Is this another Mammy 2.0 film?
I read the book on a lark about four or five years ago, as an escape from the hell that was my daily life at the time. I thought, "wouldn't that be nice, to have a place to runaway to, where strong maternal black women take care of you and let you eat lots of honey."
How very white of me to think so. Mine may have been the intended reaction to the story. I imagine book clubs across the country sitting down and saying the same thing.
Last week, the trailer for the the film came on t.v., and Anxious Black Woman's analysis of Jennifer Hudson's character in the Sex and the City movie came immediately to mind. (Hudson, by the way, is also in Secret Life of Bees.)
In the book, a little girl runs away, with a young black woman in tow, to her mother's childhood home. She throws herself on the doorstep of a trio of black sisters, who take her in. The little girl faces difficult truths, grows, becomes a better person, and blahblahblah onward to healing and redemption. All with the help of these sisters.
The novel takes place in the 1960s, with Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement on the periphery of the story. They add a touch of social consciousness to a plot that otherwise treats the black women as vehicles for the white girl's self-actualization. They, like the Mammies of the past, exist in the story to raise the girl and (if I remember correctly) her mother before her.
Today in class, we discussed various stereotypes of African Americans. When we got to "Mammy," (via Aunt Jemima, via "why are black people always associated with pancakes and waffles?", via Little Black Sambo, via a discussion of African naming practices that survived the Middle Passage -- we sometimes have stream of consciousness class meetings) I introduced them to the Mammy 2.0 idea. They all laughed at the name, but the women became dubious and silent at the explanation. That should have been a clue that we were entering uneasy territory.
I blithely blundered on and mentioned this movie, suggesting that it might contain instances of Mammy 2.0. All of the women in the class swooned. "Ahhh, Secret Life of Bees!" they exclaimed. "Queen Latifah!" "Alicia Keys!" "I can't wait to see that!" (The guys, incidentally, rolled their eyes as if to say "chick flick.")
This was not the reaction that I expected; but, then, I was also placing my interpretation and experience onto them. I was critiquing the types of characters with which they had formed some sort of identification. Given the paucity of meaty, solid roles for black actresses, and given the rigid and racist beauty standards of Hollywood, these young women wait a long time to see an interesting story starring women who look like them as the protagonists.
Since the characters are not blatantly stepping and fetching, since the author wrote characters who are sympathetic and, to some degree, more fully imagined and empowered than Margaret Mitchell's Mammy, and since such popular and charismatic actresses can bring depth and dignity to these characters, these students are not seeing this as a white movie with black characters. They see it as a black movie, or a white movie that has a population of black characters large enough to make it seem like a black movie. Furthermore, they see that the main character is, in fact, a child. The adults with responsibilities, wisdom, and power within the plot are the black woman.
I'm not sure exactly what I did when I connected the movie with Mammy. Did I do a bad thing, now raising doubts about the movie for them? Did I do a good thing, pointing out a stereotype? (As if they remember a thing that I say when they walk out the door.) I did rather hope that they would become more conscious of images in the media, but that can be a disturbing consciousness, and teaching requires a fine hand in causing that disruption. They were willing to de-construct Aunt Jemima; but an analysis of characters played by Queen Latifah, Alicia Key, and Jennifer Hudson (not to mention the beautiful Sophie Okenedo) cuts a little too close to home.
Should a good teacher know how to make that cut a little less painful?