Why "The Help" Hurts the History of Black Domestics

Sister Citizen: Slave, Shame, Stereotype and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry

First, try to evoke an image of a nanny. Next, think of a black nanny. Now, search your mind for a picture of an African-American domestic worker. Most people, at some point, envision a stereotypical “Mammy”: a large, dark-complected woman who is always smiling because she is so gratified to be satisfying the needs of the white family she serves.

Melissa Harris-Perry examines the Mammy stereotype, as well as Sapphire, the Hottentot, the Welfare Queen, the Superwoman, and other media-promoted images of black women. In her book, the author investigates the debilitating political, cultural, and social pressures put upon African American women.

Your interest in this book by Professor Harris-Perry will be piqued by her views on the movie “The Help,” which can be seen online on C-Span.

She explains real black women who worked as domestics when Medgar Evers died didn’t have a Miss Skeeter. She encourages us to read the facts and explore the history. In reality, black domestics walked out of their jobs and protested in the streets themselves without help from any white people.

She suggests that Minny Jackson didn’t need to find the courage to leave her abusive husband only after her white boss, Celia Foote, cooked her a meal.

When Viola Davis’s character, Aibileen Clark walks out of her job in the oppressive South at the end of the movie, audiences cheer as if the character is a strong woman. But, Professor Harris-Perry questions why we applaud. In reality, Aibileen was walking into the oppressive South and would not have been hired again after being fired at that time and place. In reality, she actually may have been arrested because the white character Hilly Holbrook accuses her of stealing her silver.

Harris-Perry states her perspective about the movie just past the halfway point on the show, but we found the entire hour provocative and insightful. Please click here to see the entire program.

The author’s strict adherence to analysis of empirical evidence and data is as welcome as it is uncommon. The concepts of fictive kinship, linked fate, and the crooked room are intriguing enough to justify purchase of the book.

The point of her book is that media-driven stereotypes lead to misperceptions by the public. Harris-Perry helps you understand race does matter. Gender does matter. She helps you see the importance of the structural barriers to individual achievement and the inherent inequality of using stereotypes to judge an individual. All women, especially black women, can benefit from reading this book.


  1. It's fiction! As a professor she's right its not accurate but its a novel + feel good movie. Its like the nannies mad about new supernanny not being a nanny because supernanny is just a tv show. The Help is a novel not a textbook!

  2. That's the problem with todays youth everything is for entertainment…my niece watched that movie and she thought it was a funny movie, but in reality it depicted a small piece of history, but she wouldn't really know that bc 1. Today's history is told from the prospective of the state and governmental requirements in order to meet school requirements 2. Because everything kids do now is with the technology and everything is just fun fun all the time nothing is serious. 3. We have movies in which try to call it entertainment but really there is a history to be told…when I set my niece down and told her the real deal about the movie she didn't see it as funny anymore she became pissed off and cheated bc why hadn't the movie told the whole story. I come from a long line of AA women who were in domestic service and I found the movie insulting. When a movie starts depicting historical events it has a respondsibility to depict the correct history because millions of ppl are going to see the movie vs the less amount of ppl who are going to read the book.As for the Supernanny yep I am pissed off because they hired a non-Nanny for the job because she doesn't have the slightest clue what she is doing. I would respect the show more if they called it The Super Parent Coach because that's what she is, she doesn't even play with the kids.

  3. I agree, this is not a documentary it's a made up story. Does Melissa Harris-Perry's have a book about white nannies in New York after the Nanny Diaries book and movie? That was not a accurate account of a white nanny and had several parts that showed nannies in a bad light that they would be fired if they do the same thing in the real world. I don't agree with the comment about the Supernanny show but that's a whole other topic.

  4. Thanks for the link. She is a thoughtful professor and what she says makes total sense. Youth are influenced by the media. The Help is very inaccurate and is a feel good movie. I hope those that love the book see this as well. She is thoughtful and right on point. I think Supernanny is seen by much less people than the HELP and the typical American doesn't even watch the show.

  5. I thought the movie was okay…personally I was more offended by the fact Nannies today felt some sort of connection to the movie and the women in it, I also felt it didn't depict that era entirely correctly and that it sugar coated certain images for entertainment sake….I wondered after walking out of the movie did any of the people in the movie theater learn anything. I believe the actresses did a great job portraying their characters I just felt proper historical facts were overlooked.

  6. Professor Harris-Perry will be hosting a weekend show at noon on MSNBC starting in February.

  7. I think she's right on. I loved the book and liked the movie. But what she says makes sense and is important. I did have a weird feeling at the end of the movie. I worried for Aibelieen just as the professor says I didn't feel good for her at all. I appreciate the professor says black women didn't need white women to help them, they helped themselves. Very interesting.

  8. She makes great points. Thanks for the link. The movie sold tickets and made money so it accomplished what it was supposed to. Professors like Ms. Harris-Perry are around to teach the history and truth. The Help wasn't meant to be a text book or documentary, it was to make money and pull at our heart strings.

  9. Great discussion by intelligent women! I like that the professor at least has me think about the film in a different way. Thefilm was a Hollywood fiction meant to evoke emotion, not a documentary by any means. But everyone's comments are interesting.

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