by Kathryn Stockett
Aibileen's heart is so big, we just might all fit inside it. If you're lucky, she might even write you into her prayers, which are known to be particularly powerful. Her best friend, Minny Jackson, tells her, "We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear" (2.143).
When The Help begins in August 1962, Aibileen, narrator of eleven chapters of The Help, is 53 years old. She's a black woman who has been taking care of "white babies" and "cooking and cleaning" (1.1) for white families since she was a teen. As Aibileen reveals to Skeeter Phelan during their first formal interview about her experiences, her mother also worked as a maid and her grandmother was a slave. Aibileen picked cotton on the plantation owned by Skeeter's family when she was 22. Now, she lives alone and works for Mrs. Elizabeth Leefolt.
Aibileen has raised or helped raise seventeen white babies in her lifetime. The eighteenth one, Mae Mobley Leefolt, who has just turned two years old when the novel opens, is Aibileen's "special baby" (1.6). Aibileen's own beloved son, Treelore, died in a senseless accident a little over two years before the novel opens. He was only 24 years old at the time. Treelore's death, and Aibileen's love for Mae Mobley, moves her to take the extraordinary risk of making her story public (albeit anonymously).
Aibileen and Writing
Aibileen's pseudonym in Help – the book that she, Skeeter, and the other maids write – is Sarah Ross, after Aibileen's teacher who died before the book opens. When Aibileen was forced to leave school to help her family make ends meet, Miss Ross told her, "You're the smartest one in my class, […] And the only way you're going to stay sharp is to read and write every day" (2.126). Aibileen tells us, "So I start writing my prayers down instead a sayin em. But nobody call me smart since" (2.127).
Well, all that is about to change. With the publication of Help, Aibileen's intelligence, as well as her bravery, is recognized not only by her own community, but also by the general public who reads her story.
Aibileen and Skeeter connect because they are both writers. In terms of writing, they provide lots of parallels. For example, Skeeter and Aibileen are both writers in a society that isn't friendly to female authors.
There are also many direct contrasts between them. Skeeter has a degree in English and Journalism; Aibileen is forced to drop out of school in junior high, to help support her family. Skeeter is a fledgling writer, but Aibileen has devoted hours to writing each day for decades. Skeeter pens the Miss Myrna column, but it's Aibileen who tells her what to write. Aibileen is content (at first) with just writing her prayers; Skeeter wants to write books and articles.
The contrasts between Skeeter and Aibileen gradually diminish as they work together to tear down the system that tells them they are "so different" from each other. Aibileen writes her own story and works with Skeeter to edit the other women's stories. Aibileen takes over the Miss Myrna column when Skeeter moves to New York. Both women (and the other contributors) are getting equal amounts of money for Help. Both women are using writing to create positive change in their communities. Both women are making a living as writers – a very male-dominated occupation in those days.
This is particularly amazing in the case of Aibileen. For a black woman in Mississippi in the early 1960s, getting a job writing for a white newspaper is no small feat. Of course, Aibileen is writing, as Skeeter was, under the name of Miss Myrna, who is a white woman. Nonetheless, she is being paid the same wage Skeeter was. She's also being recognized by her boss, Mister Golden, as the consummate expert in relationships and housework that she is.
Aibileen and Mae Mobley
Aibileen's relationship with Mae Mobley is touching in the extreme. For three years, they are each other's world. Aibileen identifies with Mae Mobley because, right from the start, the little girl doesn't fit in to the society she's born into. Mae Mobley is plump, has a bald spot, and even Aibileen admits, "she ain't cute" (22.5). But "cute" isn't very important in Aibileen's system of values. Kindness, intelligence, fairness – these are what matter to Aibileen.
Aibileen is also the only buffer between Mae Mobley and the mother who neglects and beats her and seems to despise her. Mae Mobley isn't the first abused child Aibileen has cared for. But, she's the first one Aibileen really tries to teach. The lessons Aibileen tries to give to Mae Mobley revolve around two basic themes: self-love and racial equality.
Self-Love: First and foremost, she tries to teach Mae Mobley to love herself. When Mae Mobley responds to her mother's yelling by telling Aibileen, "Mae Mo bad" (7.17), it occurs to Aibileen to try a bold new experiment. She thinks, "what would happen if I told her something good every day?" (7.25). From then on, it's part of her routine to tell Mae Mobley, "You a smart girl. You a kind girl" (7.27), and then have Mae Mobley repeat it back to her. In showing Mae Mobley nothing but kindness and love, and teaching her to speak her own self-worth, Aibileen is providing the girl with an invaluable foundation – one which she'll surely need when Aibileen later gets fired and Mae Mobley has to go it on her own.
Racial Equality and Civil Rights: What Aibileen does that's far more dangerous is to teach Mae Mobley about racial equality and civil rights. If Aibileen is found out, she will be fired at best, but likely also face some pretty hefty physical and social penalties – maybe even death – for her transgression. These lessons are born of Aibileen's desire to "stop that moment from coming – and it come in every child's life – when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites" (7.80). Aibileen's desire points out that people aren't born with racist ideas. These ideas are taught, passed from generation to generation. Aibileen is trying to break this cycle, by presenting Mae Mobley with alternative ways of thinking about race.
One of the most wickedly hilarious moments in the novel revolves around the story Aibileen tells Mae Mobley, whose favorite show is My Favorite Martian , to teach her about Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"One day, a wise Martian come down to Earth to teach us people a thing or two."
"What's his name?"
"Martian Luther King. […] He a real nice Martian, Mister King. […] but sometime, people looked at him funny and sometime, well, he downright mean."
"Why Aibee? Why was they so mean to him?"
"Cause he was green." (23.17-23.25)
We love this! And just imagine an older Mae Mobley coming to realize what an amazing thing Aibileen is doing for her. Sadly for Mae Mobley, Aibileen gets fired from the Leefolt house at the end of the novel. But, since they live in the same town, we doubt they've seen the last of each other. Plus, Aibileen is likely to send over more good influence through the next person hired to take care of Mae Mobley.