Friday, February 01, 2008

Racism in the shadows


I'm currently reading Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard by Mark Finn. It's one of the most readable biographies I've read in some time, and Finn's examination of Howard's work specifically from the perspective of Howard as a Texas writer and coming out of the storytelling traditions of Texas is wonderfully expressed throughout in a way I've not seen in previous readings I've done.

Here, however, I merely wish to quote a paragraph, "Now is as good a time as any to discuss one of the hot topics that surrounds any serious study (and, in these politically correct times, as casual reading) of Robert's fiction: Was Robert E. Howard a racist? If the above statement is anything to go on, then of course he was. But, like most of use, Robert's beliefs were complex and thoroughly shaped by the time and place in which he lived."

This is followed by a lengthly discussion of some those complexities, neither as dismissive apologist nor as simplistic critic.

And my point here isn't actually to praise Finn's examination of this issue, but to criticize how we, in this modern world, shy away from any real examination of racism in the popular arts. This is unfortunate, as many, many of the best known examples are also more complex than simply the question of racist or not racist.

I don't necessarily even mean in terms of defending the various people responsible for creating and profiting from racism or racist stereotypes, although I'm not against taking them out of the shadow from which they are simply racists or not racists.

The real issue, however, is the art itself.

Keeping controversial works out of plain sight and out of broad discussion keeps what is and what is not racist about them out of the public eye and, as such, undiscussed and not understood.


I think a lot of people, possibly a majority or fast approaching it, of people who know that Song of the South is racist don't actually understand why. The proper way to handle the movie isn't to keep it in a vault, any more than it is to release it in a mass-market Platinum 2-disk DVD set. Frankly, putting it in one of those collector tin editions with a friendly, brief and likely not terribly specific introduction by Leonard Maltin, as is occasionally rumored, seems a cop-out, too.

Put it out with a documentary that examines the original folk tales that Joel Chandler Harris heard and their origins, discuss his books and the reasons why they generate controversy, discuss the changes made from the books by Disney and in what ways they are and in what ways they aren't effective in alleviating those concerns, discuss the talents of James Baskett, etc. Have black people and white people alike who were contemporary to the movie, while such people are still around, discuss how it came across in its time. Have people who grew up with it discuss their feelings toward the material, positive and negative.

The works of Stepin Fetchit have been almost completely out of circulation for a couple of generations at least. Because of this, most people know it only as a term of derision for that type of lazy black stereotype. The history is lost.

I'm not even sure most people know why the lazy black stereotype is so offensive at this point. Lord knows, the stereotype, and others of its kind, have made enough of comeback to get skewered by Spike Lee's Bamboozled.

Of course, in many more modern movies they are, in theory, surrounded by other black characters of different virtue. Does that make the difference, or is that particular stereotype, rooted in Antebellum lies about the nature of slaves, too offensive to survive at all?

Obviously, the matter is more complicated. The movies involved here are, in most cases, commercial properties, owned by large corporations who have no interest in making available, because it would cost them money and effort, it could possibly shame them over the corporation's history, although that logic confuses me personally.

I think, however, that as long as these things are buried away in a dark corner where we simply label them as "racist" and then confuse that with meritless and leave them undiscussed in a dark corner somewhere, people will lose sight of all the ways in which racism manifests itself in a culture. And while people lose track of their understanding of racism, it can creep into the culture in those, or similar ways.

Look at how much of the debate over Song of the South, which last saw major release inside the United States a mere 20 years ago, is centered on if it is racist. I'm not dismissing that question, but as a question on its own left with one side saying, "Yes, totally." and the other saying, "No, that's ridiculous!", and both extremes, in that sense, being at least partly wrong. Imagine how wrong they'll be able to be after another twenty years.

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