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The Help is the kind of ventriloquist act that in theory at least makes me deeply uncomfortable: A book about black domestic servants in Kennedy-era Mississippi written partly in dialect by one of the people who was born to boss them around.

I remember first reading Gone With the Wind when I was around ten or so and coming across this dialogue from Mammy: You’s gwine eat every mouthful of this, Miss Scarlett!

What is gwine? I remember thinking. Do people actually talk like that?

Abilene, one of the three point-of-view characters in The Help, is instantly recognizable as one of Mammy’s lineal descendents: I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

(How could Kathryn Stockett, the novel’s author, have possibly missed her opportunity to write dem babies, one wonders?)

Thing is The Help is a compelling read. I finished its entire 450 pages in approximately nine hours.

I’m concurrently reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a book that attempts to pull off the opposite sleight of hand since it's partly about white experience as imagined by a black writer. On Beauty is nowhere near as compelling as The Help; I’ve been struggling to read it for at least a week now. I’ll pick it up, read five pages, and put it down. When I pick it up, I forget where I put it down, and read the same five pages again. It has no hooks, you see.


When I finished The Help, I felt guilty, bloated but also deeply satiated – as though I’d gobbled an entire 12-ounce box of Godiva truffles or something. The story is very satisfying.

The story is also incredibly self-serving: Stockett projects herself into it as the virtuous white girl Skeeter who kickstarts the maids’ liberation from the drudgery of their lives. White folks to the rescue! There’s also a specious equivalency implied between Skeeter’s toil as a writer and Abilene and Minnie’s endless labors scrubbing toilets, polishing silver and ironing sheets. Uh – no, Miss Skeeter. Just no.

On some level, one suspects Stockett understood what she was doing and felt guilty about it because outside of Skeeter, every other white character in the novel is either a buffoon or a monster.

I couldn’t tell you whether The Help is a good book or a bad book. But it did make me speculate about racism and black versus white culture all yesterday afternoon – Define and Conquer, as I like to think of it.

For example: We have Adrian Peterson, a black football player, who apparently administers corporal punishment to his four-year-old son using a wooden spoon.

And we have the Ray Rice wife-beating incident.

Is there a connection?

In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I spanked my own children – maybe three times apiece in all – when they were growing up. I much prefer positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement in childrearing, so much so that my entire toilet training regimen consisted of bribing Max and Robin to perform the appropriate body function in the right receptacle. But there are times when nothing’s gonna do it but some well-aimed swats on the tuchus. And I’ll be goddamned if the fucking government is gonna tell me how to discipline my children.

Be that as it may…

Statistics say that African American parents are much more likely to use corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure than are white or Hispanic parents. Interestingly, Asian parents use corporal punishment least of all, but (in my experience at least) have the highest levels of compliance between parental expectations and offspring behaviors.

I’m thinking those statistics are bullshit, and that what you’re actually looking at are regional differences: In the South and parts of the country that are heavily influenced by the South (like, c’mon: Everyone knows that Colorado is really part of Texas, right?) corporal punishment is widely accepted. This may have something to do with the prevalence of fundamentalist religion in these parts: Spare the rod and spoil the child may not be a Bible verse, but it might as well be.

Does this type of corporal punishment work? I mean, obviously in the short term, it’s probably a pretty effective deterrent. One imagines that Adrian Peterson’s four-year-old son will not be feeding graham crackers to the DVD player (or whatever the hell it was he did to incur paternal wrath) again in a hurry.

One can also imagine that he may grow up to punch out his pregnant fiancée in an elevator. Because that type of violence just doesn’t carry the same type of taboo as it does for people for whom physical punishment wasn't a normal part of growing up.

I just don’t know.


In other news, life continues to be very pleasant indeed. Writing is going well, met up with Cassandra and Allan at the Apple Pie Café yesterday and it was lovely to see them, and BB gave me the keys to his Greenpoint apartment so I will be hanging out in Brooklyn for the next three days.


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Every Day Above Ground

September 2017

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