In 2009, Kathryn Stockett, a white author, told the story of black maids in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Her compelling depictions comprise the makings of the New York Times’ bestseller The Help.
The Help was hugely successful — with 2.2 million copies sold, according to Nielsen BookScan. Adding to this success, a $30 million dollar film based on the book is currently in production, financed by Steven Spielberg and featuring an all-star cast including Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek and Emma Stone.
But this story’s success has sparked some questions — and recently, a lawsuit. Last week, Ableen Cooper filed suit against famed author Kathryn Stockett claiming that the fictional character “Aibleen Clark” is based on her. Cooper, a 60-year-old black woman who has worked for decades as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, may be shaking up the fate of The Help.
The lawsuit states that Stockett’s inability to admit that Aibleen’s character is actually based on the story of Ableen Cooper, “is so outrageous in character, and so extreme as to go beyond all bounds of human decency, and is utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Cooper still works as a maid for a relative of Stockett, and says she was approached years ago about being depicted as a character in Stockett’s novel. She replied, she says, with an adamant “no.”
The most emotionally charged part of Cooper’s lawsuit criticizes Stockett’s depiction of black maids of the 1960s south. Among many potentially controversial moments, there is a passage in the book where fictional character “Aibleen” proclaims, “He black, blacker than me,” when describing the appearance of a cockroach.
Cooper is seeking damages of $75,000, but this case conjures up a thought-provoking question that may be prove to be priceless. Should white writers tell black stories?
When asked if is it acceptable for a white writer to depict a fictional story about black people, Howard University English professor Andre Esters replied, “Absolutely; white writers can tell black stories and black writers can tell white stories.”
“When writing these stories, the most crucial element to be conscious of is the time period of said audience which is being depicted, because sensitivity is required with certain audiences or harsh criticism of the author’s work is inevitable,” Esters said.
“The interesting part about a black author writing from a white perspective is blacks historically have known more of whites and the intimacies and behaviors of their lives due to the roles blacks played in their lives. Thus, blacks might be able to tell a more true and compelling story if they were given the task of telling a story of whites.”
There are several examples of literary cross-cultural depictions that have been successes. But historically, these successes have often been met with scrutiny.
Celebrated works from white authors like Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin dealt with very sensitive racial topics of their time. These books could have been disregarded as uninformed, second-hand depictions of the slavery, oppression and apartheid, but in these cases, they have historically proven to be tools used to awaken the social conscious of race relations.
The Help motion picture, now in post-production, was directed by Tate Taylor, a white director. The argument could be made that Taylor will not be able to authentically capture the reality of black maids and their often tumultuous interactions with their white bosses.
With other films portraying the struggles of black Americans like The Color Purple and Amistad, one could argue that director Steven Spielberg may have in some ways lacked the authentic touch that a black director might have provided. And yet, these powerful films, regardless of the race of the people behind them awakened a discussion that brought forth social reflection and pause.
Any writer who is truly a writer at heart, just like a director, has a passion to tell a story. They should take that passion, regardless of their race, couple it with empathy and curiosity, and create the truest and most enlightening representation of that story which will stand the test of time and criticism so that generations to come will be affected by their work.
In this pending case of Ableen Cooper and Kathryn Stockett, the courts of Mississippi will have the final say on whether The Help is as fictional as Stockett says it is. Beyond that, it will be up to readers — and viewers — to decide if it is okay for white writers to tell black stories.