargill Parker, and illustrates the usefulness of words and actions.

Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land is a motivational book interspersed with inspirational stories and family history. Parker is a great storyteller, and the the book is most compelling when she incorporates her own narrative into the discussion. For example, I found her chapter on racism (Weed-Whackers for Racism and Other Growth Stoppers) particularly interesting. She compares racism to weeds in a garden, which can prevent you from achieving your purpose, if you allow it. Although racism has reared its ugly head in her life, she found ways to overcome the obstacles placed in her path. She succeeded in spite of racism because she had the right “tools.”

Parker cherishes the memories of her grandparents and the lessons to be learned from both family and collective history. This book should cause readers to think about applying the lessons they’ve learned from their grandparents as well.

 

 

Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Cones_The Cross & The Lynching Tree“I wrote because words were my weapons to resist, to affirm black humanity, and to defend it.”

“Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”

I teach a black nationalism (BN) course that looks at the earliest manifestations of the ideology in this country and how it still presents itself today. Black nationalism, loosely, subscribes to the idea of creating a separate black state/body politic. When that is impossible, the ideology seeks to create all-black institutions or programs. So, when black people thought that slavery would have no end, many believed that the answer lies in emigrating to Africa and the Caribbean, places where there were large populations of blacks.

Many of you who are familiar with black nationalism, are familiar with the particular versions that emerged out of the 60s: the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam. When analyzing the writers of the 60s, my students always made comments on the significant influence of the Nation of Islam on black nationalist ideology. Many asked if Christianity spoke to black nationalism in any way. The question drove me right into the pages of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). Reading this book made me sorry that I had not read his other work sooner.

In his Introduction, James Cone addresses the premise on which he compares the lynching of hundreds of African Americans in this country to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He argues that, because the “cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace,’ an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission” (Kindle location 198). Because of the ways in which white supremacy has historically and continually used Christianity as a tool of oppressing African Americans, specifically where lynching is concerned, Cone argues that theologians cannot thoroughly engage the the meaning of Christian identity in America by negating the role of white supremacy.

I really enjoyed Cone’s book and appreciated it from both an academic and spiritual perspective.

Book Review: The Cross & the Lynching Tree

James Cones_The Cross & The Lynching Tree“I wrote because words were my weapons to resist, to affirm black humanity, and to defend it.”

“Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”

I teach a black nationalism (BN) course that looks at the earliest manifestations of the ideology in this country and how it still presents itself today. Black nationalism, loosely, subscribes to the idea of creating a separate black state/body politic. When that is impossible, the ideology seeks to create all-black institutions or programs. So, when black people thought that slavery would have no end, many believed that the answer lies in emigrating to Africa and the Caribbean, places where there were large populations of blacks.

Many of you who are familiar with black nationalism, are familiar with the particular versions that emerged out of the 60s: the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam. When analyzing the writers of the 60s, my students always made comments on the significant influence of the Nation of Islam on black nationalist ideology. Many asked if Christianity spoke to black nationalism in any way. The question drove me right into the pages of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). Reading this book made me sorry that I had not read his other work sooner.

In his Introduction, James Cone addresses the premise on which he compares the lynching of hundreds of African Americans in this country to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He argues that, because the “cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace,’ an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission” (Kindle location 198). Because of the ways in which white supremacy has historically and continually used Christianity as a tool of oppressing African Americans, specifically where lynching is concerned, Cone argues that theologians cannot thoroughly engage the the meaning of Christian identity in America by negating the role of white supremacy.

I really enjoyed Cone’s book and appreciated it from both an academic and spiritual perspective.

Revisiting a Civil Rights Icon, Daisy Bates

DaisyBatesThe recent Supreme Court ruling invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has 2dopesistahs thinking about the sacrifices of activists who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. For my current research project, I revisited (re-read) The Long Shadow of Little Rock  by civil rights icon, Daisy Bates.

Daisy Bates became a national figure in 1957 when nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were chosen to integrate previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bates had been actively pushing the school board to implement and stick to a plan of desegregation to comply with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this memoir, Bates chronicles her experiences as she coordinated the activities of the students and documented the attacks on the students while in school.

In a show of massive resistance, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on the first day of school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending classes. Eventually, the Nine were able to attend school after Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched 1,000 Army paratroopers to protect the students, but not before an angry, anti-integration mob had threatened the students’ safety both individually (Elizabeth Eckford) and collectively.

Adult Daisy Bates

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999)

Little Rock residents who supported the integration plan were singled out for harassment by those attempting to maintain the Jim Crow status quo. Supporters received threatening calls, and others lost their jobs. Daisy Bates had crosses burned in her front yard, and gunshots pierced her living room window. Finally, in 1959, she and her husband L.C. were forced to close the State Press, the weekly newspaper they began publishing in 1941, because of lost advertising revenue. (Daisy Bates was able to begin publishing the paper again in 1985, but this was after her husband’s death.)

In the foreward to the first edition (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt writes that she wishes Daisy Bates “had been able to keep from giving us some of her sense of her bitterness and fear in the end of the book” (xvi). However, I thought it was remarkable that a person who had endured the loss of her livelihood, threats to her safety, and attempts on her life remained so hopeful. Bates had a right to “question America.”

I had forgotten how compelling this book is, and I highly recommend it. It is an excellent read. And if you have an interest in books written by members of the Little Rock Nine, both Melba Patillo Beals and Carlotta Walls Lanier have written memoirs.

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

Wacky Wednesday: What Are You Reading?

Da Hype 1

Junie B. JonesRecently, my 6 year old has gotten into to Junie B. Jones books. I have enjoyed reading these books with her because I love watching her fall in love with a character. I have learned that reading a book series allows children the opportunity to get engaged and stay engaged with a character. Since she was a baby, we have read entire series of books. The characters are familiar to her and she looks forward to the newest experiences they face.

Junie B. Junes, who will not engage you unless you call her by her entire name, gets into trouble and she is brazen and fearless. She is spunky, and she gets into the type of mischief that was historically reserved for boys in literature. She is also creative and smart. I like reading about her new escapades and discussing them with my daughter. Her behavior also provides us opportunities to discuss how I want my 6 year old to behave.

I love watching my daughter explore literature and I am happy that we can now explore it together.

Da Realist 1

I just completed While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of whileworldwatchedAge during the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn Maull McKinstry. As the title suggests, McKinstry was at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when it was bombed on September 15, 1963. In fact, she had just seen her friends Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair in the bathroom before the explosion.

I was interested in Maull’s perspective as teenager and as a survivor of such a tragic, violent event. As one might imagine, she had survivor’s guilt. She lost her best friend in the bombing. Psychologically she was traumatized, but she had no opportunity to discuss her feelings. No one talked about what happened–not at school, not at home, and not at church. When the church’s damage was repaired, the bathroom where the girls were killed was literally walled off. When she left Birmingham to attend college, she began drinking as a method of coping. It took her many years to come to terms with her alcoholism and her feelings about the bombing.

While the World Watched is compelling when discussing events that Maull participated in or witnessed. But the sections on other historical events and actors (like JFK and “Bull” Conner) are much less effective. Her narrative is not written chronologically; as a result, it is somewhat repetitive.

It was important for McKinstry to share her story of survival and illustrate the impact of the bombing on her life. While we mourn and pay tribute to those who lost their lives during the Civil Rights Movement, we give considerably less attention to the effects of violence on those who lived through it. Though I may have issues with this book, I’m glad she wrote it.

“Read Everything”: It’s Banned Books Week

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window”.–William Faulkner

banned books bar 2013

Bibliophiles unite! September 22 through 28 is Banned Books Week. It was launched in 1982 to celebrate our freedom to read while highlighting efforts to censor reading material. Every year there are hundreds of attempts to remove books from schools and libraries or to restrict access to those books. Now you know 2 Dope Sistahs love to read, so we’re sharing our thoughts on two books that are frequently banned.

Da Realist 1

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of two runaways–Huckleberry Finn, a teenage boy, and Jim, a slave. I did not read this book while I was in school, possibly because it was banned from the curriculum. Indeed, it is one of the most challenged books of all time. In 2011, I found out that there was going to be a new, sanitized version of the classic novel, and this inspired me to read the original. This edition, ironically published by New South Books, removed offensive words like “Injun” and “nigger” and substituted contemporary terms that are more appropriate. But Huckleberry Finn is a nineteenth-century novel, not a contemporary novel. While I found the more than 200 uses of “nigger” to be excessive, changing the words removes the author’s intent.

Da Hype 1

The Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I was assigned to read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in high school. Although I cannot remember too much about the novel, I do remember being excited about reading a book with a protagonist about my age. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, contemplates his sexuality, smokes cigarettes, and curses–all of the activities that challenge teenagers past and present, making this novel timeless.

For more information on Banned Books Week, click here.

To find out if your favorite book has been banned, click here.

Revisiting a Civil Rights Icon, Daisy Bates

DaisyBatesThe recent Supreme Court ruling invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has 2dopesistahs thinking about the sacrifices of activists who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. For my current research project, I revisited (re-read) The Long Shadow of Little Rock  by civil rights icon, Daisy Bates.

Daisy Bates became a national figure in 1957 when nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were chosen to integrate previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bates had been actively pushing the school board to implement and stick to a plan of desegregation to comply with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this memoir, Bates chronicles her experiences as she coordinated the activities of the students and documented the attacks on the students while in school.

In a show of massive resistance, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on the first day of school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending classes. Eventually, the Nine were able to attend school after Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched 1,000 Army paratroopers to protect the students, but not before an angry, anti-integration mob had threatened the students’ safety both individually (Elizabeth Eckford) and collectively.

Adult Daisy Bates

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999)

Little Rock residents who supported the integration plan were singled out for harassment by those attempting to maintain the Jim Crow status quo. Supporters received threatening calls, and others lost their jobs. Daisy Bates had crosses burned in her front yard, and gunshots pierced her living room window. Finally, in 1959, she and her husband L.C. were forced to close the State Press, the weekly newspaper they began publishing in 1941, because of lost advertising revenue. (Daisy Bates was able to begin publishing the paper again in 1985, but this was after her husband’s death.)

In the foreward to the first edition (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt writes that she wishes Daisy Bates “had been able to keep from giving us some of her sense of her bitterness and fear in the end of the book” (xvi). However, I thought it was remarkable that a person who had endured the loss of her livelihood, threats to her safety, and attempts on her life remained so hopeful. Bates had a right to “question America.”

I had forgotten how compelling this book is, and I highly recommend it. It is an excellent read. And if you have an interest in books written by members of the Little Rock Nine, both Melba Patillo Beals and Carlotta Walls Lanier have written memoirs.