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A Nuanced Novel Of Race In The Deep South

Kathryn Stockett says she wasn't nervous about writing from the point of view of a black woman, because she didn't think anyone would read her novel.
Kathryn Stockett says she wasn't nervous about writing from the point of view of a black woman, because she didn't think anyone would read her novel.

If Barack Obama's candidacy did nothing else, it began to pry open the door to a national conversation on race. More than President Clinton's Initiative on Race, Obama's candidacy made us look at what race is, why we continue to be uncomfortable with discussing it (especially among people of different races), and how our vision of who and what is black continues to change.

In his famous speech about race, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama told us that we didn't need to go over the sad history of racial inequality in this country — but that we did need to understand that the legacy of past segregation had led to some of the ills that plague today's African-American communities. As he pointed out, the country's unresolved feelings about black America isn't, to quote him quoting Faulkner, "'dead and buried.' In fact, it isn't even past.' "

Which brings us to The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

As black-white race relations go, this could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from three different points of view, The Help takes place in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, when the Deep South was beginning its immersion into the civil rights movement.

Stockett masterfully captures both black and white voices with astonishing believability, and all three main characters — renegade debutante Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, and housekeepers Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson — are complex, admirable women.

Skeeter hovers on the periphery of her elite social circle because she cares more about having a career than snagging a husband. Her real goal is to write about both sides of life in segregated Jackson — the frustrated middle-class women who both glory in and are trapped by their prescribed roles of wife and mother, and the black women who have put aside their personal needs and interests in order to make a living by serving them.

Meanwhile, Minny and Aibileen must choose between keeping their silence and remaining employed, or ripping away their employers' smug delusions that they treat their maids "just like family." The black women know they'll be fired (or worse) if they're discovered telling the truth about their working conditions and their employers.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny dare to step outside the tight cells of race and class and circumstance that constrain them to begin constructing what eventually will become the foundation of the New South. As they come to know and trust each other, they appreciate the peril each has chosen to face for being brave — or foolish — enough to buck convention to expose themselves and their lives to each other.

In The Help, Stockett has done what Mockingbird's Atticus Finch told his daughter, Scout, to do when he advised, "You never know how another person feels until you walk a mile in his shoes." The author has put us in the shoes of three ordinary women at an extraordinary point in American history. If you read only one book this summer, let this be it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.