“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left
Tamara K. Nopper
February 28, 2012
One day a friend and I were talking about “Black disappearance” as a phenomenon. She spoke of it in regards to the new film about Joyce Carol Vincent, a Black woman whose dead body was “discovered” decomposing on the couch in her London apartment nearly three years after she went missing. We also discussed the numerous cases of missing Black women and how, despite being one of the most policed and surveillance groups—by the state and the public—Black people can disappear quite easily from public view, with the same state apparatus putting little effort into finding missing or dead Black people.
I want to speak here of another form of Black disappearance, that which operates in multiracial progressive politics. This may seem an odd topic, since African Americans clearly care about and participate in progressive politics, with some becoming famous activists or pundits in the process. But there are particular ways Black disappearance happens in progressive politics, and the “Be the Help” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its supporters, built around the widely debated film The Help exemplifies this well.
The NDWA is an organization of domestic workers comprised primarily of immigrant women of color. Following the historic victory of Domestic Workers United (DWU) in getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in its home state of New York, NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo (who had worked with DWU and other domestic workers organizations in New York City that morphed into DWU) and her constituency set their sights on getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in California and putting a national spotlight on domestic work.
In the process, NDWA initiated the “Be the Help” campaign, which played on the popularity—as well as controversy—of The Help as well as Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it is based to bring attention to the 2.5 million women who currently work as domestics. Marketing the immigrant women of color workers as the “modern day help,” the “Be the Help” campaign brought together a motley crew of supporters, including one of the film studios that produced The Help, Hollywood actors and actresses (including Oscar nominee and winner Octavia Spencer), and domestic employers. Unusual in that a labor campaign collaborated with the employer—in this case Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association—the “Be the Help” campaign also relied on supportive writers, publishers, and commentators in progressive media. For example, during Oscar weekend, the “Be the Help” campaign was spotlighted on Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC. It was also the subject of an article by Applied Research Center president and executive director and Colorlines magazine publisher Rinku Sen, posted on the publications’ website and widely circulated on social media. An article championing the campaign, written by Ilyse Hogue, a columnist for the Nation, appeared on that publication’s website the Monday immediately following the Oscars.
That the film depicted the story of African American women domestic workers in the legalized Jim Crow era in the south and had been roundly critiqued by numerous African Americans, including historians, Civil Rights activists, cultural critics, actors, filmmakers, and many Black people whose concerns might not reach a public stage seemed to go unnoticed by the NDWA and its allies.
Or did it? Was it a case of not noticing Black people’s concerns about The Help’s homage to the racist and sexist archetypal Mammy figure—which as one writer points out, is not, in racial politics, to be confused with the domestic worker—or was it a case of Black disappearance?
There is a lot to suggest it was the latter.