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The Help Ranks No 1, Grosses $96.8 Million, Unfazed By Hurricane Irene

August 23, 2011 Leave a comment

The Help grossed over $71.3 million as of August 22nd just 12 days after its August 10th release, surpassing the film’s $25 million budget.  Unfazed even by Hurricane Irene The Help has swelled to $96.8 million at the box office. At an average U.S. ticket price of $7.89, that’s roughly 12 million people who flocked to see the film adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s, The Help is about the relationship between white women and their black maids.

I saw the movie with my mother who grew up in Alabama during Jim Crow and whose mother was a maid (her father was a preacher). Whatever imperfections The Help may have, we enjoyed the film. It allowed us to open up a dialogue on what it was like for my grandmother, affectionately called Mama Marie. She was a strong willed but kind and gentle woman.

My grandmother cleaned homes and medical clinics; she never took care of anyone else’s children. When my grandparents’ home burned down, Mama Marie’s white employer had it rebuilt, my mother recalls. She also remembers not being allowed to enter through the front door of any white person’s home and not being allowed to sit together at the dinner table. My mother was considered rebellious because she answered back to white people “yes” and “no” instead of “Yes Mam” and “No Sir.”

Kathryn Stockett

Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi where she has said “almost every family I knew had a black woman working in their house—cooking cleaning, and taking care of the children. I was young and assumed that’s how most of America lived.” In the book’s afterword, Stockett quotes journalist Howell Raines: “There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation.” To read what the author has to say visit KathrynStockett.com.

The Help attempts to portray how African American maids were treated, how it felt to raise white children, and how these children loved their maids yet grew up to be racists like their parents. The stories revolve around three main characters: maids Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalen, a recent college graduate.

The Help has stirred its share of controversy and criticism—by those who have and haven’t seen the movie or read the book. It is attacked for depicting black females in stereotypical demeaning roles, presenting a whitewashed version of civil rights, romanticizing a racially segregated South, and so on.

Medgar Evers

The Help isn’t meant to be a civil rights movie. It doesn’t show Mississippi is the birthplace of the White Citizens Council (segregationist). But it does explore troubling race relations and how the courage to speak out can change lives. There are historical scenes with respect to Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers,  the NAACP field secretary who was shot in his driveway in 1963 hours after President John F. Kennedy gave a speech supporting integration. There’s a flash of photos of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. One scene references a KKK killing, another the Daughters of the American Revolution (Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership when the group refused to allow African American opera singer Marian Anderson to sing before a racially integrated audience at Constitution Hall). The Help depicts legalized racism prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

James Meredith

Even though The Help’s Skeeter attended The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), there is no mention of James H. Meredith, the first African American student to enter Ole Miss in 1962 after having been barred and winning a legal battle (aided by Medgar Evers and the NAACP). Federal troops had to be brought in to enforce the court order. Meredith is quoted stating “nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights.” He merely exercised his democratic right by applying to Ole Miss. With that in mind, I won’t lambaste the characters in The Help for not being civil rights activists.

The Help gives a glimpse of blacks and higher learning. One of the college educated maids is short the $75 needed to send both of her sons to Tougaloo College. Thanks to her vengeful white employer, instead of six months for a pretty crime (stealing a ring) she serves four years in a penitentiary. This is the catalyst for the other maids to agree to tell their stories.

Tougaloo COllegeThis leads to another conversation with my mother. Not about how the character ends up representing the criminalization of African Americans, but about Tougaloo College. It was one of 123 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 1960. Although it has fallen on financial hard times lately, Tougaloo ranked as one of the “Best Colleges in the Southeast” by Princeton Review and one of the “Best Black Colleges” by U.S. News and World Report in 2008.  My parents met (and later married) while attending Alabama A&M College, another prominent HBCU.

“Your uncle graduated from Tougaloo,” my mother tells me referring to her brother-in-law. Indeed, Dr. Eddie L. Clark Jr., who was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1918, received his Bachelor of Science degree from Tougaloo College in 1940. He earned a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1944. My uncle paid for his college and medical school education while working in Chicago as a busboy on a cruse ship during the summers. After his residency in general surgery, he established a 12-bed hospital during his eight-year practice in Meridian, Mississippi, providing treatment for African Americans who were denied hospital admission. He  ran a private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania until his death in 1999.

There are no positive black men like my uncle in The Help. Also, certain aspects in the book don’t make it into the movie. The daughter of Cicely Tyson’s character has her same brown complexion in the movie, while in the book she is described as someone who looks white and tries to pass. It’s probably a good thing the film left out the “tragic mulatto” storyline. At the end of the movie Aibileen is fired and walks off saying maybe she will become a writer. In the book, she is hired as the newspaper’s anonymous cleaning advice columnist, the position that Skeeter relinquishes for her publishing gig in New York City. Plausible or not, that might have been a nice ending for the movie.

The Help’s critics are upset with Hollywood.  The real offense is an unspoken truth. Across the nation domestic workers are still struggling a half-century later. They face exploitative conditions, unpaid wages, a lack of overtime and paid vacation, even physical and emotional abuse. Check out Times Haven’t Changed for ‘The Help’ of Today at Women’s eNews, which discusses the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, meant to provide legal protections for nannies, housekeepers, elder companions, and cooks in private homes.

Apparently when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935—the law provides basic labor protections—domestic workers, overwhelmingly African American women, were left out. Southern senators refused to pass it if they were included. Domestic workers are still predominantly women of color, often immigrants.

Hopefully massive patrons of The Help will champion the rights of today’s help. Visit Domestic Workers United for more info. As for Hollywood, mom and I can’t wait to see a movie called Red Tails slated for release January 20, 2012. It is about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American flying brigade that fought in World War II. The film is produced by George Lucas (Star Wars legacy). It is directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by John Ridley, both are African American. Box office receipts will tell how well general moviegoers and black audiences support a film about some of the fiercest black men in history. —Carolyn M. Brown

Categories: Race

Coming Out: Black and Gay in Corporate America

Black and Gay in Corporate America is the cover story of the July 2011 issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine which hit newsstands this week. Written by yours truly, the article addresses challenges LGTB professionals face in coming out in the workplace. Click here to view the article at BlackEnterprise.com.

As someone who began her career at BE in 1990 as an associate editor and currently as an Editor-At-Large, this was a momentous step for the business magazine. Colleague Sonia Alleyne said it best when she wrote: We’re not going to pretend this was an easy topic for Black Enterprise to consider. Let’s face it—the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community is one of which our society whispers, mocks, ignores, and, in extreme cases, vehemently rejects. For Black members of this community, the emotional backlash can be even more intense. Due to the topic’s controversial nature, we had some difficulty finding subjects. Even some of those who agreed to participate in our cover story, “Black and Gay in Corporate America,” felt some trepidation about how revealing their sexual orientation would affect relationships with family, friends, and associates outside the workplace.

The article supplements BE’s annual “Best Companies For Diversity,” which highlights the top 40 companies that are inclusive and supportive of  minorities. This year,  emphasis was placed on where companies rate on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Best Places to Work” with regard to the LGBT community.

The Engagement

This article hits close to home for me as someone who is passionate about addressing issues facing the LGBT community. I  co-wrote three plays (Accessories, The Engagement, and Flowers) that all featured leading gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. My next play (In Search of the Most Beautiful Woman) will have a lead transgender heroine.

Growing up, I knew long before there was a US military policy that there was an unspoken Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell code in the black community and the Catholic community. I grew up in a conservative Black Baptist Church and attended Catholic Schools. I knew instinctively there were LGBT teachers, sports coaches, choir masters, camp counselors, neighbors and relatives. But no one openly discussed his or her relationship with that “special friend.”

I remember as early as age six watching girls bullied for being tomboys and boys beaten up after school for being perceived as acting too effeminate. By the time I graduated high school, I knew people whose parents threatened to stab them to death or threw them out of the house because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While I was attending college I knew at least one person who attempted suicide due to harassment~he was black and gay.

Love Bucket Photography

Coming out to family, friends, colleagues and your community is not just a matter of facing ridicule or judgment. It is facing the fear of possibly losing your job, losing your friends, and even losing your life at the hands of a homophobe. Throughout the month of July, BE is examining the lives, struggles and triumphs of Black LGBTs.

Take Tiq Milan, who speaks out about his journey in transitioning from female to male and how this has impacted his career. He also discusses the difference between being gay and being transgender and the struggles for acceptance among those in the LGBT community.  Some may recognize Milan from MTV’s 2007 reality series, I’m From Rolling Stone, where several aspiring writers competed for a chance to win a full-time position with the entertainment magazine. Back then, he went by his birth name, Tika, and responded to “she.” Today, he is the education specialist/HIV prevention counselor and editor-in-chief of IKONS Magazine, a LGBT lifestyle publication. The video Tiq Milan on Being Transgender can be found at BlackEnterprise.com.

There’s an interview with CNN reporter and news anchor Don Lemon. He speaks openly about coming out in his new book, Transparent, his fears about going on record about his sexuality because of potential backlash from the Black community, and why, whether teenager or team member at the office, bullying can not be tolerated. Lemon dedicated his book in memory of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi who committed suicide. Watch Don Lemon on coming out and being transparent in the black community. An excerpt from the book Transparent is in the July 2011 issue of Black Enterprise.

BlackEnterprise.com also tackles the debate over whether “gay rights is a civil rights” issue. This is something that I have wrestled with for years. But not from the view point of one versus the other. To me, arguing about gay rights vs. civil rights is like disputing which was worst in world history Slavery or the Holocaust. Yes, there are different sets of historical and social issues as it relates to race and sexual orientation. But the definition of civil rights is “promoting equality in social, economic, and political rights for citizens.”

Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin

The “Black” civil rights movement was not merely about marches and speeches it was a fight for equality that centered on legislative and policy changes based on issues rooted in bias and discriminatory behavior. It was a battle in the courts as evident by the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education. So too, the fight by gay activists is one that currently centers on seeking legislative and policy changes based on issues deeply rooted in bias (mostly for religious reasons) and discriminatory practices. If gay activists can learn and benefit from the black civil rights movement great, just as black civil rights activists learned from the non-violent tactics of Mohandas Gandhi in India’s successful fight for freedom from British control.

While white LGBT persons can harbor racial prejudices, the focus is not whether race trumps sexual orientation or gender identity. Arguments such as you can’t hide being black and you can’t change your race elude me. So, if someone who is black can pass for white then he or she should choose to do so? It is a ludicrous notion that the ability to pass for straight should diminish the struggles of LGBT people in securing full and equal rights under the law. Hatemongering of any kind should not be tolerated. Allowing the use of morality and sexual orientation or gender identity to deny someone his or her inedible rights, including same-sex marriage, violates the basic laws of humanity and goes against the principles of the Constitution.

In the upcoming film The New Black, filmmaker Yoruba Richen explores the histories of the African American and LGBT civil rights movements. “The film looks specifically at homophobia in the black church and how the Christian right has exploited this phenomenon that exists in order to promote an anti-gay political agenda,” Richen tells BE. Her project is demonstrative of how the parallels and distinctions between the African American and gay rights movements are complex and multi-layered.

Two notable galleries worth viewing at BlackEnterprise.com are 10 Black LGBT Trailblazers – Still Black & Proud, which includes the likes of educator and activists Angela Davis and activist and novelist James Baldwin. The other, Black LGBT Entertainers: Out & Proud, features celebs like comedian Wanda Sykes.

My hope is that Black Enterprise’s coverage will be a wake up call. That it will open up honest and less hurtful conversation about the African American LGBT community. In 2011 we need to do more than hope for healing; the LGBT community has been seeking that since Stonewall.

National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director Sharon J. Lettman issued a call to action acknowledging a widespread organized movement around LGBT equality. She concedes we have a long way to go within Black communities to achieve recognition and full inclusion; but it cannot be done without strategic alliances and an intentional plan on how to break down barriers and walls of silence and invisibility of the Black LGBT existence. As she justly states: This means the civil rights community, Black churches, Historically Black Colleges & Universities, Black fraternities and sororities, and yes, the Black traditional media, to name a few.       ~Carolyn M. Brown

Categories: Race

Angry Black Women: Myth or Reality? It’s Reality

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Two commercials featuring African American couples have caused a stir because apparently they enforce a stereotype by portraying black women as angry. The commercial receiving the most flack appeared during Super Bowl XLV. It is a Pepsi Max ad called, “Love Hurts,” which was created by 28-year-old filmmaker Brad Bosely, who was one of six fans to win the “Crash the Super Bowl” ad contest. According to Bosely, who grew up in Leawood, Kansas, when he conceived and pitched the concept for the ad he did not have any black actors in mind.

In “Love Hurts,” an unsympathetic wife is diligently trying to keep her slender husband healthy by preventing him from indulging in bad eating habits, which includes slapping a bar of soap in his mouth as he hides in the tub trying to eat a burger. At the end of the commercial they are sitting on a park bench enjoying a can of Pepsi Max when the husband is caught smiling goofily at a white female jogger. The wife becomes furious and hurls her Pepsi Max can at his head, but misses and instead knocks the white woman out cold. The two flee from the scene hand in hand.

In the State Farm commercial, “Magic Jingle Anniversary,” a black woman berates a black man for stupidly backing his car into another car. When her boyfriend summons his claims adjuster to help the situation, she requests a new boyfriend. He turns into a chocolate beefcake. The boyfriend then asks for a new girlfriend and she turns into a sexy OMG video chick. The girlfriend’s reaction is “oh, that’s what you like.”

Some bloggers and even Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee were upset with The Pepsi Max commercial, criticizing it for showing a darker skinned African American woman who is bigger than a size six and wearing a bad weave (or a wig). The State Farm commercial was criticized for showing lighter skinned African American women who are smaller than a size six with nice weaves and bad attitudes. Oh, and of course the Pepsi commercial committed the cardinal sin of having a white woman being perceived as attractive by a black man.

The reason I find the “Love Hurts” commercial disturbing is because it mocks and marginalizes domestic violence. Even the title of the ad, “Love Hurts” is fitting as it plays out a reversal of the way men who control women act. What critics see as black emasculation is physical and emotional abuse. There is an unspoken truth in this country that men get abused by women. Men represent more than 38 percent (or roughly 835,000 a year) of injured victims in a relationship at the hands of their intimate partner. Women abusing men is nothing to snicker about.

Were the roles reversed and it were a man kicking his wife and shoving her face down on the table, black or white, people would have been upset. The wife throws at Pepsi Max can at his head and instead hits the white woman he is eying. The other woman could have been Jamaican, Chinese, Puerto Rican or Indian. Who cares? The wife tried to physically harm her husband. This is uncalled for behavior that the majority of the commercial’s critics have shrugged off. The real issue at heart is that this commercial is more than just some angry black woman stereotype.

Yes, people are in an uproar about actresses and fictionalized black female characters in the Pepsi and State Farm commercials. Yet, so-called reality television is filled with angry African American women who constantly yell at each other and try to yank out fellow cast members’ weaves as with shows like Basketball Wives and The Real Housewives of Atlanta. RHOA is one of Bravo’s highest rated series in its RH franchise. Even people who aren’t fans of RHOA know about the notorious “Diva” of realty TV, NeNe Leakes. She has become the poster child for loud, angry plus-size, dark skinned, neck rolling, eye popping, tongue lashing, and big lip smacking black women. She is always on the attack, sticking her finger in the faces of her husband (soon to be ex), her son, her former gay best friend, and especially RHOA cast member, her arch-rival, and onetime BFF Kim Zolciak, a blond white woman with big hair and big boobs.

For some reason, reverends and congresswomen aren’t bothered by the “ghetto hot madness” behavior of Leakes. On the contrary, I have heard people defend her behavior and RHOA by stating that all The Real Housewives…are back-stabbing, money-grubbing, self-indulging, and bullying. Still, most of the other non African-American housewives from the franchise’s other series have “A-List” associates, businesses, and assets beyond that of their mates.  Black women apparently don’t have a problem with the perpetuated stereotypes on RHOA of unwed or divorced baby mamas boohooing over their baby daddies not being around.

It appears Leakes is taking her antics with her to Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, which airs March 6. According to show previews she will rant and rave at Star Jones, another African American woman. Jones, a lawyer and former New York prosecutor, is best remembered as a co-host on ABC’s The View. Appearing On Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Trump admitted that Leakes had huge “problems” and “fistfights” with Jones. Even Trump said he was surprised the behavior went beyond the usual reality show feuds and that he’s never seen anything like it on television. According to Trump, “NeNe and Star make Omorosa look nice.”

On The Wendy Williams Show, Leakes called Jones “special” and slammed her by saying she “wouldn’t spit on Star if she was on fire.” After keeping silent, Jones told Life & Style magazine that she “did Celebrity Apprentice to raise money and awareness for a charity (the American Heart Association) that has been instrumental in my life, not to see it reduced to a cliché where black women attack one another for publicity’s sake.”

Good for Jones. But you can bet that black folk, especially women, who have never watched The Apprentice or Celebrity Apprentice before will now tune in to cackle at Leakes and Jones catfight. Celebrity Apprentice is likely to enjoy its highest ratings ever (making Trump very happy). Black women can appear as loud, bitchy, and nasty as they want to be on scripted reality TV just not in TV commercials it seems.

The biggest problem I have with Leakes is the same issue I have with the Pepsi “Love Hurts” ad. She isn’t just a stereotype or a parody of an angry black woman. The Pepsi wife is physically abusive towards her husband and Atlanta’s real housewife is verbally abusive towards anyone she dislikes. Leakes considers herself, as do others, to be a strong black woman who speaks her mind and is not to be toyed with.

She was admittedly in an abusive relationship in the past. In season one of RHOA, she held a fundraiser event for Twister Hearts, a charity that purportedly brings awareness to the plight of domestic violence victims of all races  But Leakes constant verbal abuse illustrates that she has gone from being victim to victimizer; from prey to predator. She justifies her behavior, including appearing as if she is going to physically assault another cast member—Kim Zolciak of course—because other people provoke her. “She pushed my buttons.” Isn’t that the classic line and psychology batterers use for striking their spouses?            ~Carolyn M. Brown

Categories: Race

Dr. Laura Schlessinger: Free Speech or Common Sense?

August 25, 2010 2 comments

There has been heated debate over race and free speech following comments by Dr. Laura Schlessinger in which she used the N-word—all the way out—11 times on her popular talk show. In response to public backlash, Dr. Laura announced on CNN’s Larry King that she is stepping down from her show to regain her First Amendment right. Her reason being:  “I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry or some special-interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent.”

For starters, this has nothing to do with the suppression of Dr. Laura’s free speech. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Dr. Laura can use the N-word as often as she likes without fear the Obama Administration or any government agency will take action against her. She won’t be prosecuted and sentenced to prison by a court of law for saying the N-word. Persecution by a court of public opinion is another matter.  It’s also free speech for audiences to protest Dr. Laura’s remarks or for advertisers to boycott her radio show. Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, said it best when he wrote: “Speech is free; airtime is not.”

Also, wasn’t there a litmus test growing up as kids; an old adage about shouting fire? Someone falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and causing a stampede won’t be viewed as free speech by the property owner compared to someone yelling the “roof, the roof, the roof  is on fire” at a night club as everyone waves their hands in the air like they just don’t care. My point: isn’t there some kind of common sense about context, what and when we can say something. Why is there so much confusion about the use of the N-word?

After listening to the controversial radio show that aired on August 10th, I was not so much upset by Dr. Laura’s repeated use of the N-word. I was more offended by the fact that her advice was neither helpful nor useful. It was hurtful to the caller, escalating to a personal attack regarding African-Americans, the NAACP, and US race relations.

Dr. Laura received a call from a black woman asking how to handle hurtful racist comments from her white husband’s friends and family. She was starting to resent him for not saying anything. When the caller sites an example, Dr. Laura suggests that the remarks are not racist. For example, Dr. Laura recounts a group of her friends going to play basketball and how she told her black bodyguard and dear friend: “’White men can’t jump; I want you on my team.’ That was racist? That was funny,” she quips.

Then when the caller asks about use of the N-word (not spoken all the way out),  Dr. Laura talks about how black guys use it all the time; “turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is n***er, n***er, n***er.” The caller makes it known she is offended by the use of the N-word, but Dr. Laura rants on about how come black comedians get to say n***er.  So, she’s confused.

Prince recorded a song “sexy motherfucker.” Toss the M-word around the office at co-workers, be they white or black, without getting fired… But I digress as did Dr. Laura’s conversation. She never gets back to the woman as to what her husband’s relatives might have said. Instead, she spouts on about how the caller is hypersensitive and doesn’t have a sense of humor. She suggests people shouldn’t marry outside of their race or religion if they can’t handle what people have to say. She then continues her philosophical point (as she later refers to it) about how black activists are breeding hypersensitivity and how she thought with a black president in office the attempt to demonize whites hating blacks would stop but it has grown. Her words: “We’ve got a black man as president, and we have more complaining about racism than ever. I mean, I think that’s hilarious.” At one point, she tells the caller not to “NAACP her.” I guess that’s slang for when blacks wrongly try to make whites appear as a racist. Like if someone were to say “don’t you dare NAACP Mel Gibson.”

The caller who is rightly upset is dismissed by Dr. Laura. Next caller please…Audience listeners react. Activists rage. Advertisers retreat. Dr. Laura renders an apology as she jumps on her free speech high horse. Gal pal Sarah Palin comes to her defense tweeting about 1st Amendment rights ceasing to exist, activists trying to silence someone is un-American, and how more powerful Dr. Laura will be “without the shackles.”

Beyond the imagery of Dr. Laura in shackles, my first reaction was how Palin would feel, as the mother of son with Down Syndrome, about someone using the word “retard.”  But it seems earlier this year when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh used “retards” several times on his show, Palin took it as satire; after all he was referring to the White House and President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who called liberals “retarded”, to which Palin took great offense and wanted Emanuel fired. I guess free speech does boil down to whose using it and whose side you are on.

Dr. Laura is quite capable of rendering advice and not attacks. During the same day’s radio show, she responds to a caller who hates his alcoholic father and hasn’t spoken to him in years. But upon learning  his father is dying he wants to know what to do since other relatives weren’t harboring the same resentment.  Dr. Laura advises him to move past the hate; to show respect and compassion.  But the caller doesn’t want to seem like he isn’t being true to himself.

Dr. Laura’s words: “To act accordingly and appropriately when one doesn’t feel it, takes a lot of character. You show people respect. There is appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior and it has nothing to do with lying, it has to do with being appropriate to the mood, the moment and other people’s sensitivities”

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? Not sure why when it comes to matters about race relations Dr. Laura doesn’t espouse that same kind of sensitive advice. Now I’m confused.

–Carolyn M. Brown

Categories: Race
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