On Love and Hate: A Continuation of “Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman”, A Review of “The Help” film

1 09 2011

The night I watched “The Help”, I wrote these intial thoughts, but definitely have more thoughts to flesh out.

In the movie portrayal of Katheryn Stockett’s “The Help”, one thing puzzled me that I did not have the tongue to articulate until now. The love/hate relationship with Africa.

The main antagonist, Hilly, a white upper-middle class staunch advocate for segregation, articulates in her being this troubling dynamic.

She advocates for missionary funds to be donated to “Africa”, but refuses to let her African-American maid, a descendant of Africa, use her toilet or loan money to her next African-American employee because she did not want to set a precedent of merely giving people what they could and should earn themselves (ironically contrary to her charity towards Africa).

This made me question, why create the opposing dynamics of demonstrating charity towards Africa and hostility towards African-Americans? This dual-mindset does not mesh. At least on the surface it does not. So I thought deeper.

Two factors that I have been mulling over in my mind can help me begin to think through and address this dilemma: 1) Mission-work/The church and 2) American values. Both missionary work/the church and American values play a factor with how the African and African-American are seen or not seen (in the case of Africa).

I’ll explore “Mission-work/The church” in this blog post.

Mission-work/The Church

The church seems to be the connecting factor between Africa and White Middle-Class
America. The church seems to be the connection between African-Americans and White Middle-Class America.

Hilly’s character is so important because she subtly and overtly gives commentary on the poor state of the White church in 1960s America. Hilly’s character gives us a glimpse inside the ecclesial reality (alongside the familial reality, which I argue is an ecclesial reality as well) that has shaped her view and understanding of darker bodies.

In other words, Hilly is not “just a racist”, but Hilly is primarily a Christian.

This is an important point that her character advertises throughout the entire film. Hilly is not inherently evil because her belief in Jim Crow, but she appears evil precisely (to borrow the emphatic word of Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter) because she is trying to be pure, to be a good Christian.

Her church, her ecclesial history, background and reality have shaped her social outlook as well, not only her spiritual life. Her faith has broken from the boundaries of being a personal journey that includes others, into a public demonstration that includes (i.e., excludes) others.

Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her toilet initiative. Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her mistreatment of her two housemaids. Her strange demeanor fluctuating with mean, sweet and sweetly-mean (or “condescendingly-helpful”) reflect the attitude of the white church towards the un-white.

This is most evident in her treatment with her maids and Aibileen, the maid who “is not hers” (oh, the language of possession). It is not seen but it is seen in her relationship with Africa.

Few people may have noticed, but Africa is absent totally from the film except when Hilly “speaks it into existence”. Africa created on the tongue of Hilly (perhaps alluding to a new understanding of “speaking in tongues” … perhaps 🙂 )

Outside of African-Americans, the only portrayal the viewer receives of Africans comes from the mind and mouth of a middle-class white woman hell-bent on saving it. But from what?

The viewer does not know what Africa is being saved from. Except itself. And maybe, albeit with great subtlety, that is what Hilly wants society to understand since this is how she has been taught Africa. Maybe that is how Hilly “knows” Africa and wants everyone else to know Africa. Since no one truly knows Africa, Hilly and co. have to create an Africa worth knowing, an Africa that is poor, destitute, dirty, in need of money and white help. Hilly creates in her tongue and actions, an Africa that needs saving. And she has no problem with herself and her society being the savior. She has no problem saving from a distance.

Hilly’s faith has everything to do with maintenance, maintaining her social and moral status among her peers. She maintains the status quo all-the-while helping the poor. She maintains the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping save a life. From a distance.

Oddly enough, Hilly serves a god of distance and discrimination, not disturbance and
disruption (of the social norms).

Hilly loves the idea of Africa her faith has helped create. Hilly loves the idea of helping African-Americans by employing them as long as they remain in her place (i.e., as long as they do not threaten her place as a Southern Christian socialite).

But Hilly also hates. She faithfully hates disturbing what church tradition has taught her social consciousness. She hates it when African-Americans step out of their place. She hates her authority and expertise in naming the other being questioned, or even worse, proved wrong. Hilly loves and at the same time, hates, Africa.

More thoughts to come on American values!



2 responses

1 09 2011

Great post Tomi! I think you are dead on with noticing the seemingly obscure relationship between white (Christian) Southern women, Africa, and African Americans. As someone who shares the same social identifiers as Hilly, I wonder if I would been struck by the odd Africa connection had I not recently returned from the Ugandan pilgrimage, two classes with Fr. Emmanuel on Africa and mulling a bizarre “God what are you doing experience.” The latter experience being 1) being at a crossroads of vocation when it came to urban ministry or Africa 2) recent familial upheavals that made me go back to struggling through the reality of being raised by “the help” 3) returning back to the community and very home where the “help” did their helping as a response to what I learned/found on pilgrimage–mainly that the odd triangle of Africa and African-Americans led me right back to the communities that made me hate Hilly and therefore part of who I am and how I was raised.

Let me try to dig deeper into that from where I sit given all of that, and forgive me that my thoughts may be unclear and half-baked. First off, there is certainly an Africa, African-Americans, white middle class Christian triangle that is beyond bizarre. I don’t understand how so many wonderful, committed Christians I know love some Africa and want to “fix” her and often because some degree of pity over poverty and lately an increase in seeing Africans as either a Christian missionary field or full of people we should help mainly b/c they are Christians. These folks often understand little to nothing about colonialism or African-history, etc., yet they want to develop the place as an act of living out their discipleship. It almost borders on wanting to help b/c of an anxious desire to earn salvation or make God happy with our level of discipleship. Ironically, many of these same folks will up and down tell you this can’t be true b/c they do not believe in works-salvation, but they are hard core grace people. I think the anxiousness is very deep within us white folks and I don’t really know where it comes from. I find myself often in a daily struggle with it myself despite the fact that my more orthodox Christian beliefs, my training as a historian, and my studies/experience in racial reconciliation. It’s both a constant struggle to either hold up the white identity construct I’ve been taught and the desire to be Christian and into more of the apocalyptic meaning of the Gospel. Silly me, I thought that choosing Jesus would release me from the pressure of the maintenance but I constantly find myself having to fight the power of that very white identity. Much of it even goes into a prosperity Gospel that if I follow Jesus that therefore Jesus will do x, y, z for me, and it is a very subtle suggestion to believe in such notions as much as I am opposed to the prosperity Gospel in every fiber of my being when it comes to theological beliefs.

Secondly, I want to share my reaction toward your characterization of Hilly. I want to be transparent in sharing it so that you can see how my brain works, so it may not really be a critique. Initially I was liked “there is no way that woman can be classified as Christian.” Your identification of her feels overly generous, but given that we serve a generous God who shows mercy on sinners as the very shape of the Gospel I also have trouble with my own desire to push her aside. But given that I have known many Hilly’s up close, I do wonder about her as a character symbol for White, Christian, Southern women. I don’t know if she can stand for everyone–not that I’m trying to get me or my people off the hook–but the Hilly’s I have known really have no desire in being a real Christian, but they seek purity and in the South that is seen as a very cultural thing–all the way down to cultural Christianity. They don’t go to Church for transformation, they go to steal the powerful authority of the Church to justify their cultural desires and social position. It is the same sense in which these other rather committed, believe in transformation Christians go to Africa–for self-justification and a desire to “become” what they believe God wants them to be. I think this idea of anxiousness, becoming and discipleship is now even finding its way into the black Church (and the Asian churches) because we are all so captivated by trying to live into a reality that may or may not be very Christian but more of the American Dream–make something productive of yourself mentality. This idea of usefulness when applied to theology and Christian Discipleship is most seen when we think into what it means for a person with Down’s Syndrome or a grave illness/disability to be a disciple. [The other end of the idea of usefulness that I want to recognize but not really delve into yet is the other side of the paradigm of usefulness and helping where Christians only seek to glorify God on their own terms and ignore any sense of obligation to their neighbor. This too is not good.]

And just to add, those charity societies, particularly in the South, are often identified by anyone who doesn’t fit in (and even those who are members) that the purpose is to feel better about yourself. I’ve been around them my whole life and that is really what they are. Yes, the women often seem to deeply desire to help and seem concerned about those they are pitying, but it is merely to see their own efforts put to something that might affirm the desire for purity–not that some don’t genuinely see that purity in the sense of Christianity, but that for many Christianity is a part of that affirmation that they need to declare themselves pure. Much of that affirmation is not Christianity but a christianity which has been either corrupted and created for that very purpose of self-justification.

1 09 2011

Many of your comments reminded me of “Jesus Land”

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