As I sat in a crowded screening room surrounded by viewers so obviously enjoying The Help, I kept thinking about how the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, had worried so much for no reason. As Viola Davis’s character unfolded onscreen in all her well-observed pain, it just didn’t matter that the beautiful and careful words she spoke had originally been created by a white woman.
But at her desk writing The Help, Stockett knew she was on ground she had to tread lightly. She says so in the last two pages of her author’s note where she tells of her apprehension that she “was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.” She talks about how she struggled, how important it was for her to tell this story of a love that greatly influenced her. In the end it all came down to the one line in her novel she truly prized: “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.” Stockett was turning herself inside out to explain herself and I just wanted to say, “It’s okay. I get it.” I recognized her point from the moment I read those words in the story.
I recognized it because I had felt it myself over 20 years ago when I walked into my future mother-in-law’s house for the first time. My husband and I both grew up in an integrated northeast Ohio, only 30 miles apart, but I was the first black person my husband had ever really known. On the outside we seem very different. Anyone who didn’t know us would probably jump on the usual clichés and think that was the basis for our attraction: she’s exotic, he’s stable.
But when I walked into my mother-in-law’s kitchen it shocked me to see the same plain plywood cupboards and yellow flowered wallpaper that my mother had in her kitchen. If you opened those cupboards you’d see that my husband and I had both grown up drinking Kool-Aid from jelly jars and eating from the same olive green plates that you got free with each fill up at the local Sohio gas station.
Both of our houses were so tiny that the word “privacy” was useless. We had fathers born in the same year, 1919. Everyday they came home with grease on their fingers and wearing stiff canvas work shirts that took forever to dry on the clotheslines in postage stamp backyards.
I took it all in and knew from that moment that my husband and I were perfectly matched: we would always want the same things because we had come from the same place. I rarely mention this when people ask, “How did you two meet?” I’ve never really known how to explain it. How do I tell them that even though I’m black and my husband is white that we love so deeply because with utter, aching clarity we realize how much common ground we share? It’s what binds us.
Kathryn Stockett does get it. I could tell from the beginning of her book that she was writing about a love she had known herself—a love so big and influential that it practically required her to step outside of herself so she could examine it better. How can anyone blame her for that? So we have The Help from the viewpoint of three different women, two of them black. Ms. Stockett so clearly strikes the common notes these women share that the ringing almost hurts: the same love, the same anger, the same frustration, the same feeling of wanting to fly and be free.
Stockett took it upon herself to write something very difficult. So many writers don’t take such risks these days—but that’s another story. I wouldn’t be true to myself as a writer or as a black woman if I took issue with anything she tried to do. I’d be pulling a Hilly Holbrook, shaking my finger and screaming, “How dare you?!” Now that would be ridiculous.
I wish I could have been standing over Stockett's shoulder when she was writing. Anytime she felt scared I would have whispered, “It’s okay, don’t worry. Keep going.” Telling a good story about love is a fine and noble undertaking. You do what you have to do to try to communicate that love. She took the risk and succeeded. I can only applaud her for the effort.