Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Race, Pop Culture and Growing Up White

Roger has an interesting post up about film and race in which he mentions my recent experience watching Holiday Inn and being profoundly disturbed by a sequence of blackface that I had actually never heard was even in the film.

As coincidence would have it, Holiday Inn was actually on yesterday, on one of the many Encore channels, and was playing as I turned on the television. My wife hadn't gone to work yet, and the film was fairly close to the infamous "Abraham" segment, so we watched it together because I wanted her to see just what it was about the film that had truly disgusted me. She knew she was in trouble when the film's female lead, Marjorie Reynolds, started putting on the blackface and worrying aloud that what she'd hoped for the number was to be pretty... the implication being that, by portraying a black woman, she couldn't be. (And this is before she comes out on stage in such cartoonishly, awfully stereotypical "pickaninny" makeup that she looks more like Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of Oz, than something that's supposed to be a human being.)

My wife was just as horrified as I was the first time I saw it. Bad enough it seems to imply that all black people worship Abraham Lincoln like he's one of the patriarchs of the bible, but it's just so sickening on its own, because it looks at African-Americans as subhuman cartoon characters. It's born of a mindset that genuinely sees blacks as a separate and unrelated (and decidedly lesser) species of human being. It's repellent. Becca echoed my thoughts upon seeing it originally: "This isn't even racist 'for its time period,' this is just sick-minded for anybody, and especially a mere 80 years after there was a war fought to do away with this shit. Do you realize that statistically when Holiday Inn came out, there were probably still black people who were old enough to have actually been born into slavery?"

She then went further, saying: "Every year at Borders, there were classic Christmas movies that people would always come and buy over and over again. We would always sell out of Holiday Inn. I can't believe a movie that has this goddamn scene in it is a holiday classic! And now I feel like... what does it say about those people that this scene doesn't make them so sick that they just don't want to watch the rest of it, but instead adore it, hopefully despite that?"

It made me realize that the reason I hadn't watched any Christmas movies this year after seeing Holiday Inn for the first time--and I'm all about watching Christmas movies in December--was that the movie had made me feel so bad that I didn't want to watch any more Christmas movies. I just wasn't in the mood after that. I actually still have Nutcracker: The Motion Picture and Fitzwilly on my TiVo from December and still haven't got around to watching them because Holiday Inn kind of dampened my Christmas spirit.

Am I overreacting? I don't think so, but I've overreacted before. After all, I saw Django Unchained and I loved it. In his post, Roger mentions a scene of brutality in the movie that's also disturbing, but Quentin Tarantino knows it's disturbing, and that's what makes the difference. The makers of Holiday Inn think they're being cute and funny and other things they are not actually being at all.

But Roger also mentions Song of the South, and I still say what I said when I saw that movie for the first time since I was 4 years old (in 2007, for my Evaluating Disney series): that any thoughts I have on racism in movies have to be tempered by the fact that I'm a white guy in my thirties. Except for occasional comments directed at me, I haven't experienced real racism. I haven't grown up in a country where racism against me has been institutionalized in ways both subtle and overt. So it's not up to me to say what depiction of black people isn't offensive. I'm not going to be the guy who doesn't realize he's an asshole saying "Calm down, everyone, can't you take a joke?" And I'm not going to be the asshole getting overly offended by everything he sees to make up for its existence and show everyone that I'm not cool with that. What I'm clumsily trying to say is: sometimes I just don't know what's offensive and what isn't. Certainly that's still something I tangle with when watching Song of the South, because I love the songs and the animation, and it doesn't always feel racist to me--at the very least, not intentionally racist, but sometimes perhaps obliviously racist--but I acknowledge that there are people who think it is, and their opinion is probably more valid than mine because I'm not black so I don't always realize when something is racist. I just don't, because I never experienced that.

I still remember when I saw Song of the South and talked about it in my 2007 post and said I didn't feel it was racist; Semaj saw the film and had completely different thoughts about that, and I had to concede that, in all honesty, I'm ignorant of a lot of that because I'm a white kid from the suburbs who was never discriminated against for the color of my skin.

Anyway, the reason Mammy Two-Shoes is up at the top of this post--and a point I meant to get to much earlier--is that after enduring "Abraham," my wife and I started talking about other depictions of African-Americans in the 1940s that we may have been exposed to as children. She brought up Mammy Two-Shoes from the Tom and Jerry cartoons and said "You know, when I was a kid and I watched those cartoons on local TV, I didn't think Mammy was a servant, I thought it was Mammy's house. I didn't know what a Mammy even was. I just thought she was a Southern woman and it was her house."

It's funny, but I always thought that, too. I think it's for a couple of reasons. One, I didn't know what a Mammy was, either. Maybe I thought it was a more familiar way of saying "Ma'am" or "Mrs." I don't know what I thought. I didn't see Gone with the Wind until high school, and I don't remember ever hearing the term "Mammy" again until then. Second, when I first saw Tom and Jerry cartoons, I was too young to know what racism was or grasp the concept that some people are treated differently because of who they are or what they look like. That stuff didn't start kicking in until I was in elementary school; before that, any lessons on our physical or cultural differences that had really stuck with me were things on Sesame Street that taught me not to focus on those differences as something negative, but as something to learn from. I still remember seeing, when it originally aired, Harry Belafonte's appearance on The Muppet Show and the fascinating "Turn the World Around" segment and this idea of everyone being connected to each other as much as they're connected to the elements.

Third, I liked a few black sitcoms when I was a kid. So I was used to seeing, say, Florida Evans or Mabel Thomas being mothers and heads of the household (especially Florida after James Evans died, leading to an embarrassingly long amount of time in my life when I thought John Amos was actually dead). It didn't seem unreasonable to me that Mammy Two-Shoes was a housewife, and her dialect didn't make an impression on me as stereotypical, in large part because of Florida Evans, and in large part because I was just too young to know there was a stereotype of a certain way certain people spoke.

I don't say all of this to say that people are wrong to be offended by it if they're offended by it. I'm just saying that it was another one of those things--like having Little Black Sambo read to me as kid--that I didn't understand as racism when I was younger and never internalized to the point where I somehow expected all black people to talk like Mammy Two-Shoes. I can only examine what's happened to me; I can't speak for other people and their experiences.

In doing the biography tumblr that I do, I've been reexamining a lot of the things I remember and revisiting things that I didn't remember at all, trying to discover more about myself and why I am the way I am. So I've been thinking a lot about my earliest experiences and this is just more of that. I'm considering the context of things like Tom and Jerry and Song of the South and Holiday Inn, putting them into the perspective of how I relate to other people and what I'm personally sensitive to. Having no awareness, as a child, of racial connotations doesn't mean those racial connotations don't exist, it just means I didn't know. I know now, and I think seeing the difference and not trying to apologize for it is an important part of growing up.

But, honestly, in any context, Holiday Inn is hugely fucking racist.


Jayhawk said...

Just remember that the racism in Sambo is not directed at Africans, but rather Indians. Tigers don't live in Africa, they live in India. I'm not saying people can't be upset about it, but just make sure the outrage is accurately placed.

Hobgoblin238 said...

I have never seen it.

Roger Owen Green said...

Jayhawk- But the art of Little Black Sambo had the same annoying quality of American black 'pickaninnies,' and the distinction you cite was lost on the general public. I mean, a darkie is a darkie to the general public.

Kelly Sedinger said...

There's a brief scene in An Affair to Remember when some children put on a song for some adults, and at the end, the two black kids in the class come forward and do, well, a really 'black' dance. I remember watching that scene with my mother and sister some years ago, the first time either had seen the movie all the way through in years and the first time I'd ever seen it, period, and both my mother and sister were appalled. They were both saying things like "Where the hell did that racist shit come from?!" It always makes me uncomfortable to watch that bit even now, but I still love the movie. Weird. (I, too, am a suburban white guy.)

Semaj said...

Just watched the video of the song, and wow just wow. That was racist.

Great post, I need to read the other guy's post on the subject matter.

BTW, I find this post fits right in with my minorities in media class. We just watched the movie "Dancing in September" and I am writing a paper on it.

BTW, you can watch the entire movie on YT for free.

Bärrÿ said...

What the hell??? I solely watched the musical number and wasn't sure what part to be truly be offended by. Was it Bing Crosby and company in blackface singing or a black maid saying "darkies"...seriously, what the hell? Why is this film so popular? Also, the song itself is pretty messed up. Why is Lincoln being portrayed as this deity or John Henry like character? Honestly, that seems more insulting than anything else in that same way that sometimes women are portrayed as helpless until a man comes along and helps them.

Thinking about things in perspective, I hate to say this but I'm less offended by this than Soul Plane as I think that film is one of the lowest points of my race on many different levels. I honestly consider that film to be a modern day minstrel show to the point that I felt like Tom Arnold and his family's stereotypes were so bad that they might as well had been people in whiteface.

Semaj said...

Soul Plane might be worst than this.

The Flying Dachshund said...

The Song of the South thing is a tough debate... On the one hand, at face value, it does appear racist... I know it doesn't really atone for anything or make those offended by it feel any better, but the actual story does take place in the 1870's after slavery was abolished so Uncle Remus was technically not a slave at that point... But I understand it is a sensitive subject since he obviously was in slavery at one point (and since most people believe it's pre-Civil War and he's still in slavery)...

Jedediah said...

For some reason, I was aware even as a kid (I grew up during the 80s in Germany) that Mammy Two-Shoes was a servant - but don't ask me why. Another staple of my childhood was the Cosby Show, so it's not like it was an automatic assumption.

As for Holiday Inn ... wow. How anyone ever thought that this is acceptable is beyond me.