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Odd Words–Daughters of Domestics Edition October 17, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, novel, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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I omitted this from last Thursday’s column (my apologies) so I’m giving it a post of it’s own. Tonight (Monday, Oct. 17) Xavier University will host Daughters of Domestics: Poets and Academics Respond to The Help, the recent novel and film cataloging the experience of Black domestics in the 20th Century South. Featured poets will be Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson and Kelly Harris-DeBerry. The academic panelists include Professor Theresa M. Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The moderator will be Dr. Kimberly J. Chandler.

Looking at the first few of over 43,000 reviews of the novel that inspired the recent film it is clear the book and movie had stirred up a great deal of controversy. Sorting to the one-start reviews I am told the book is insipid, that the characters (particularly the African American women are cliche-leaking stereotypes. One reviewer suggests the book was written to make white people feel better about themselves and claims that explains its best seller status. I think this particular reader comment of her experience with the book sums up the dialect problem: “Law, I never see such God awfa talk in a book. The end came when I say she be def as a doe-nob.” (Whoever said don’t write in dialect, go look that person up and take there advice. Outside of Roddy Doyle’s Irish brogue I can’t much stand it myself.

The five star reviews don’t offer much expository explanation, mostly Oprah Book of the Month Club gushing. It’s notable how many of them listened to the audiobook instead. I don’t have time today to explore over 117,000 five star reviews to except to find the book wildly popular with people across genders and races. It has clearly struck a cord.

Many of the complaints of the bad reviews were about the gall of a young white woman, born in 1969 and too late to have any real experience of what she writes about, taking on the voices of the Black domestics. Frankly, there are probably very few writers who could do true justice to a mix of domestics and their housewife employers and truly get deep inside the heads of both well.

My own feeling: I am very tempted to attend this one. I grew up in New Orleans in the 1960s, and a fixture of my life was Sylvia (I don’t to this day remember her last name), who I am told particularly raised me–particularly as an infant and very small child–and whom I mostly remember ironing my father’s shirts before the soap operas, the shaker bottle of water one used back them to help get the wrinkles out. I remember she was invited to my sisters’ weddings, but not the receptions. I recall she lived in Iberville because I rode with my mother once or twice to give her a ride home, rather than ride the Lake Vista NOPSI bus line. I often road that bus home from school, and at that time of day it was an exchange of a cargo of Catholic school kids for the domestics who stood at every corner, many in the starched white uniform of the time.

I have a feeling pale male children raised by these women will not be much in attendance, and I am intensely curious to hear these reactions against the overwhelming positives of Goodreads, most of which smack of Oprah Book of the Month Club noise. I haven’t read the book, and I’m not going to put it on my pile just yet as it is already too tall. I think this will be done to pull out of the library at some point. I feel as a child of Sylvia’s other family (she also served my grandmother,–who to this day I can clearly hear in memory’s ear voicing “nigrah” as a polite, to her mind, reference–and an aunt on a rotating basis). I feel I owe a debt to the woman who helped to raise me to attend this.

Daughters of Domestics: Poets and Academics Respond to The Help, Monday, Oct. 17 (tonight) at Xavier University’s Qatar Pharmancy Pavilion, 1 Drexel Drive.



1. samjasper - October 17, 2011

Wow. There are two women I remember, but they weren’t always there. What really struck me was the soap opera/iron/shaker bottle image.

Sophie loved Edge of Night. I remember the intro to that show, it always sounded a bit scary. She babysat us and ironed, always ironed. One day my little sister and I got into Mama’s makeup. Evidently we went to school all dolled up (we were about 8 and 5 I’d say) with Avon cream eye shadow all over our faces in every color on the sample stick my mom had. After the call from school, Sophie abruptly disappeared. I learned much later that she had been sacked for letting us go to school that way. She was short and round, very round. The smell of the ironing is still in my nostrils.

Then there was Bea. She was tall, thin, wonderful and very dark. I loved her. She sang songs and told stories. One evening as she was leaving I said to my mother, “Isn’t Bea beautiful! She looks just like chocolate pudding.” Bea laughed and hugged me. My mom was mortified.

While we didn’t have a constant presence in our house, when we were little and both of our parents worked, these women were fixtures. Later it was local white teenage babysitters, the neighbor’s daughter kind of thing.

I’ve heard a lot about this book and am curious about it. Mostly because of the age of the author as you pointed out. As for writing in dialect, I’ll have to give that some thought. I’m trying to come up with some examples of that that worked. It’ll take a bit of thinking though, so out to the bookshelves I go.


2. TravelingMermaid - October 17, 2011

I didn’t grow up with “help” in my house. My mom worked in a clock factory to help ends meet in our family and did all the housework, laundry, picking and putting up vegetables in the summer and about a million other duties. I remember being embarrassed that my mom worked when all my friends’ moms stayed at home. When I spent the night with my friends, their moms were always at home after school with milk and cookies. My mom was never at home after school. Of course, when I grew up and grew some sense I became proud of my mom and realized how hard she worked to give us a better life.

My aunt read the book and said she thought it was racist. I really have no interest in reading it.


3. Pam - October 18, 2011

Don’t bother reading it. I couldn’t even finish it. It was insipid, presumptuous, and racist.
Her name is Sylvia Lea. She lives in Baton Rouge. I send her a small check every Christmas. I have talked to her a few times and she always asks about you.


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