The Education of Janus Adams
August 27, 2011 - 9:15 am
First, full disclosure: I have neither seen the movie The Help nor read the novel on which it is based. But I am wondering whether I should bother, as both have seemed to provoke a reaction of rage and resentment among many professionals in the race industry, and the last thing I need is to have my entertainment remind me of this debauched quarter of our society.
The general tenor of this rage is that The Help somehow glosses over (shall we say “whitewashes”?) the more sordid aspects of black females’ service to whites in the pre-Civil Rights South. It is true that before the 1960s, many black women were kept in a state of semi-indentured servitude as maids to Southern white families, and it almost goes without saying that a book or film would not be an adequate rendering of that type of humiliation, unless the objective is to drown the audience in Passion of the Christ-like levels of sadism.
What I found most interesting, however, is that one needn’t have seen or read The Help to know that many of its critics are dishonest frauds, and that their criticism is more about confirming their own paranoid views of whites than about redressing any deficiencies in the book or movie. A perfect example of this crudity is a recent column by historian and commentator Janus Adams in Newsday, in which she decries The Help, in both its literary and cinematic form, as something that falls tragically short of depicting “the pain and the promises we fought for.”
Adams is a black woman, and if this were her only complaint about the The Help, maybe we should listen to her. Any “dialogue” on race, however, soon turns into a monologue. Adams packs her column full of every charge and slander and innuendo that she can muster. For instance, she subscribes to a quasi-conspiratorial theory as to why The Help is not as accurate as it could be: this is “hardly a coincidence,” Adams writes, since “the country is rife with revisionism” due to the “political havoc” created by those (i.e. white non-leftists) who oppose President Obama’s policies. As an example of this denialism, Adams mentions that the Republican leadership opened this year’s Congressional session by reading the Constitution, and in doing so “expunged all mention of slavery from the text.”
There’s nothing to expunge; the Constitution in its present form doesn’t mention slavery, except to ban it. The three-fifths clause (designed to weaken the power of the slave-holding states) is no longer valid. The document contains two things called the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, which outlaw slavery and ensure equal protection under the law, respectively. Republicans read both those amendments. We are supposed to believe, however, that reading aloud an explicitly anti-slavery document such as the Constitution (which all presidents, black and white, have sworn an oath to defend) is an indication of pro-slavery sentiment.
Unsurprisingly, Adams indulges an overt racism of her own, which she flaunts proudly since there are no consequences for it. She begins one paragraph thus:
“As the writer of histories of African-American women and the Civil Rights era, I was prepared to dislike the film. The book’s author is a white southerner writing for black women, so I knew that neither the book nor the film would tell the story as I knew it from serious research and personal experience.”
Adams was “prepared to dislike the film” simply because the author was white, a fact that, to her, precluded any possibility of the story’s being genuine or accurate or based on “serious research.” Adams leaves out the fact that the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, was herself raised in Mississippi by her family’s own black “help” and therefore brings at least some authentic insight to the table—and perhaps a bit of empathy.
Let’s say I wrote a column saying that I was “prepared to dislike” anything Adams wrote, since I knew instinctively that she, being a black woman, would either distort or ignore things for her own interests. Would I be published regularly in a large daily newspaper as the resident racial healer?
I feel unoriginal even asking it. These types of questions have become a cliche, but that’s only because they have yet to be answered intelligently. Such hypocrisy is no longer simply overlooked in discussions of race; it is demanded. The race industry cannot sustain itself without two sets of standards; indeed, it is based on the idea that standards are at best something to be molded by one’s “experience” and at worst a construct of the white bourgeoisie.
Licensing hypocrisy has meant that there is no limit to the odiousness that can be spoken by one side in the name of race. Thus the demands of the race industry are Sisyphean as well as ever-expanding. If The Help had never been written, the column inches would have been devoted to decrying the absence of books and films on the experience of pre-Civil Rights black women. Now that such works have been done, the complaint is that the attempt to do the subject justice is itself another indicator of white malice.
Adams declares confidently: “We know this truth, too: Few of the black actresses portraying maids in ‘The Help’ will be offered roles as anything but.”
This is quite an extraordinary claim, and its bombast matches its stupidity. A glance at the Internet Movie Database shows that each of the black women starring in The Help has had careers that nowhere suggest the tendency toward serfdom that Adams predicts for them. One of the actresses, Viola Davis, is a Juilliard graduate who has had a recurring role as a defense attorney in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The film also features Cicely Tyson, a highly accomplished actress with a career stretching back to 1951. So far as I can tell, she never played a maid even before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Hoping one of her slurs sticks well enough to fool even the dumbest reader, Adams also avers: “On this Women’s Equality Day, there are still many homes where privileged white women employ women black and brown to tend their babies—women conscripted by the inequality of options open to them.”
As one of those evil white revisionists, I should like to recast that last sentiment: On this day, there are still many newspapers where privileged black columnists indict millions of people whom they don’t know—columnists conscripted by the hypocrisy of the industry they serve.