Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Last month I wrote a critique of the popular book, The Help, hoping to draw a bit of attention to what I thought were weak (and even damaging) aspects of the novel. I received lots of feedback and food for thought and am now finally getting to my promised follow up post!
Those of you who loved and defended the book expressed how much you appreciated learning about the civil rights era and racial discrimination in our country. If The Help is a gateway into further compassion, understanding and growth then I am glad you picked it up. But take another step. If you appreciated how The Help forced you into someone else's shoes I would encourage you to keep walking.
One of my loudest complaints in my critique was that "The Help seems to suggest that black people need white people to tell their stories." I am concerned that white women (clearly the main audience of the novel) will come away from The Help thinking they have identified with black women. The truth is they have connected with a white woman's depiction of black women. I think Stockett's portrayals are well meaning, but as she admits herself..."these are not her stories to tell."
So whose are they?
The following are works of literature, most considered to be American classics, written by African-American women. These are exquisite works full of nuanced characters living complex lives. I'd go pick them up at the library for Aibileen. I'd suggest you pick them up for yourself as well.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
This is a novel about the dynamics between men and women, love and loss, having and not having. Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneer in the field of African American literature, a folklorist and anthropologist. I'd also recommend many of her essays. While her fiction was greatly criticized by her contemporaries, her works have withstoode the test of time and are now deeply respected.
It is interesting to note that Hurston had to work as a maid in the latter years of her life and was buried in an unmarked grave after her death. Author Alice Walker (see below) later went on a quest to try to identify Hurston's grave.
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry
"What happens to a dream deferred?" Lorraine Hansberry artfully addresses the question posed in Langston Hugh's poem in her acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun. I have a great passion for this play. What is said is just as powerful as what isn't said. I never get tired of the exceptional realness of the Younger family and watching Walter Lee, Jr. "come into his manhood."
Since Ms. Hansberry intended her words to be acted out I'd not only recommend reading the play, I'd also suggest watching it. A film version starring the original Broadway cast released in 1961. If you are only going to watch one version, watch this one. In 2008 a television adaptation was produced. To be honest, I disliked it. Too many liberties were taken, the intensity watered down and I couldn't overcome the sentimental music always dragging underneath the dialogue. It showcases some powerful female actresses, but Sean Combs (a.k.a P. Diddy) couldn't even touch the sandals of Sidney Poitier who triumphs as the original Walter Lee, Jr.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou
The title alone is poetry, which is to be expected of a memoir by one of America's most eloquent poets. Caged Bird is an American classic, the story of a gifted little girl growing up in impossible circumstances. It is difficult to read, intense and upsetting. This is the kind of book that tears you up into little bits then pieces you back together in a new way. Ultimately I think this is what good books do.
The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
The Color Purple could easily be called "controversial." Yet it is a Pullitzer Prize winner AND a recipient of the National Book Award. I believe it deserved both. While I am not going to stand up and proclaim my allegiance to it's teachings, I cannot deny it's beautiful ability to describe human nature, human growth and human dignity. It is a masterful story masterfully told. It is a book I'd recommend to mature readers.
If you should read it, pay attention to Sophia. She makes Minnie look like a kitten. Tune in closely at the end to the relationship between Sophia and the white girl she raised. In this aspect Walker challenges me more in the course of several pages than Stockett did over the course of her entire book.
Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
I first read Beloved in college. All I could think was "I have no idea what this woman is doing, but whatever it is it is brilliant." Beloved won the Pullitzer Prize so I wasn't the only one who thought so. It is a novel with an intensely unique voice. Chillingly beautiful in theme and style. Mythic, mysterious and altogether it's own thing.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2010) by Heidi W. Durrow
A debut novel and a very good one, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is the antithesis to The Help in that it is completely character (not plot) driven. I read it this spring and chose it for it's rich, nuanced portrayal of the complexities of race and identity. The author and her main character, Rachel, are biracial and she explored the theme so gracefully and honestly.
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I love how stories are able to pull the insides out of people's outsides and teach us without teaching us. They connect us. The beauty of the above works is their all encompassing humanity. I'm a skinny middle class white girl but I identify with Janie, with Ruth and with Celie as women and as human beings. These are excellent stories of people, of relationships, of family and of life. I hope you find time to savor one, all or more of them.
What about you? I'd love to know what you think. Have you read any of these works? Have one you'd like to add to the list?