Whitewashing History

In the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, the one that gives the film The Help an A-, there’s an opinion piece by Martha Southgate, “The Truth about the Civil Rights Era,” that summed up how I felt about the book in just a few words: “fast-paced but highly problematic” then went on to explain exactly why the book and its popularity and the imminent success of the movie bothers me so much:

The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight – and more important, it was not their idea.

Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What’s more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone’s part to believe that ”we’re all the same underneath” is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.

I can’t help but notice that the people who claim that books like The Help and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are about humanity and not about racism are not people of color. I feel if you’re not disturbed by these books, then you’re not paying attention. I also feel that the sappy happy ending of The Help allows readers to leave the story feeling that racism has been defeated and that by liking the black characters the readers are themselves above racism. As Southgate said: highly problematic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates had similar things to say in “You Left Out the Part About…” after taking his child to see X-Men: First Class. While the original X-Men comic series hinged pivotally on the racial tensions of the Civil Rights Era, the new film focuses on Nazis, not racists:

But as “First Class” roars to its final climactic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, “First Class” proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction. Here is a period piece for our postracial times – in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.

I remember how surprised I was when I learned how the myth of Rosa Parks had been perpetuated in such a way that it diminished the Civil Rights fighters (again, nearly all of whom were African American, and were directly affected by the Jim Crow laws) in favor of reductively elevating one person’s story. We all know that Rosa was a tired seamstress at the end of the day asked to move out of the white section. Yes, she was a seamstress, and maybe she was tired, but she was in actuality asked to move from the “colored” seats for a white man. She let herself get arrested for not doing so because she and other members of the Civil Rights movement had been waiting for an opportunity to spark a major event, which was not her arrest, but rather the more-than-a-year long bus boycott by the African Americans, who surely experienced great hardship in doing so.

I’m not going to see The Help. I’m going to continue to say I don’t care for the book and why. And I’ll continue to wonder why people think we’re living in a post-racial society when smugness, ignorance and cruelty continue, whether we acknowledge them or not.

One Response to “Whitewashing History”

  1. Kate Says:

    Exactly. Thanks.