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Cherise Smith, Ph.D, Director JES A232A, Mailcode D7200, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-1784

Insightful Analysis at 'The Help' Roundtable Discussion

Posted: November 2, 2011
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On Thursday October 20th  at the on-campus University Teaching Center, five Warfield Center and African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS)-affiliated professors joined for a roundtable discussion of Kathryn Stockett’s controversial novel The Help, and the recent Hollywood film by the same name. Members of the sizeable audience included UT faculty, staff, and students as well as members of the Austin community. Released this past summer and based on a book of the same name, the Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. The story depicts the lives of Black domestic workers, including main characters Aibileen and Minny, as they clandestinely meet with Skeeter, a white female college graduate who implores them to turn their lives into a “tell-all” book.

            The faculty panel was comprised of Dr. Daina Berry, Associate Professor of History, Dr. Jennifer Fuller, Assistant Professor of  Radio-Television-Film, Dr. Tiffany Gill, Associate Professor of History, Dr. Kali Gross, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and Dr. Jennifer Wilks, Associate Professor of English. Rooted in critical race and gender studies, the five faculty members brought varied and expert fields of knowledge to the discussion. Dr. Frank Guridy, Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, moderated the discussion and announced the Center’s Roundtable Series as a “new Center initiative featuring panelists commenting on an issue of contemporary importance to African-Americans”. The decision to pick the Help as the first topic in the series was compelled by the “enormous attention” received by Stockett’s novel and the film in recent months, Guridy said. “The Help phenomenon seemed to warrant a conversation about the ways the film and book raise questions about how the Civil Rights era is rendered in popular culture, as well as the histories of unseen domestic labor by black women in the past and present.”

Dr. Wilks commented on Stockett’s flawed attempt to convey black vernacular language in the novel. While black characters are rendered in what Stockett imagined as Southern black English, white characters are not presented in the same fashion. Dr. Gross argued that the film was a resuscitation of the “mammy” stereotype, the asexual black woman who lives to care for her white family. Dr. Fuller described the ways the characters in the movie highlight the recurring role of black women maids in film. She situated the Help within the genre of “racial reconciliation” films that emerged in Hollywood during the 1990s. Dr. Gill forcefully underscored the ways that the film and the movie obscured the intense civil rights organizing undertaken by black activists in 1963, the precise moment of the setting of the novel. Dr. Berry underscored the ways both the novel and film glossed over the exploitation and sexual violence routinely experienced by black women domestic workers dating from the era of slavery.

            Response to the roundtable was insightful, with audience members delivering key commentary on the place of Black women and men in the segregated, pre-civil rights south. Notably, Dr. King Davis, Director of the Institute for Urban Policy and Research Analysis, shared his personal reflections on the experiences of Black domestic workers in his immediate family. Other audience members also shared their thoughts on this world of domestic labor, crafting an interactive, perceptive dialogue on real-life examples of the Help’s subject matter.

The Warfield Center would like to thank our faculty for sharing their views on the film, as well as the community members, staff, supporting faculty, and students in the audience for making this event such an animated and enlightening experience. Thank you to all who attended the roundtable. We look forward to our next roundtable discussion soon!

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