Project Proposal- The socioeconomic implications of race in The Help

My subject stems from issues surrounding Katherine Stockett’s novel The Help. The 2009 novel takes place in civil rights era Jackson Mississippi where a young white society girl and aspiring writer named Skeeter, interviews the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent white families. Only one black maid named Aibileen will talk at first. But as the pair continue the collaboration, more women decide to come forward and share their stories of walking in white households. Surprisingly the problems that I found have little to do with the content and more to do with the dialogue structure, and the contrasting portrayal of black bodies versus white bodies. Stocketts portrayal of black dialect culture have raised concerns over the socioeconomic implications attached to it.

My research topic highlights the issues with how drastically different white and black characters in the novel are portrayed. Many critics have noticed problems with the way that Stockett depicts her black characters. All of the black characters in the novel speak in thick and child-like dialogue that is inconsistent with African American Vernacular English. However, it is not impossible to be black in the 1960’s and speak (at least partially) Standard American English (SAE). Stockett’s narrow portrayal of African American speech only prolongs negative stereotypes of African American Culture. Interestingly though, the only characters that speak almost perfect SAE in the novel are the white characters. This is also problematic because given the Mississippi setting, some of the white characters would inevitably have a “southern drawl” or speak some southern slang. These points raise questions concerning Stockett’s methods for creating the dialogue in the novel. She has stated that she wrote the African American speech the way she remembered it, which might be taken as showing little regard for African american culture when writing a novel about African American culture. She could have consulted AVVE standards, or created more diversity in the speech of her black characters. This creates a problem because only one single, and largely inauthentic view of African American dialect and culture is being represented.

As far as structure goes, I will mainly focus on how speech and dialogue marginalizes Stockett’s black characters, and then I will briefly add how black characters are marginalized even more so, by the descriptions of their physical appearances. In my first body paragraph, I will reference an article that focuses on the dialogue aspect, and what it means in terms of shaping identities. I will make an example of the linguistic analysis in the article. I’ll do this in order to show the reasoning behind the claim that the black characters dialogue paints an inaccurate and offensive portrayal of African American culture. The linguistic analysis also shows inaccuracies in white character’s dialogue, a point that highlights the problems with neglecting class influences. My second body paragraph will highlight my second article source. The content is similar to that of the first, and therefore builds upon it. It also adds how dialogue is not the only factor marginalizing black characters, it’s also the descriptions of their bodies. The article notes this by quoting from the book itself, and I will use those examples to strengthen the argument.

Feb 21: “The Problem of Defining Sovereynetee in The Wife of Bath’s tale”

On page 91, Thomas says, “The knight does not assume sovereignty by having his desires fulfilled, for what is his desire in control of? Do you agree with this? Thomas continues, “Is the knight’s desire not, instead, controlled by an illusion fabricated by someone else?” Who do you think holds the greatest/absolute sovereignty, the knight, or the wyf? Or do they both in some way hold sovereignty, just different forms of it?

Text Selection Rationale- The Help, Kathyrn Stokett

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a novel that follows the lives of several black maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. It was written in 2009, so it’s still too new to be considered a part of the canon. The Maids, and a young white college grad named Skeeter, come together to write a tell-all book about working as a colored maid in the deep South. Their union for a common purpose is critical to the plot of the novel because their choices could severely damage their somewhat “peaceful” small town lives. The novel forces us to look at differences between society for white people and black people in the 1960’s South. It begs us to ask questions exploring race, identity, agency, and the cultural and societal constructs, that were all a central part of why segregation existed in the first place.

I read the book in High school, and have since, always considered the novel one of my favorites. My memory of the book is a bit cloudy now, so I want to read it again. I like that it explores the inequalities of the time, as well the unique relationships between black nannies and the white children they looked after. I think those relationships are so important in the novel because it draws attention to the inconsistencies of institutionalized racism. In my research I expect to find articles discussing the roles of African American women versus White women, problems with Identity, social norms defining racism, and it’s cultural constructs. I have found five articles exploring themes in the novel on Google scholar, and several more through the College of Charleston library database. A couple examples of the articles I’ve found include Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help by Duchess Harris and Regulating Race on the Toilet in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help by Christopher Lloyd.