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The Help & the Assigning of Authority in Literature

I haven’t yet been able to read The Help, nor have I seen the movie, but I’ve definitely seen and heard the backlash from everyone from bloggers to the Black Women Historians. What people say most often, alongside the inaccuracy of what the consequences of these women telling their stories seems to be, is that here is this white woman telling our story…as if she could ever know what it was like. How dare she?

This topic is a touchy one for most writers, I would imagine, as it speaks to our rights as writers: who gave us the authority to write about people who belong to cultures and races other than our own? Can I ever write a story with all white characters as an African-American, historical stories that portray racist characters or characters who I would never interact with? What about rich people or people in extreme poverty? Where can I get permission to write about an experience that is not my own?

This issue of who has the right to tell a story of a shared past is part of my one literary novel attempt, the Southern Gothic Novel.¬† I wanted to write about the power of voice and who has authority to tell history, and should they have that right. I write about people who, on the surface, aren’t likke me: some are white, some are affluent African-Americans, some are addicts. But I choose to focus on things I believe are universal to all of us.

I don’t know if Kathryn S. did her research thoroughly, or if she wanted to be historically accurate. I don’t know if she expected this backlash at all. I know she had a story she wanted to tell and kept trying to sell rejection after rejection. I hear the book is well written. Just because many of the characters are African¬°American and depicted in a time of segregation doesn’t mean I should have been the one to tell the story. Just because a white character publishes the thoughts of Black women doesn’t mean she stole their voice.

As an English Literature degree holder, I’ve read pieces by both women and African-Americans in which an introduction by a reputable white male had to be inserted to vouch for their veracity, that the author actually wrote it, and that the author has the authority to tell the story. I heard how Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography may have been changed to suit white publishers. There’s no doubt that as women and African-Americans, our voices have been stolen, regulated and co-opted throughout history. However, as a writer and an African-American woman who knows this legacy, I can’t authorize or take part in an effort to strip anyone of their right to try to write and explore the world from a different perspective, especially one that doesn’t seem to be demeaning or disrespectful.

I’m interested to hear all of your perspectives on this issue of voice, authority, and writing across the racial divide. Leave me your thoughts.

One thought on “The Help & the Assigning of Authority in Literature

  1. Personally, I’m not offended when someone writes outside of their race – as long as it doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. (Just like a man should be able to write from a woman’s POV and vice versa.)

    I also believe that by stepping into someone else’s shoes, as an author has to do, that author gains some understanding of of the differences, as well as the similarities, of all of mankind. If the characters are brought out in a light that goes against ingrained stereotypes, the readers may also gain insight into people that are unlike themselves.

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