BLM activists and their supporters allege that America is “systemically racist” and must undergo a cleansing purge in order that a new Utopia may be established. This Utopia will not eliminate white people’s racism; their racism is “timeless and immutable.” Whiteness studies, according to columnist Barbara Kay, teaches that to be white is to be “branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin … you can’t eradicate it. The goal … is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone – eternal victimhood for non-whites, eternal guilt for whites.” The taxpayer-funded Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture offers explanatory material, and a Smithsonian poster on whiteness provides a handy summary. Bestselling race guru Robin Diangelo says that no white person should ever be allowed to say “I’m not racist.” Unlike previous leftist Utopias, this post-BLM Utopia will not create a “new man,” in the way that communists attempt to create a “New Socialist Man.” Indeed, evidence suggests that at this very moment Communist China is brainwashing Uighurs to turn them into “New Socialist Men.” Rather, the BLM Utopia will not cleanse white people, it will merely permanently blame, shame and cow them.
A bulldozer is ploughing through American history and culture and unearthing more and more “evidence” that America is “systemically racist” and must be cleansed and purged. Are objective facts being marshalled to support these charges and this purge? Or are emotions, or even mass hysteria, ruling the day? Is it the case that all non-whites agree with these charges of racism, and is it only whites, psychologically handicapped by “white privilege” and “white fragility” who disagree? Is American history being told accurately, or is it being distorted to serve a master narrative of systemic racism under every rock, behind every door, and in every white man’s heart? Below I will consider three different sets of allegations of racism, and conclude with a discussion of a classroom exercise that both educated and disturbed me.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the recipient of both a MacArthur “Genius” award and a Pulitzer Prize. America’s current purge has received significant inspiration from her 1619 Project at the New York Times. Charles Kesler in the New York Post called recent riots the “1619 riots” In reply, Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “It would be an honor. Thank you.” Hannah-Jones took credit for riots that burned cities, looted businesses, and resulted in numerous deaths, including of African Americans. The 1619 Project argues that America is founded on white supremacy and slavery. In 1995, Hannah-Jones wrote that, “the white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager, and thief of the modern world.” Hannah-Jones’ mother, Cheryl Novotny, is of Czech and English descent, that is, Novotny is very white, as are both the owner and the CEO of the Times. “Oprah Winfrey is partnering with Lionsgate to turn The New York Times’s 1619 Project into feature films and television programs,” The Federalist reported on July 14, 2020. The project has already been folded into school curricula. “As of February 2020, five public school systems had adopted the 1619 Project’s curriculum district-wide, and its free teaching materials had reached 3,500 classrooms,” writes Prof. Carole M. Swain.
“I helped fact-check the 1619 Project. The Times ignored me,” wrote historian Leslie M. Harris. A central claim of the Project, Harris writes, is that “the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.” Harris refuted that claim. In public statements, Hannah-Jones defied her.
Harris is not the only African American scholar publicly to take issue with the 1619 Project. 1776 Unites is an initiative by prominent African American scholars, including Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Jason D. Hill, Carol M Swain and Glenn Loury. These luminaries write that their project will “uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to … celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people … We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.” These African American scholars have not received a fraction of the attention, awards, or funding that the 1619 Project has.
The rewriting of American history as systemically racist extends to common household items, like cinnamon crumb cakes, previously perceived as harmless. Briones Bedell self-identifies as a “Youth human rights activist. California high school senior,” and an “Intersectional Feminist for Human Rights.” On July 8, 2020, Bedell tweeted, “The carefully-crafted facade of your friendly neighborhood hipster grocery store belies a darker image; one that romanticizes imperialism, fetishizes native cultures, and casually misappropriates … Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures. It presents ‘Joe’ as the default ‘normal’ and the other characters falling outside of it.” Calling a puttanesca sauce “Trader Giotto’s” rather than “Trader Joe’s” is an “insidious” “micro-aggression” that will “inevitably escalate” to violent assault, Bedell says.
An example of Bedell’s version of a racist atrocity can be found in this image. A beige and white cardboard box includes a picture of cinnamon crumb coffee cake on an ornamental cake-plate. Perhaps since many associate baked goods with Mitteleuropa cities like Vienna and Prague, rather than being “Trader Joe’s” cake mix, it is “Baker Josef’s,” that is, a version of the name “Joseph” found in Central Europe.
Commenters on Facebook, Twitter, and at the Washington Post disagreed with Bedell. Albert Qian tweeted, “I’m Chinese and found the names of the products very endearing … Did you ask people of color how they felt?” Another wrote, “Thank you for speaking over my family and me. We are Italian & Hispanic & loved Trader Joe’s products just the way they were.” And another, “If Trader Joe brings me all this exotic food then he’s the white explorer going out and bringing back the bounty. But if the Asian food comes from Trader Ming, and the Mexican stuff from Trader Jose, that speaks to these things provided by a trader of the place in question.” This commenter argues that it is Bedell’s approach that is the racist one.
An Asian-American began a counter petition in support of Trader Joe’s ethnic food labeling, as did a Mexican. White liberal savior complex has run amuck, these petitions argue, and white liberals should not presume to speak for others. An Asian-American signatory wrote, “Briones Bedell kept deleting my comments on her ridiculous petition along with other voices of POC that she claims to care about. That petition does NOT speak for me as an Asian woman. I am not offended by Trader Joe’s playful variations of its name. I would be MORE offended if all the names changed to appease this entitled white fake ‘human rights activist.”’ A Mexican-American woman wrote, “As a Mexican-American woman, I am in NO WAY offended by the use of José. It simply is a translation of JOE!! The non-POC supporting the other petition & trying to be white saviors & speak FOR US, without truly taking us into consideration. Now even small things honoring our culture, are trying to be erased, because they THINK they are saving us.”
Clearly, there is no objective metric to determine that “Baker Josef’s” is racist and “Trader Joe’s” is not racist. Too, we see two cases, the 1619 Project and the Trader Joe’s controversy, where “white saviors” (the Times owner and CEO are white) spoke for people of color, and people of color objected to being patronized. In any case, as with the 1619 Project, it is those leveling the charge of racism who ruled the day. Trader Joe’s caved and announced that it would change its packaging. Bedell was not satisfied. She demanded that Trader Joe’s immediately purge existing “racist” products from store shelves.
Disagreement about how to interpret the facts of America’s history is not limited to labels on packaged food. A weightier example: the mobility of poor Southern whites in the antebellum South. Poor whites, historians say, moved around a lot. They can agree on that fact. The 1619 Project’s Matthew Desmond states that the slave system “allowed [white workers] to roam freely and feel a sense of entitlement.” Desmond positively spins objective facts. Victoria E. Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Texas State University, interprets the same fact entirely differently. “The old stereotype repeated by Desmond, that poor white Southerners ‘roamed freely,’ in fact reflected their need to be mobile and flexible simply to make a living. Sporadic short-term work contributed to an unstable, violent world in which such men literally fought over menial jobs or headed West in an elusive search for prosperity.” Bynum sees transience as an element in a hungry, rootless life for poor, Southern whites, who could never underbid slave labor.
Facts v spin, and facts v feelings, played a large role in an exercise I used to do with students. Several years ago, I was teaching a university folklore class. Disney has never marketed home video in the US of its Academy-Award-winning, folklore-based, 1946 film, Song of the South. Disney does market home video of SOTS in the U.K. and Japan. Clearly, Disney’s stance has less to do with principles and more to do with expedience. In response to America’s recent purge, Disneyland has announced changes to its “Song-of-the-South”-themed “Splash Mountain” amusement park attraction.
Song of the South is a ninety-five minute, color musical. In 1870’s Georgia, seven-year-old Johnny’s parents are unhappily separating. He is sent to live on his grandmother’s plantation. His mother and grandmother exert excessive feminizing influence by, for example, forcing Johnny to wear a lace collar. Fatherless Johnny needs an older male role model in his life. He has heard much of Uncle Remus, an elderly storyteller, and cannot wait to meet him. Uncle Remus mentors the young boy. Poor white trash children, Joe and Jake Favers, menace Johnny. Uncle Remus repeatedly rescues the boy, teaching him, through African-American folklore, how to navigate life’s shoals and rapids.
James Baskett, who stars as Uncle Remus, was the first African American male to win an Academy Award. Gregg Toland, the Academy-Award-winning cinematographer of Citizen Kane, did his first color work, and some of his final work ever, on SOTS. The film advanced the combination of live action and animation, a technique that would highlight 1964’s multiple Academy-Award-winning Mary Poppins.
Are Song of the South and Splash Mountain yet further proof that America is systemically racist and in need of a purge? What do the facts say? The answer is complex, and will not be obvious to anyone lacking knowledge of folklore. The short answer is that, yes, it’s easy to spin SOTS as a racist film, and it is easy to understand those who are offended by it. Look deeper, and the real story is very different. The problem is, when emotions and intimidation suppress facts, history ends up sacrificed to the power narrative, and today that power narrative is “America is systemically racist.”
Media studies professor Jason Sperb alleges, in his book’s title, that Song of the South is Disney’s Most Notorious Film and “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.” A sample of Sperb’s prose: “Reaganism brought into relief a particularly potent form of whiteness that invariably shapes most defenses of Song of the South. ‘Whiteness’ does not mean the same as ‘white people.’ Rather, it evokes a hegemonic cultural logic that consciously and unconsciously reinforces white attitudes, beliefs, positions as the dominant, unquestioned way of life … every American negotiates the norms of whiteness – equally capable of either uncritically reproducing or self-reflexively questioning them … As with Reaganism, race was there by not being there, and the history of racial conflict and tension was there by not being there.” The film’s critics are “on the losing end of a battle with the invisible ubiquity of whiteness.”
Book reviewer John Lingan makes a fascinating observation about Sperb’s criticism of Song of the South. “Sperb spends relatively little time with the movie itself.” Note: a scholar spends little time discussing the actual facts of the film he condemns as racist. Rather, he relies on academically trendy concepts of “whiteness” to buttress his position.
Not just white academics like Sperb, but also Many African Americans condemn the film. When the film first came out, a reviewer at The Afro-American wrote that he was “thoroughly disgusted … as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced.” African Americans picketed. Activist and politician Tyrone Brooks said that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used SOTS “as an example of the indoctrination of white hatred of black people.” Alice Walker accused Joel Chandler Harris, author of the material on which SOTS is based, of “stealing a good part of my heritage.”
Sperb makes an almost self-parodying statement. Song of the South’s “offensiveness was hard for some to see.” Those who do not see the film’s offensiveness include African Americans. Herman Hill, born in 1906, was the first black player on USC’s basketball team. As editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, he “utilized his pen and typewriter to promote equality” for his fellow African Americans. After SOTS premiered, Hill wrote that “the truly sympathetic handling of the entire production from a racial standpoint [will] prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations.” He dismissed criticism as “unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days.”
“As a person of color, I am proud of this film … Song of the South is not racist. It is a tribute to our proud African-American heritage … Uncle Remus is clearly admired in this movie more than any other character,” wrote an Amazon reviewer in 2003. In 2007, a New York Times reporter encountered another black booster of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest, his historic home in Atlanta. “Nannie Thompson, the housekeeper on Mondays and a docent otherwise, led a tour … Ms. Thompson, who is black and 76 years old, grew up hearing the Br’er Rabbit tales, and she speaks lovingly of Harris.”
Floyd E. Norman, born in 1935, is a former Disney animator and member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Norman writes that, as a youth, he read critical comments about SOTS in Ebony shortly after the film came out in 1946. ” I regretted not having the writing chops to respond. Even though I was just a kid, I took issue with the editors for their unfair characterization of the film and Walt Disney in particular. I had recently seen Song of the South at our local theater and found the movie delightful. Had they even seen the same film, I wondered?” After Norman became a Disney illustrator, and gained access to the vault, he arranged for a SOTS screening at a church. “The African American audience absolutely loved the movie and even requested a second screening of the Disney classic.”
Norman says that Disney was no racist, with no intention of making a racist film. In fact, as historians note, Disney did extensive groundwork pre-production. He brought in Maurice Rapf as an anti-racism script doctor. Disney invited NAACP head Walter White to consult. The script was sent to Dr. Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar. Disney further solicited comments from Academy-Award winning actress Hattie McDaniel.
Joel Chandler Harris, a Southern white man, collected and published the Uncle Remus tales. Whiteness studies inform us that all whites uniformly enjoy white privilege and all whites are racist. Harris must have had a racist agenda, and anything connected with his work must be tainted. That’s what whiteness studies say. The facts say something very different.
Joel Chandler Harris was the illegitimate son of an Irish laborer who abandoned him and his seamstress mother before Harris was born. He grew up in a one-room shack, a shack donated by wealthier neighbors. He was a charity case, an undersized child, teased by others. He would retaliate with cruel practical jokes. At one point, he wrote in his school notebook, “Which is most respectable? Poor folks or n——?” He suffered, lifelong, from crippling and isolating social anxiety and a stutter. He described his life as “without sympathy … bleak and desolate as winter.” He went to work at age 14 as a printer’s devil and spent his free time imbibing literature, printed and oral. He sought out slaves, and, later, freed black men, learning their dialect and their stories. He died at 59, probably of alcoholism.
Mark Twain offers a poignant description. “He was … undersized, red-haired, and somewhat freckled … He was said to be very shy. He is a shy man. Of this there is no doubt. It may not show on the surface, but the shyness is there. After days of intimacy one wonders to see that it is still in about as strong force as ever. There is a fine and beautiful nature hidden behind it, as all know who have read the Uncle Remus book; and a fine genius, too, as all know by the same sign … in the matter of writing [African American dialect] he is the only master the country has produced.”
Dialect scholar Sumner Ives writes, “the more one examines the speech of Harris’ folk characters, the more one admires the skill with which he worked … a shy man himself, he must have listened keenly and sympathetically, for he caught the various patterns of folk speech in great detail … he handled the dialogue of his folk characters with skillful discrimination.”
Historian Wayne Mixon writes that Harris’ childhood poverty and fatherlessness “did much to engender his sympathetic understanding of the plight of blacks” Mixon concedes that Harris had to write some half-hearted “Lost Cause” material to keep his newspaper job, but the more his success with the Uncle Remus materials freed Harris to speak his own mind, the more critical Harris became of the Confederacy and white supremacy, and the more openly Harris supported racial equality. Mixon places Harris in historical context. White supremacy became most virulent around 1890, Mixon writes, when “someone was lynched, on average, every other day.” Mixon emphasizes the courage it took for a pathologically shy, low-born white man to, in print, as Harris did, criticize Jefferson Davis, laud Abraham Lincoln, and work for equality. Mixon concludes that “a major part of Harris’ purpose as a writer was to undermine racism.” In 1908, Harris spelled out the goal of his own, new publication: to “dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races … the obliteration of prejudice against blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” This is a remarkably courageous stand to take in 1908. What is variously called “Social Darwinism,” “Eugenics,” and “Scientific Racism” were sweeping the land, with charismatic and influential champions like Margaret Sanger, founder of what would become Planned Parenthood, and Carl Brigham, creator of the SAT. Indeed, in 1906, the Times published support for keeping an African, Ota Benga, in a display at the Bronx Zoo.
Harris, through his own, intimate, face-to-face contact with black slaves before the war and freedmen afterward, gathered the largest collection of African American folktales published in the nineteenth century. Scholars have determined that two thirds of the tales are rooted in African folklore. The remainder have European and Native American roots. Harris displayed a folklorist’s obsession with accuracy. He was determined to convey to the reader the dialect he learned from the slaves he spent time with as a child.
Before I showed YouTube clips from SOTS to my students, I told them none of this. I merely said, “I’m going to show you a video. I want you to do three things. First, I want you to report what you saw. Provide objective facts. Tell me colors, materials, number of people, what they are wearing, their facial expressions, what they say – as many details as you can get down. After that, I want you to report how you felt while you were watching this video. Then, I want to you tell me what role this film should or should not play in our modern culture.”
This assignment was informed by previous experience. My students displayed a, to me, frightening inability to differentiate fact from opinion. My students were like opened water taps when they thought the assignment was to express opinions, to pontificate, to denounce America, or to declare something “racist.” “Racist” was used profligately. When we discussed a Supreme Court case, some students labeled Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who declined a commission to design a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, “racist.” To these students, “racist” was synonymous with “bad,” and “bad” was synonymous with “conservative.”
When I asked students for facts, though, the water tap suddenly hit a drought. I would suggest potential facts: Give me a date, a year, a name, a school of thought, an event. Who, what, when, where, why, how. Before my students expressed an opinion about Song of the South, I wanted to know that they could provide facts about the film they just watched.
Semester after semester, a pattern repeated itself. Most students carried out the assignment. They offered fact-based descriptions of the scenes. “An old black man tells a story to a little white boy. The white boy looks on, fascinated.” They said that this was a typical Disney movie and, while they had outgrown it, they could see their kid brother or kid sister liking it.
Again, semester after semester, about ten percent of the students more or less ignored the assignment, and wrote angry screeds. They provided no facts whatsoever. They denounced the film as racist and offensive. Some had heard of it, and said it should remain “banned.”
Only after the written portion of the assignment was finished did classroom discussion begin. It was during this discussion that the ten percent of the students who hated the film were vocal and emphatic. The majority of the students who had carried out the assignment as given, that is, to describe concrete details of the scenes, would look on, confused and silent. They were suddenly unsure. Were they also supposed to be outraged? Would they lose points for their failure to do so? Their eyes scanned the room. They stared at their papers, already collected and on my desk – beyond their ability to retrieve and edit. Would I lambaste them for not hating the movie? Would they fail a class, yet again, for expressing the wrong opinion, or failing to express the opinion deemed correct? Students would later tell me that they were afraid that I was about to do what other teachers had done – instruct them in why their opinion was wrong, and mold their response to one more palatable to me.
I would ask the outraged students, what concrete details from the film convince you that it is racist? My request for concrete facts seemed to anger them more. “I’m offended by this. I want you to respect my feelings.” Some students, both black and white, would say, “You don’t know what it’s like to be black. You can’t speak for black people.”
This exercise’s predictable outcome always troubled me. Racism is a serious, career-ending, riot-sparking charge. As well it should be – racism is toxic and deadly. It troubled me that ten percent of my students, with complete, unassailable conviction and outrage, would rush to this charge without being able to marshal a single concrete fact to support it. It also troubled me that the outraged students silenced and cowed the majority of the students who saw the film as innocuous. I cannot help but fear that this classroom exercise is reflected in the wider culture, for example in the recent assault on Trader Joe’s.
Again, it’s easy to see why many find SOTS offensive. Accusations against it focus on the following: it depicts African Americans as being too friendly with whites, and too happy. SOTS does not depict harsh realities like lynching and Jim Crow.
To that last point, one must contrast the double standard by which SOTS is judged with treatment of Disney’s 1964 film, Mary Poppins. Mary’s friend Bert is an impoverished day laborer, yet he is treated warmly and respectfully by his class superiors. This is unrealistic. One of Bert’s jobs is as a chimney sweep. Chimney sweeps were often children, literally sold into the trade, who risked hideous death by suffocation. Chimney sweeps typically suffered from stunted growth and spinal deformities, and they succumbed to cancer of the scrotum, also known as chimney sweep cancer. They were subject to blindness. Surgeon Percivall Pott described their fate, “They are treated with great brutality…they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies, where they are bruised burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty they become…liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease.” William Blake famously bemoaned the horrible lives of chimney sweeps in poetry.
In Mary Poppins, of course, chimney sweeps are depicted, in the “Step in Time” number, as dancing joyfully to entertain upper class children. There is no significant movement to ban Mary Poppins. The suffering glossed over in Mary Poppins is the suffering of poor whites.
SOTS’s critics adopt this same double standard regarding the film’s antagonists, Joe and Jake Faver. Joe and Jake are stereotypical, poor, Southern, white trash. They are so vile that they threaten to drown a puppy. Jake is analogous to Br’er Fox, and Joe is analogous to Br’er Bear. That is, they are like the bad guys in Uncle Remus’ stories. Br’er Rabbit always defeats his folkloric enemies, and Uncle Remus defeats Joe and Jake, and teaches Johnny folkloric methods of combat. Johnny is small, and he must use Br’er Rabbit’s tricks to survive Joe and Jake.
Joe and Jake, with the white trash antagonists of Gone with the Wind, Deliverance, Prince of Tides, and countless other films, are an ethnic, cinematic, stereotype. Horror-movie scholar Carol J. Clover writes that the “redneck has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the someone else held responsible for all manner of American social ills … anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic or racial terms have become projected onto a safe target” – safe, she says, because white. At the movies, poor, white Southerners are bad. That bit of stereotyping in SOTS gets a free pass.
Another accusation against SOTS: Blacks speak in dialect. Upon reflection, we realize it is not just dialect that troubles the film’s detractors.
On Juneteenth, 2020, Rutgers University’s English Department announced that it would no longer emphasize writing in standard English. Black students would not be encouraged to master standard English, because such encouragement was racist and imperialist. Rap songs and tweets by Charlamagne tha God are not written in standard English. “I bust Stupid Dope Moves,” he tweets. The problem is not that Uncle Remus does not speak standard English. The problem is that he speaks, accurately, like a poor, Southern, former black slave. Rather than appreciating this speech, some are ashamed of it, and want it silenced.
SOTS is a racist film, the online magazine Slate insists, and it should be banned, because its “smilin’, Massah-servin’ black folk are embarrassingly racist … still completely subservient, and happily so … James Baskett plays Remus as a preternaturally jolly companion, buoyant and beatific.” In other words, SOTS is racist because it shows black people smiling and being nice to white people. I wanted my students to know that if they understood those smiles as a depiction of “happy slaves,” they were totally misreading the film, Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris, and a good part of African American strategies for survival.
I showed some pictures to my students. The first was a poster of rapper and former crack dealer Fifty Cent. He is muscular, bare-chested and pointing a gun at the viewer. “For many of you, this is the ideal of black man. Flamboyantly defiant, violent, and threatening. A black man like this would risk lynching in the Old South.”
Then I showed them a series of images: Aesop, Petronius from the book and film Quo Vadis, Semar, from Javanese shadow play, The Good Soldier Svejk, from Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, and Janosik, a Slovak folk hero. The Janosik image is gruesome. It depicts a naked man, bound hand and foot, hanging by his rib on a meat hook. I explained to my students that, around the world, people live under oppression and deal with it in different ways. Janosik was the Slovak Robin Hood. When he was 25 years old, I was taught in oral stories, our oppressors captured him and hung him up on a hook to die a slow, lingering death. That’s what happens to defiant heroes in oppressive settings.
Again, around the world, most people are not active resisters. Rather, they deploy the weapons of the weak, and one of those weapons is to adopt the stance of the “wise fool.” This character is smarter than his or her oppressors, and knows enough to adopt a mask of innocence, and to speak the truth through fables, often involving animals. Aesop, an ugly slave, did this over 2,000 years ago. Petronius, a character in Quo Vadis, lives under the heel of Nero, and stays alive by speaking in clever riddles. Semar is, again, an ugly character in Javanese shadow play. He is often the subject of fart and penis jokes. But Semar hides great power and wisdom, so much so that he has been used to tilt at power even in modern politics.
I told my students that when I visited my mother’s natal Czechoslovakia, I was astounded at how many images of Svejk I saw. Svejk is a fictional character. He’s fat, sloppy, unshaven, and often drunk. Why would people so esteem such a loser? I was in Czechoslovakia when it was under severe Soviet oppression. Our visit felt, at times, like a visit to a real life production of Orwell’s 1984. Svejk, fat and sloppy as he is, knew how to resist oppressive power without being crushed by it.
Uncle Remus is immediately understandable to me. He is a very smart man living under terrifying white supremacy. He is good enough to share his wisdom with an effectively fatherless white boy. He is wise enough to share his wisdom behind the curtain of an ingratiating smile, and through the antics of “critters,” Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Fox. And there’s more. Joel Chandler Harris was himself a wise fool. He was a low-born, socially handicapped loner who wanted to eliminate race prejudice. He knew he couldn’t do it head on. He chipped away at racism through clever folktales recounted by a lovable black storyteller. “Vengeance for wrongs, retaliation against power, recompense for betrayals that is what Harris recognized in his deepest reaches … remaining in the shadows, he mastered his literary art,” writes historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown.
If that is crystal clear to me, why can’t SOTS‘s detractors see it?
Maybe they do see it and they don’t want to. Maybe they want black men to be like Fifty Cent: flamboyantly defiant, violent, hyper-macho. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has argued as much – that America wants black men to act out gangsta fantasies. As one Amazon champion of SOTS puts it, people choose to ban SOTS but not violent rap. “Instead of portraying black people as profane, volatile, and thuggish … Song of the South shows the black characters to be gentle, benevolent, and even role models for white children. A poignant moment in the film shows a close-up of Uncle Remus’ black hand interlocked with the little white hand of the boy. Remember, this was in 1946, before Brown v. Board of Education … Even if you walked into the theater in 1946 hating black people, you would not walk out feeling hateful … The NAACP would rather kids grow up listening to some gangster rapper glorify crime, violence, and sex with prostitutes than grow up singing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah with Uncle Remus.”
In researching this article, the most poignant sentence I read appeared in an Amazon review. “The black or white man from the South cannot understand himself apart from the other,” wrote Pastor C. R. Biggs.
How will future generations understand SOTS, its creators, and, indeed, their very selves? How will a future Prof. Briones Bedell present the film to her students? Systemically racist America produced systemically racist Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney and this film are proof of America’s systemic racism. The End.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery
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