Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help is a work of fiction based on the experiences of black maids in Mississippi in 1960s America. What makes this novel striking are the lives of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, so starkly juxtaposed against the life of Skeeter, the young white woman hoping to give them a voice in the form of a book. Skeeter comes from a privileged background—her family employed a black maid named Constantine for her whole childhood—and it is Constantine’s disappearance that inspires Skeeter to investigate how black maids are treated. She witnesses her friends’ intolerable treatment of their maids and strives to find a way to expose it. But in 1960s Mississippi, revealing these prejudices is not just dangerous for her, but the women she’s writing about. The following novels help develop an understanding of the tyranny and oppression of black men and women, in the past and present.
1. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Although The Underground Railroad is fictional, it depicts the hardships of black slaves in the 1800s with clarity and brutal honesty. Cora was born a slave—she has never known anything different. She works on a plantation in Georgia, and when her friend Caesar suggests escape, she jumps at the chance. Through the underground railroad, a series of secret tunnels created to help free black slaves, Cora runs for her life with a slave catcher intent on her capture never too far away. Whitehead exposes the cruelty of the south in this novel, and compared to The Help, which is set over 100 years later, it is even more poignant. The maids in The Help aren’t slaves, but they are treated with contempt and left with little other option than to become maids to rich white families with minimal pay.
2. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys is set in 1960s America just as The Help. Elwood is a black boy dreaming of a college education, just trying to keep his head down until that time comes. When he is sentenced to a reform school called Nickel Academy, his life opportunities compared to that of a white boy become clearer, as the two races are treated incredibly differently. Elwood strikes a friendship with Turner, his confidant for when things at Nickel get too difficult for him to bear. There are scenes in this novel that are gut wrenching to read—the sheer violence alone is enough to turn your stomach. There are passages that lack action, and at times this slows the novel down to a point that I personally began to lose interest, but then you’re hit with a chapter that depicts a disturbing capability for cruelty in gruesome detail that yanks you back in to the plot. Like The Help, this novel exposes American segregation in the 1960s in a way many are not aware of, making it an incredibly important read.
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Janie dreams of marrying for love, but when she turns 16 she is forced to marry a much older man. Although living in the 1930s, a time that was not kind to American black women, Janie is strong-willed and determined to find a life she enjoys, which forces her to flee her first marriage and run off with another man. But men consistently let Janie down, and she must hold onto a sense of self even as the men in her life try to dismantle her intellect. Janie reminds me of Minny from The Help; Minny is in an abusive marriage with little choice but to stay with her husband for the sake of her children, and though she is fiery and sharp-tongued like Janie, she cannot abandon her family home. The two women suffer hardship, but both are able to hold onto their dignity, and are unwilling to allow anyone to take it from them even when their very lives are on the line.
4. The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
Lily is only 14 years old, plagued by the memory of her dead mother and the night she died. Tired of living with her abusive father, she flees with her minder, a black woman named Rosaleen, to South Carolina where they are taken in by three black sisters who care for bees. It is with these women that Lily begins to heal through learning about the Black Madonna and the nature of honeybees. Lily is reminiscent of a young Skeeter; she loves the beekeepers and, despite the time period and the forced segregation of 1964 America, she finds her comfort with them, unable to understand why something like skin color makes them so different. She develops a familial bond with them just as Skeeter did with her maid Constantine.
5. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic highlighting prejudice during the Great Depression era. Scout and her brother Jem grow up in Alabama with their father, lawyer Atticus Finch. Their southern town is deeply racist, and when a black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, nobody but Atticus considers for a moment that he could be innocent. He decides to represent Tom, much to the disgust of his peers, and through their dad, Scout and Jem learn the importance of ethics and just how unfair the world they live in is. The Finch family is outcasted for their tolerance of black people, just as Skeeter is ostracized when her sympathies towards the maids are made known when she stands up to her own friends.
6. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel, like The Help, portrays the differences between black and white life in America. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love and together decide to flee military rule in Nigeria in the hopes of finding somewhere better to live. Ifemelu ends up in America, while Obinze goes to the UK, unable to enter the states after 9/11. The pair are separated and forced to live in these new worlds alone, and both find their new realities difficult to grasp. While Obinze lives undocumented in London, Ifemelu is forced to come to terms with the idea that being black segregates her in America, something she had never felt in Nigeria. Although set decades after The Help, Americanah displays American prejudice in the early 2000s and exposes how much work still needs to be done to achieve equality for all races.
7. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
This modern day novel exemplifies the prejudices that exist in America. Celestial and Roy are newly-weds and deeply in love. Nothing can possibly impede their newfound happiness until Roy is accused of raping a woman and sentenced to prison. With Roy serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, he and Celestial grow apart, suffering from the effects of a flawed legal system. Just as The Help depicts the deeply prejudiced state of America in the 1960s, An American Marriage proves that when it comes to the legal system, there are stark inequalities between the treatment of white people and black people.
8. Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
Ruth is an experienced and passionate labour and delivery nurse. While caring for a newborn, she’s told she has been reassigned as the parents of the child are white supremacists and don’t want a black nurse caring for their son. However, tragedy strikes when the child goes into cardiac arrest, and Ruth is the only one around who can help him, leading to a series of events that question ethics and morality to their very core. This is an ambitious novel, named after a Martin Luther King Junior quote where he stated, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” It is reminiscent of The Help as Ruth cares for babies, just as Aibileen does, and yet Small Great Things is set in 2010s America, 60 years after The Help. At times I think this novel failed to do what it was supposed to do, which was to depict the hardships of black women in the medical profession. It didn’t quite sing true, and many critique that it is cliché and clear that these prejudices are not something Picoult can truly understand as a white author.