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A White Woman's Idea of the Mammy's Side of Things

By Jen K. | Industry | June 1, 2010 |

By Jen K. | Industry | June 1, 2010 |

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while but I was waiting for it to be released in paperback or for the hardcover to go on sale. Once I started it, I was a little unsure to begin with since Aibileen is the first character to narrate, and I wasn’t sure how to react to her dialect.

However, I ended up really, really liking the novel. The three narrators are Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Skeeter is a young white woman that has just graduated college and has now returned home while the rest of her friends have all found husbands (Noteworthy: The book is being made into a movie, and Emma Stone has been cast as Skeeter. — DR). Aibileen is a black maid that works for one of Skeeter’s two best friends, and Minny once worked for her other best friend Hilly’s mom.

Skeeter definitely does not fit into the mold at her hometown Jackson, Mississippi, and she doesn’t want to get married and have kids — she wants to be a writer but really has no clue how to go about it. However, she was very close to her maid Constance as a child, and there is a bit of a mystery about Constance’s departure. This inspires her to want to speak to other maids and interview them about the dynamics involved in being the black help that basically raises the children but is looked down upon as inferior. Given the climate of the time (the novel takes place over a span of two years, beginning in 1962), this is a much more complicated task than Skeeter originally thought in her naiveté.

Aibileen is the first to agree to help her, and later is also very important in getting others to assist. As the maid, Aibileen witnesses many conversations about race by the women of Jackson as if she weren’t in the room. Many of these comments are naturally rather insulting. In addition to seeing the racial dynamics, the maids also see the different class issues at play, and the power struggles within the women’s world. Hilly is the social dictator of Jackson, and Minny’s new employer who is originally from a poor part of Mississippi and married to Hilly’s former boyfriend does not understand that she will never be accepted by society due to her background.

While the novel focuses mainly on race, it is easy to see how everyone is constricted by the society and rules of the time. Elizabeth is clearly not interested in children or cut out to be a mother but since this was 1962, that was what was expected of her. Now, she is clearly miserable and makes those around her miserable. Skeeter also does not fit in and her mother is constantly picking on her to find a man. Hilly is trying to help her husband for a political seat but given her skill at intrigue, she probably would have been the better candidate. Maybe if she could have found a real challenge, she wouldn’t be as intolerant and controlling as she ends up being.

I definitely enjoyed the novel but part of me also wonders what a black author might have written — after all, two of the main characters are black but the author is still a white woman. How different would the novel or the perspective have been if it had been written by a black woman? The mammy figure has been glorified for a long time now, but while this novel tries to give the mammy’s side of the story, it’s still a white woman’s idea of the mammy’s side of things.

In college I read a good non-fiction book about gender and race dynamics in the South called Making Whiteness in which the author explored the importance of black women in maintaining the myth and the idea of Southern white womanhood. Some of those ideas can also be seen at play in this novel — the white women can only be perfect wives because they have black women at home helping with the childrearing and housekeeping.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jen K.’s reviews, check out her blog, Notes from the Officer’s Club.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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