If you really want to understand something about African-American history this month, I would steer you away from The Help by Kathryn Stockett and towards the writings of post-Civil War American Southerners themselves. As fiction and as art, The Help focuses on Miss Skeeter, the white woman, and probably has few pretenses about historical veracity on the experience of the black maids. As Melissa Harris-Perry points out, the book and movie have an essential “ahistorical”quality that provides a fine description of Skeeter, but not much else. However, considering that both cover the very place and time (Jackson MS., 1963) of Medgar Evers’s murder, many treat the fiction historically.
Harris-Perry is the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane U., and you can begin your reading with Cooper’s own A Voice From the South (1892). Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) was an educator, writer and feminist with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges facing black women. She was an equal-opportunity demagogue, calling upon all Americans to understand, accept, and fight to change the system, rather than simply decrying the violence, hypocrisy and racism of the post war south. She received her M.A. from Oberlin in 1887and her mechanism for change was always education, for all women and men;people of color and white, with a special emphasis on Christian understanding and Scriptural study: “Light, more light!” she demanded, in the closing selection of A Voice, “The Gain from a Belief.”
About Medgar Evers, considerably less scholarly material is available, although we have his “autobiography” which is actually an assemblage of his letters and writings published in 2005 by his widow, Myrlie. Some of us have seen “Ghosts of Mississippi” in which Whoopi Goldberg portrays Myrlie and James Woods Evers’s murderer, Byron de la Beckwith (sounds like a name right out of Faulkner, that Oxford, MS native and U ofMississippi stalwart). Ole Miss denied Evers a place in its law school after his graduation from Alcorn College in1954, but now they host a website devoted to Evers. Also of interest : Remembering Medgar Evers—For a New Generation: A Commemoration, developed by the Civil Rights Research and Documentation Project, Afro-American Studies Program, U of Mississippi.