The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Book Group

Before leaving my place of work last Friday, I wanted to share a piece on what happened when we had a book group on The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The demographic of the group was mainly British-Bangladeshi students in Year 10 and 12, with maybe one or two white students, and four white members of staff. I feel this added an important dynamic to the group, with a book centred around race. There was no passionate argument asserted with regard to the book, perhaps because, although about race, the students were able to distance themselves from the plight of the African-American characters rather than see white supremacy as an obvious oppressor.

It is also true that the white members of staff, despite wanting to encourage an open discussion on race relations, would have had an influence on the discussion merely by being present as figures of authority. Within that position, I created a Power Point that brought up questions to challenge their initial gushing positive comments. Nobody doubted that Stockett is a talented writer – I read it over the Christmas holiday period (2015), and also agreed that I felt engaged throughout it. Hence it was a best seller at the time of publication, and was made into a film, which I had seen prior to reading the book.  However, when it comes to authenticity, did Stockett have the right to publish such a work of fiction?

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Through the discussion, students reacted at first that the characters were realistic, but were able to consider this thought when asked to think further on which characters were fully developed, who was driving the narrative etc. We didn’t touch on the fact that Stockett had also been in the middle of a lawsuit on just how real her characters were. A tale of a coming together of black maids and one white outcasted woman, I would say that the target audience is white women. That is to whom the feel-good factor appeals. As we went on, we gradually began to touch on deeper issues in terms of Stockett’s benefiting financially from writing of the oppression of a group that is not her own.

The students gave a balanced view and were comfortable with the greyness of enjoying a book, yet being able to critique it.  We connected it with another successful book depicting a similar “white saviour” narrative, written in the 1960s – that is, of course, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. So, overall, yes, we can enjoy reading such books, but we must remain critical of them too. I haven’t read the sequel Lee wrote, though am interested in the perspective that Atticus turned into a racist. Because over 50 years on, surely we should know more about those such as Anne Moody and her autobiography written before and during the Civil Rights Movement, and stories should move beyond the depiction of black people as subservient to white people, and authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie should be the kinds of writers we read when book groups meet to discuss works of fiction (whose Americanah I suggested before my departure).

Feminism in London: Suppressed Histories

I wanted to start blogging, like, actually properly. I often plan so that I blog for a specific reason and by the time I get round to it, I end up writing so much that I would be surprised if anyone bothered to read it! Blogging is meant to be short and frequent, right? Maybe it’s some subconscious fear about putting y writing out there, that part of me is scared that people will read it and so write so much to put them off!

Feminism in London was nearly two months ago. I could only attend on the Sunday, so the first talk I went to was by Max Dashu, who spoke about women’s suppressed histories. It was so eye-opening that I immediately noted down the website. I have also just signed up subscribed to the YouTube account. I’d highly recommend watching this extract from the Women’s Power DVD.

It is important when talking of empowerment from a position of historic oppression, that we don’t paint ourselves solely in a position of inferiority and victimhood. This connects very much to how power is perceived: in terms of ‘domination, force and supremacy… these systems are more than patriarchal; they are colonial and imperial’ Women’s oppression is one story, but, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in the video below, it is vital that we hear all stories. Here we can consider a global perspective: one that doesn’t necessarily align with the story we get told.

The video states that ‘in classic Eurocentric history, women end up as footnotes to the main story’ and this is a view so widely accepted that when watching The Apprentice on catch-up, one team decided to cut off the woman’s long hair in a silhouette in order to make the image look like a man, which they described as “gender neutral”. No, my friend, man is not neutral, but is often deemed so because of the patriarchy’s position of this as the default. Whilst Feminism becomes more and more about challenging gender as a social construct, it is still important to raise the voices of those who have been silent too long.

Covent Garden Comedy Club – Saturday 28th June

I got an offer in Time Out for half price tickets to the Covent Garden Comedy Club. The tickets said that the nearest station was Covent Garden; I clearly should have done some research, because it was actually Charing Cross, so we ended up a few minutes late. At the stage, although the host wasn’t Sally-Anne Hayward as advertised, he seemed okay. However, as the night went on his humour jarred with me, until the cresendo of his domestic violence joke. It wasn’t so much the fact that his wife is a black belt in karete and that he chose to use this anecdote (if it was even true), but the way he said it was simply not funny. ‘She was asking for it,’ is not funny when it is a reality that victims stuck in abusive relationships get that message in a serious context, where men are, in most cases, the perpetrator. 

On reflection, the first act of the night, Geoff Norcott, was my favourite from the night. When his name was announced, I got out my notepad and made a note of his name. I hadn’t intended to write a blog post about this night, but after such a contrast of humour and… rubbish jokes… I felt compelled to do so. Maybe due to the fact I’m currently reading Americanah. Norcott managed to discuss matters of racism and sexism with intelligence, and his commentary on human relationships managed to stay human. The part dealing with relationships between men and women was relatable, without being offensive; I started off thinking he was wrong about generalising the way women apologise, but it then got me to reflect and I found myself laughing along. Not only that, but it was funny. I thoroughly enjoyed his segment of the evening and it set a positive vibe, which sadly wasn’t kept up by the rest of the lineup.

After a break, there was a section of two comedians. One of the names wasn’t on the lineup, but he had a posh accent and reminded me of a mix between David Mitchell and Matt Berry. His act was hit-and-miss, but the most memorable part (which I really appreciated as an Academic Mentor) was the reference to a semi-colon. I think much of the reason I didn’t like his act was due to its defence of smoking, and the fact I am becoming less and less tolerant of smokers. That said, there were some funny lines. Nick Dixon was also in this third of the show and he was doing so well, but what ruined it for me was the last reference to women, simply ending ‘it’s hard to find an interesting woman…’ Maybe, just maybe, he could have redeemed himself if he had just made another wanking joke. Or something along the lines of ‘another night alone again.’ Alas, he left the ellipsis there and I just found it another cheap shot coming from yet another all-male lineup.

Lastly, I was so angry and upset by Quincy’s act that I didn’t clap him. Mainly, I thought it was a massive shame and disappointment that he came out with the jokes he did. Part of my anger isn’t even so much directed as Quincy himself, but rather at the world, at the white-supremacist society that dictates mainstream humour. In as much as we had to deal with jokes about domestic violence, we also witnessed Quincy do a disservice to himself as a “person of colour”. Whilst there were one or two anecdotes that were genuine and dealt with race in an enlightening way, the majority was full of the stuff that does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes of black people. With a majority of the audience being white, it seemed that he was catering for this audience, offering them a dumbed down comedy, serving up jokes to do with jerk chicken, Reggae Reggae sauce,  and other stereotypical aspects of black culture that he somehow felt they would find funny. And the sad thing was, they did.

Then it got worse as he ended up being the act that delivered a sexism that said that he actually believed what he was saying. He spoke about the incident with Jay Z and Solange, and said that Beyonce should have put her husband before her sister and acted. Oh, and the fact that he practically applauded Jay Z for not fighting back. Oh well done, congratulations. Because, let’s be serious, whilst I don’t condone her actions, if Jay Z and Solange were both physical in that situation, who would come off worse? What Solange did was wrong, but I will not applaud a man for not attacking a woman. What I hope is that Quincy will improve and let go of this need to people-please (white people) with clichéd jokes based on stereotypes, and not bring in sexist opinions that simply aren’t funny. I believe with more originality, and less tired offensive language, he would stand a far better chance of being a successful comic. With his microphone-stand fiddling and looking over the crowd, rather than at them, I can only assume he’s still got a few things to learn. I don’t blame him as much as I blame society, but I really wish he wouldn’t perpetuate this view of his people, and drive a wedge between POC (a term I’m not entirely okay with using myself) and women as a whole. Instead, take a leaf out of someone like Jamali Maddix’s book on intelligent and witty commentary on race.

It’s so hard to find good comedy nights. All in all, I enjoyed most of what the Covent Garden Comedy Club had to offer, but I feel I have to point out where it fell short. I would go back again, but it would have been nice to have a bit more diversity and a bit less offensiveness. As it was Pride, it would have been good to have someone from the LGBTQ community represented, not to mention more women. Any recommendations for comedy nights that may appeal to my tastes more?