Saturday, February 25, 2012

Salvaging The Help, a film worth watching

The Melissa Harris-Perry Show

On Saturday morning (yesterday) I watched the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. The segment of the show that struck me the most was the one during which Harris-Perry and her panel of guests focused their attention on the film, The Help. The discussion was of interest to me because I had read many critiques of the film last year, shortly after it had been released. They had been tremendously negative, and had highlighted many of the film’s flaws. One of them had been the fact that the film hadn't been a historical portrayal of life for black domestic workers and their families. The critics had pointed out that the film glossed over the absolute brutality of racism in the Jim Crow South, and had emphasized that the physical violence and sexual abuse suffered by black women in the homes where they worked received no direct attention. Additionally, they had highlighted the fact that the black men featured in the film tended to be abusive spouses, in contradistinction to the white men, who were either depicted as having no time for domestic dramas or as benevolent patriarchs.

Reexamining the criticism of The Help

On the surface, these critiques were mostly based in fact. But I found myself feeling overwhelmed by them. With such overpowering waves of criticism directed against it, this film had to be absolutely terrible, right? It must have been inherently racist, mustn’t it? But why was the film the recipient of such great acclaim from other quarters? Where did the disconnect lie? Were those who criticized the film getting it wrong, or were who praised it completely clueless about how racial politics played out in the writing of American stories? There was only way to answer these questions: I would have to watch the film. Only then would I be able to decide for myself which of the barbs or roses it deserved.

I finally watched The Help in late January this year, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it for the most part. There were parts that I found absolutely boring, and some of the criticism was on point, but on the whole I was moved by the story. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a historically accurate film, but I do recommend it as a touching story that humanizes domestic workers.

What is the point of film criticism?

When I think back to some of the criticism I have read about The Help, there’s a part of me that’s glad that there are critics who are willing to problematize Hollywood’s latest fare. Like many others, I have been alternately perplexed, bemused, offended and enraged at many of the depictions of minorities or foreign nationals in American cultural production. There is all too often something wrong with the way these folks are portrayed. They tend to be demonized, idealized, or turned into the decorative backdrop for the “real” story. So film criticism does have a valuable role to play in educating audiences.

However, there is also a part of me that is wary about film criticism. This is the part of me that thinks that too much criticism is devoted to talking about films, not as they are, but as they would have been if the critics had made them. I sincerely believe that much of the criticism of The Help falls into this category. So much time has been devoted to talking about what the film does not do and about what it should have done, that whatever it succeeds in doing has been pushed into the background. There are times when this type of criticism is valid: when it educates the public on the holes in particular narratives or ideologies.  But the problem with repeating it over and over is that it becomes reified and starts to read like a formula on how films must be made or how screenplays must be written. Where does that leave creativity? Doesn’t it somehow suggest that folks should only write about their “kind”? Doesn’t it also suggest that all stories must be historically accurate? What lover of literature, art, music or film would read this type of criticism again and again without feeling miffed?

I am a black woman living in America, but I am not an African American. If I sat down to write a story about an African American woman, I would be doing so from my standpoint as an African-born black woman. I freely admit that I would not get a lot right about the African American experience. I would be blind to certain subtleties and even to major threads in the rich Black cultural tapestry of America. That would be inevitable. But would it make my story a non-story? Of course not. How about the non-Africans who write about Africans or make films about them? They get it wrong much of the time. I have shaken my head at various depictions, including Karen Blixen's I dreamed of Africa, Storm of X-Men, Hotel Rwanda, The air up there, Ashanti, Congo, Zulu and Coming to America. But does that make these stories pointless? No, it doesn’t. Even in the frustration that I experience watching or reading these depictions, I recognize that they are bringing something to the table. Yes, they should be criticized for their flaws, but they should also be taken on their own terms. Shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to The Help?

The Black woman as mother figure

I certainly think we should. And I believe that there are some valuable lessons that The Help brings to the table. One of them is the subject of black women raising white children in the bosom of white families. This is what touched me most about the film: the fact that these black women were servants and subject to crude racist hatred and systemic racism, but were still essentially mothers to little white babies. The mother-child relationship is the most fundamental of relationships in any society. From the standpoint of many African cultural traditions, the mother is idealized, almost sacred. The woman who gave you life, at whose breast you suckled, who washed and wiped you, who taught you your first words and watched you take your first steps is the woman you idolize for the rest of your life. She may be marginalized by society and treated as the “lesser” sex, but she is still MOTHER.

The absurdity of racism

So how is it that societies in the American South turned to black women to mother their babies, and then treated them and their families like sub-human outcasts? Some of these white babies actually spoke Black creoles as their first languages. Amazing, isn’t it? So how was it possible for the white women portrayed in the film, most of whom had had black mother figures in their formative years, to grow up and treat the black women who had raised them as if they were nothing? How was it possible for such brutality and violence to coexist with such close intimacy? Why was it okay for a white child to suckle from the breast of a black woman but not okay for him or her to love or marry a black woman or man? Granted, in asking these questions, I was conflating the norms of society in the age of plantation slavery with those in the age of Jim Crow. But there were continuities between the two eras. Ahistorical or not, those were the thoughts that the film brought to my mind. The film actually got me thinking about the absurdity of racism, and its inherent contradictions. It may not have been explicit or thorough in its examination of racism, but it was certainly effective in its subtle poking and prodding at the subject. Many critics seem to forget that most people who watch these films are not scholars in Film Studies or Literary Studies. They watch films for entertainment, and often to briefly escape from their own troubled lives. Consequently, they may actually walk away from deeply flawed films with valuable insights into life.

The film’s redeeming qualities

I didn’t walk away from the film thinking about the black women as extras and the white women as the stars. If anything, the way the story was structured turned the white women’s issues into frivolous side-stories. I have to confess that I was so bored at the clownish, stereotyped roles that were accorded to the white female characters that I busied myself with the ironing when those scenes came on. The white characters were pretty much infantilized and one-dimensional. They were superficial characters with superficial concerns. By contrast, the black women came across as mature and wise women who had experienced and witnessed brutality, and who had gained insight into human nature. Of course, we didn’t get the full story of these black women’s intimate lives with their families. I certainly would have wanted to spend more time in their homes seeing how they lived with their spouses, children and parents in greater detail. But I definitely got the distinction impression that it was black sisterhood that was being highlighted in the film, not the idea that a white woman could speak for black women.

I’m not convinced that Skeeter, the young white female writer in the story, gave Aibileen, Minny and the other black domestic workers their voice. If that was the idea that the screenwriter intended for the audience to take away, then the white-woman-as-spokesperson-for-black-women trope failed miserably. As limited as the portrayals of the black women were, the character of Skeeter was not as well fleshed-out as those of Aibileen and Minny. To me, she actually came across as a plot device inserted into the story to meet whatever expectations the audience had. The audience was not going to be receptive to the stories of black domestic workers unless it was given to them in small, disguised doses. So the writer had to whip up this unbelievably naïve character to play a sentimental role that was really the backdrop to the true story. Maybe I was biased, but that was how I perceived the film.

The film’s flaws

As for the portrayal of black men as violent and abusive fathers and husbands in the film, I agree that that was a problem. The portrayal of black men was not balanced at all. It would have been great if the film had devoted more time to portraying the minister or one of the women’s fathers or brothers or sons. Having said that, it doesn’t seem unusual to me that domestic violence would be an issue in many homes during the era depicted in the film. The same was certainly the case in colonial Africa and in South Africa under apartheid. Generally speaking, men and women who have to deal with racist brutality and systemic racism every single day do not remain untouched by them. Many of them internalize the violence and then take their frustration out on those who are close by: their subordinates at work or in the community, and their families. Additionally, I expect that domestic violence was more acceptable in the era depicted in the film than it is today.

Another of the criticisms of the film was highlighted by the panel on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. It was the fact that the film turned the black women and their families into passive observers of the major historical events of their time (surrounding racism and civil rights), when they would have been more actively engaged and involved in them. This is definitely a flaw worth highlighting and, more than anything, it emphasizes the fact that the writer was not able to get completely into her characters’ heads. But perhaps, in its way, that is a good thing. One of the things it tells me is that the story was written by a human being with limited insight, not an omniscient being. It reminds me that the writer is not an absolute authority, just a storyteller fumbling around for the right words to say- sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding.

Telling the stories of domestic workers

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry show, I was thrilled to hear Barbara Young, a national organizer with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance weigh in. Her stance on the film was to point out that, yes, it was flawed, but there was still something worth salvaging from the film. I do agree with her that the film did provide a platform for talking about the experience of domestic workers. I felt that the film humanized domestic workers. Many of my generation had grandparents who worked as domestic servants for British colonials. Furthermore, many of us were raised by domestic workers who stepped in to fill the vacuum left by our working parents. And many of us have grown up to look down upon domestic workers and to abuse, underpay and humiliate them. The irony is inescapable.

For me, The Help actually brought to mind the plight of domestic workers globally through the 20th and 21st centuries. It made it apparent that their efforts were essential to the smooth running of their employers’ households but all too often taken for granted. It also made apparent the sacrifices they and their families had to make to accommodate the often petty whims of their employers. A problematic film it might have been, but it still managed to tell an important story. In saying all this, I am aware that the film, The Help, is based on a novel, and that the novel in question is significantly more problematic than the film. I haven’t read the novel in its entirety; just a few excerpts of it. On the basis of what I have read, I have to say that, if I had chosen to critique the novel, I would probably have found fewer redeeming qualities to emphasize. 

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Africa: an impending ecological catastrophe

Much has been written about global warming and the fact that Africa is least responsible for the emission of the associated pollution. Yet Africa remains most vulnerable to the impact of global warming. Rather than remaining silent observers of this issue, Africans can take certain steps to intercede.

One of the factors that touches Africa directly, helping to increase its rate of deforestation, is the spread of organisms such as hybrid maize. Hybrid organisms, apart from being less nutritious than native species, tend to dominate the environment by thawarting the growth and propagation of indigenous species. Africans need to rediscover the farming techniques and foods of their forefathers, which were more environment-friendly than those in wide use today. The crops they grew were also more nutritious than the ones we depend on today. Reducing malnutrition in Africa's child population requires that we radically rethink our agricultural practices. In the long term, doing so would force us to improve the quality of leadership on the continent. Currently, we tend to promote exploitative models of leadership, which idealize short-term gain and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation.)

One article illustrates my point: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some chiefs were bribed with bags of sugar in exchange for allowing European transnationals to exploit virgin forests in the region. Whereas the value of the sugar, salt etc was estimated to be US $100, each tree was priced at $4000. This is just one example of the waste that goes on on the continent. Increasingly, Africa's indigenous resources are being exploited for the benefit other people, but Africans get the blame for their depletion. Ignorance, the stigmata of extreme poverty (e.g. childhood malnutrition which interferes with optimum intellectual development) and the despair associated with disease likely all contribute to impairing the judgment of those concerned.

This phenomenon is not new. It was apparent when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its height. It was also apparent during the era of forced colonial labour. Today, malnourished communities watch as their resources are taken over by those claiming to bring the benefits of globalization to the African village. Africans have a long way to go before they can stem the out-of-control exploitation of the continent's resources. They must wake up and take charge as the custodians of their resources.


  1. Alert over food security.” Peter Cummings Thatiah. Sunday, November 6th, 2005. East African Standard.
  2. Vast forests with trees each worth £4,000 sold for a few bags of sugar.” John Vidal. Wednesday, April 11th, 2007. The Guardian.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Slang Ban in Sheffield School

According to a Daily Mail article, a school in Sheffield, UK, has banned the use of slang on the school premises. Apparently, this measure has been taken to ensure that the students master Queen's English and "professional culture" in preparation for post-school employment. To anybody who grew up in a British colony, this is old news. In the colonial era, it was standard policy to ban children from speaking their indigenous languages at school: students who slipped up were subjected to humiliating punishment. As a consequence, indigenous language use was stigmatized.

Not surprisingly, the move by the Sheffield school has some critics, some of whom point out that banning the use of slang will have a negative impact on students' self-confidence. Others express concern about the logistics behind the ban: "'Who is going to adjudicate? Who is going to say slang, dialect or accent? And which one is right and which one is wrong?" These are all valid questions.

As for me, I am curious about the story behind the story. I find myself wondering why there is no concrete indication in the article that previous students from the school have had a hard time getting jobs and navigating through the professional world. From my perspective, if there is an actual problem that this new policy has been set up to fix, then why isn't the problem being explicitly identified? Why aren't the readers being presented with reams of data showing that slang has limited former students' chances at career success? Why aren't employers being consulted on this issue? Does this oversight reflect a half-baked job on the part of the journalists writing on this subject, or it more indicative that the school didn't do its homework?

I also find myself wondering why the school would come up with a schoolwide ban on the use of slang when all they really need to do is ban the use of slang in the classroom? Does it really matter what language the students speak when they get together to gossip and have a few laughs at break time or lunch time? And is it even possible, in practical terms, to put such a broad policy into action? For the record, I am not opposed to any move to ban slang within the classroom. I do think that language standards are falling in different national contexts, and that students are not getting the necessary linguistic reinforcement they need to master the official languages. So a form of intervention is necessary. However, the most effective form of intervention would entail making better use of classroom time.

 This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putting Polygamy in Context

In my last blog entry, I spoke at some length about polygamy as a legitimate form of marriage, and as one that wasn't inherently evil. I have since come across another blogger who has written on the same subject: Nano Muse.

Nano Muse's blog entry on "Polygamous Marriage and Women" is excellent for its emphasis of the degree to which sexism in society (as opposed to the structure of the marriage) determines the way women will be treated within their marriages. The fact that women were treated as second-class citizens in Western society (the bastion of monogamous marriage) until relatively recently makes that evident.

Another point in favor of Nano Muse's blog entry is that it reveals that the social aspect of polygamy is potentially positive. In those cases where polygamy works, it often does so because the relationships between co-wives or sister wives (as they are called in some American communities) constitute an important support system. I actually encountered an enlightening paragraph about the importance of such a support system on another blog, the Ms. Magazine Blog.

In response to an article written by Jessica Mack, "One Feminist Asks, 'Is Polygamy Inherently Bad for Women?'" one reader by the name of Christine wrote: A few years ago, I was in Kenya for work. I had the opportunity to travel with one of my Kenyan colleagues to her father's home in a semi-rural area. Her father was in his 60s and was polygamous. While traveling there, my colleague told me the past few months had been very difficult at her father's house because his "first wife" had died. I said her father must be devastated and she responded that, yes, he was, but it was his second wife who was the most devastated. Seeing that I was baffled, she explained that the two wives were best friends and were each other's most important support system. The death of the first wife left the second wife with a devastating emotional hole and doubled work load overnight. I had never thought about the support system some women get from polygamy.

This response by Christine struck a chord with me because, even though I didn't mention it in my previous blog entry, that important support system is one of the most striking things about polygamy as I have witnessed it in my friends' families. I am glad to have come across Christine's response because it humanizes the co-wife  relationship in a way that few articles I have read do.

 This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Believe it or not, polygamy isn't evil

It intrigues me greatly that mainstream American society, which is open to all sorts of ideas about sexual identity and different family types, is so intolerant of polygamy. I can understand, to some degree, where this intolerance comes from. Polygamy, as it has been practiced in the United States and elsewhere, has done its fair share to create rigid hierarchies, inequality and resentment within families. It is precisely the sort of situation that could facilitate exploitation and abuse, and in the case of Warren Jeffs of the FLDS Church, it has done just that. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where polygamy is part and parcel of various communities’ traditional practices, there are many cases where the institution has been abused to force teenage girls into marriage to older men.

However, it would be dismissive to run up a catalog of all the evils that have been committed in the name of polygamy and then say that was the full story about it. The truth of the matter is that polygamy is not epitomized by Warren Jeffs' version of the institution. It is part of normal, everyday life for many people in many societies globally. There are plenty of people who have grown up in families that have practiced polygamy for generations. Some of them have learnt to idealize the practice by virtue of their experiences; others hate it; yet others are neutral. Their varying responses to polygamy are indicative of their unique experiences, not of some general rule that can be applied to all polygamous marriages.

The point that I am trying to make here is that polygamy is a complex institution: so there is no point in presenting a one-dimensional view of it. There are different stories to be told about polygamy. Warren Jeffs’ story is just one of them. So we should not do this subject a disservice by painting polygamy as the great subjugator and monogamy as the great equalizer. Some might find this hard to believe, but out there in the world are situations in which men and women have fared better by virtue of being in polygamous marriages than they would have done in monogamous marriages. At this point, I should mention that I am aware that the term “polygamy” applies to men who marry more than one woman (polygyny) as well as to women who marry more than one man (polyandry). Polygyny happens to be more widespread than polyandry, but my observations apply to both.

Polygamy can be functional or dysfunctional. Co-wives or co-husbands can hate each other and fight tooth and nail over family resources; or they can learn to accommodate each other and even develop close friendships. In the most functional of polygamous families, all children see each other as brothers and sisters and they see all the adults in the marriage as their parents. I’m not just saying this. I see it with my own eyes every single day in the lives of my friends. They may be Muslim or follow indigenous African religions, but for all of them, polygamy is just the ordinary, everyday life that they know. These are well-adjusted families in which the different people have learnt to live together and work together harmoniously. Any objective observer of these families would have to admit that, for them, polygamy works.

I suspect that many critics of polygamous marriage are so strongly against these marriages because they assume that they exist solely to meet the sexual needs of the men. They may not realize that there are other motivations for practicing polygamy. This is where sociology comes in handy. It allows us to set aside our cultural prejudices and to study societies through objective lenses.

In those societies that have practiced polygamy for generations, it can be thought of as a social adaptation to their unique environmental and economic conditions. For instance, in cases where there are significantly more productive-age females than males, polygyny is almost inevitable. In some societies, the beliefs and practices surrounding childbearing required women to abstain from sex beginning in early pregnancy and ending when the children were finally weaned off their mothers’ breast milk. This allowed the mothers to concentrate their energy on their pregnancies, and then on nursing. Their husbands would turn to their second wives under these circumstances. Now, keep in mind that these were societies that did not have the same contraceptive options we do today. So these practices helped women to space their children and to give them constant attention during those crucial (and dangerous) first years. Thus, they promoted maternal and child health. In other societies, post-menopausal women actually talked their husbands into marrying younger wives because they were no longer interested in having sex.

In yet other societies, women became second wives to their brothers-in-law after their husbands died. This gave them protection within their late husbands’ extended families and access to the families’ resources. The alternative would often have involved being sent out into the harsh world without a penny to look after themselves and their children. In those Asian communities that traditionally practiced polyandry, a woman would often marry a man and his brother(s). Doing so ensured that the families’ resources were pooled instead of being fragmented with each generation. I am not claiming that these circumstances were ideal or that they worked equally well for all concerned. I'm just pointing out that they were practical arrangements that made economic sense in the bigger picture and helped families to survive. Chances are that, if some of these societies had not practiced polygamy, they would not have lasted as long as they did.

For the record, I am not actually a proponent of polygamy. I wouldn't sit my young nieces down and tell them fairy tales about the joys of polygamy. But I do think it is naïve to call it an evil practice. Polygamy is not any more “evil” than monogamy is. Both institutions can be used to promote inequality and to facilitate abuse. Both institutions can leave the participants immensely dissatisfied. In fact, they both do all of the above, and that is why divorce rates are so high. Whether a marriage (polygamous or monogamous) is healthy and functional ultimately comes down to the circumstances surrounding it and the personalities and motivations of the individuals involved.

 This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lwimbu lwo Kusyoma: A Lamentation

When I was a little girl, I learnt a song from my sisters. It was a Maragoli folk song, the sad lament of a monkey who had just lost his pregnant partner, Shinyosi. She was carrying sextuplets (inside her) when she was killed by the farmer, Marangaranga, who had caught her plucking a cob of maize from his garden:

LWIMBU LWO KUSYOMA (Maragoli Original) 
Nonoji kaduma kalala kalala kalala 
Ma Marangaranga ahenzelitsanga, atunyelitsanga: 
"Ndori ingugi! Ndori ingugi!" 

Marangaranga unyeri vutswa, unziti vutswa! 
Mbugi vutswa! 
Yita Shinyosi naheridzi; avana vatano na mulala. 
Mbugi vutswa! 

LAMENTATION (Approximate English Translation) 
When you pluck just one piece of maize 
And Marangaranga sees you, he gets agitated: 
"I have seen a monkey! I have seen a monkey!" 

Marangaranga has killed me; he has finished me! 
I can't believe this! 
He has killed Shinyosi, who was pregnant; five children and one. 
I am full of grief!

Although I didn't think about it at the time, I now realize that this is a remarkable song. It humanizes the wildlife, our fellow creatures and reminds us of their struggle to survive as we encroach on their natural habitats. In this way, and in other subtle ways, the song reminds us just how precious life is. Today, when I sing the song to myself, I think about our role as stewards of the earth's resources and wonder whether we are living up to our God-given responsibility.