Lkboehm's Blog

Urban History Blog

Public Bike Share Programs August 31, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lkboehm @ 4:28 pm


Bike share programs in large cities just might revolutionize the way urban dwellers and visitors interact with the urban environment.  When I visited Montreal this summer, I witnessed first hand the flurry of bike riders all around me.  It seemed that tourists were the primary users, much to the dismay of cabbies and the rather grumpy tour guide I employed to show me the urban sites.  He yelled at riders, in English (assuming they were stupid Americans), who failed to heed the stated traffic laws.  Although helpful for tourists, the bikes seem even more helpful to those who want to utilize public transportation.  Read all about the public bike’s move to Canada here:

Boston, home of the United States’ first subway and the well-travelled T and commuter rail system, now has followed in Montreal’s footsteps (or rather pedals?).  The Hubway Bike System opened on July 28, 2011 with 61 bike stations and 600 bicycles.  Members can join for $60 a year, or less for just for a day’s ride.  Prices are geared towards the short ride–if a patron keeps a bike for more than a half hour, charges start adding up quickly.  As stations are located near train stations, it is easy to use the bikes to extend the reach of commuter rail.  The city has 38 miles of bike lanes, which can be better utilized with the new rental bikes.  My husband used to take the commuter rail from our home out in the Metrowest suburbs into Boston.  Once his office moved from Faneuil Hall to Brighton, however, the commuter rail was no longer a viable option.  Save taking an expensive taxi every day on top of rail fees, his office was not reachable by public transportation.  (He could have jumped out the window of a train, which passed through Brighton but did not stop. I advised against this, but he always stared whistfully at the trains passing right by his place of work.)  The bike now makes the train a great alternative in good weather, and a light rain jacket extends the possibilities into the fall.  He can ride the train, doing more work or just reading for fun until he arrives in the city.  He can locate a bike and take a short ride to work, and place the bike back in a nearby bike station.  He was all smiles when he first tried it, and now he is hooked.   

The one negative here is the lack of helmets.  It appears that most of the tourists riding bikes in Montreal are doing so without helmets.  Boston riders are urged on the website of the program to always wear helmets, and this is easier to do for commuters who can bring their own.  As someone who has vivid memories of being hit by a car while bike riding, I never like to see anyone riding without a helmet.  The next step would be to offer rental helmets next to the rental bikes.  The Hubway will have roving staff offering helmets at busy bike stations, but certainly some will opt to ride without helmets.

Another option for train riders are foldable bikes.  A folding bike can be brought onto the commuter trains and treated like luggage.  (Full size bikes are not usually allowed.)  Folding bikes could also be an option for those in smaller dwellings.  The NYTimes recently reported that apartment renters are asking for more storage options for their bikes.  Bikes take up a lot of room in relatively small NYC dwellings.  Yet NYC residents rely on their bikes.  A bike hanging from a ceiling hook in the living room clashes with designer couches and original watercolors too.  So renters and those looking to buy a condo are favoring locations with easily accessible bike storage.

Find out more at


More Musings on The Help August 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lkboehm @ 9:29 pm
I have been trying to search for reasons that I am uneasy with the largely passionate, positive response to the book and the film, The Help.
In 2009, I published a non-fiction work of my interviews with African American women who had largely worked as domestics and taken part in the Second Great Migration to the North.  About five million women and men left the South for the North between 1940 and 1970, transforming the history of American cities and the nation as a whole.  Yes, I am a white woman, and I even have unruly hair like Skeeter Phelan in The Help.  The Schlesinger Library website even referred to me as “the real Skeeter Phelan” on their website.  (I donated the oral histories from my book to the Schlesinger, which funded the project with its Oral History Grant.)  When I read the novel The Help I could not believe how the process of interviewing in the book sounded like what I had done in real life.  Yet I am still uneasy with the picture of domestic work and the black southern experience as outlined by The Help.  It is incomplete, at best.
The Association of Black Women Historians has written an “Open Letter to Fans of The Help, in which they state, in part ” On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help.   The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”
I have been wondering if it is possible to portray the kinds of unrelenting violence that southern blacks encountered in the Jim Crow South in a fictional vehicle, either novel or film, which has as entertainment as its primary purpose.  A non-fiction book or a documentary seems better suited to the subject matter.  So would any novel or film draw the kind of criticism some are heaping on The Help?  Is it this particular subject that cannot be well done in a fictional genre, or is it just this particular story that rubs some people the wrong way?

 I understand the need to work through important themes, emotions, and issues in the past via fiction.  Certainly we have an endless stream of films and novels related to the Holocaust, World War II, 9/11 and other tension-filled historical moments.  Yet with these stories, we are better able to fit them into the framework of history that we already know.  Saving Private Ryan is not our only exposure to the history of WWII; we add the movie to what else we know.  I think unfortunately, that many Americans are not aware that until the late 20th century, MOST African American women working outside of the home for wages labored in domestic settings or related jobs service jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings.  In domestic work, the working women came to interact on a daily basis with the white families that employed them, and the interactions were filled with complications.  White families often thought of their employees as family; black women sometimes formed friendly relationships with their employers but this feeling of “family” was extended far more rarely and with far more trepidation.  I would bet that the white women crying in the film around me when I saw it on the opening afternoon were not rushing home and ordering non-fiction books on domestic workers by the likes of Susan Tucker, Rebecca Sharpless, and myself, to learn more.  I think we leave The Help thinking we know it all, and that is a mistake.  There is far more to this story to know.

Those who have not read The Help will not know that the white characters of the novel are portrayed as having a thick dialect, which is represented in very broken English and spelling changes like substituting “Law” for “Lord.”  The characters frequently say “reckon,” a word I never encountered in my oral history work.  White characters, who presumably would have southern accents as well, were given no such spelling changes.  The white characters are also drawn in a quite silly fashion, and they look even more flat and silly in the film, juxtaposed against the weighty acting done by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in their roles as African American maids.  If the majority of whites are silly and ignorant, it lessens the serious nature of the racism they espouse, and distances the white film goer from this kind of prejudice.  We often find a sort of simpering, slapstick South portrayed in mainstream films, a world of honeysuckle and sweetened ice tea that does not resemble the world today, South or North.  Thus it is easy to leave the film and say, “Boy, I am glad things are not like that now.  We have certainly come a long way.  I cannot believe things used to be like that.”  After the death of Medgar Evers in the film, the tension of the film is quickly cut by a funny vignette where we see the maid Minnie vacuuming a stuffed bear.  The laughter in the theater showed how quickly the violence could be worked through, and how much we wanted to move away from that uncomfortable feeling.  Maybe we need to sit a little bit longer with uncomfortable emotions.

The pain of the discrimination faced by a generation of women who could often only find work in domestic settings, despite their education level, is still felt today.  Many of these women still live among us.  They have passed stories of this pain to their children.  Seek out the searing artwork of Willie Cole, whose mother and grandmother labored as domestics.  Keep reading.  If The Help whetted your appetite, try to learn more.  I am seeking a book group that would follow up their reading of The Help with my own book, Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009) and see what they think.  What do we not see in the novel?


My Response to The Help August 16, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lkboehm @ 12:58 am
This past Friday, I was interviewed on NPR’s The Takeaway about my oral history book, Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009), and what light this work can help to shed on the book and the film, The Help.  Inez Smith, who I interviewed for Making a Way out of No Way, also was interviewed by John Hockenberry in this short piece.  Smith worked as a domestic in Mississippi as a youth alongside her aunts.
Here is the link to the segment:
I am glad to see others talking about The Help.  The book and the film expose the public to the story of working African American women. As an academic historian who utilizes oral history, it is difficult to see the public enamored of this story but failing to take their interest to the next level and do some non-fiction reading on the subject.  In my own forty oral histories with women who took part in the Second Great Migration and worked as domestic workers during some point of their lives, I did not encounter a single narrator that sounded like those in The Help. Neither did I encounter The Help’s dialect in the oral histories I read at Baylor University’s wonderful Institute for Oral History.  The dialect in which the stories are presented in the novel simply does not ring true.  The fine acting of Viola Davis and Octavia Butler mitigates some of the issues of the original novel (I have no doubt the pair will be at least nominated for Academy Awards), yet the sticky-sweet world created in the film makes the racially-based prejudice and violence look like something that happened long ago and far away.
I have spent ten years documenting the stories of women who grew up in the South during the second half of the twentieth century, writing down every word that my respondents said and listening to the tapes over and over again.  It is a shame that historians cannot have a bigger impact on the final product issued from movie studios, for with some expert advice, this film, which surely will be viewed by millions, would have had better basis in historical fact.  I would have been more than happy to have consulted for the film, and I know that is the case for countless others who have conducted oral histories on this subject.  I think part of the issue here is the seeming obscurity of what we do within the so-called ivory tower, and the public’s reluctance to read non-fiction works.  I had hoped that the reading groups making their way through The Help could have picked up Making a Way out of No Way as a follow-up piece. 
For further reading, I also strongly suggest the work of Susan Tucker, Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South (Louisiana State, 1988).
Thank you to the Association of Black Women Historians for their open letter to movie fans. I hope fans do take these concerns into account as they reflect on what they have seen.
Lisa Krissoff Boehm, Ph.D.
Professor of Urban Studies
Director, Commonwealth Honors Program
Worcester State University
486 Chandler Street
Worcester, MA 01602
Office: Sullivan 129C

The Association of Black Women Historians’ Take on The Help

Filed under: Uncategorized — lkboehm @ 12:57 am

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy-a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.

Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault.
The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.

Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion-a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.

Suggested Reading:
Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent to: