Racial Harmony

History teaches us that racial harmony extends beyond racial tolerance.

It’s not that I’m a big fan of “Gone with the Wind,” which was, in my opinion, a chick flick before that expression became part of the national vocabulary. The movie came out in 1939, many years before some started inappropriately referring to women as chicks and movies as flicks. A quick Googling revealed the term “chick flick” first appeared in print in 1988. It didn’t take long for the word “chick,” like “Gone with the Wind” to be deemed politically incorrect.

“Gone with the Wind” won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and, even more telling, the first Oscar to an African American actor, Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress), who played the part of an obedient slave named “Mammy.”

The preceding sentence illustrates the conflict inherent in that movie— a cinematic color-line breakthrough while promoting a racial stereotype. At the same time, whites were still lynching blacks in the South without penalty. Most of these lynchings started some 25 years after the Civil War and continued in alarming numbers into the 1920’s and 1930’s. Then we have “Mammy,” a very likable character with a common nickname for older female house slaves in the antebellum South. She is treated like family in the movie, although, in reality, she would have retreated to the slave quarters after a long day of subservience.

The movie came under fire — and not for the first time— for its benevolent depiction of slavery when HBO Max showcased it as one of the great movie classics, invoking outrage as Black Lives Matter and “I Can’t Breathe” resonated across the country. That’s because the movie made slavery look like a harmless crossing of cultures where everybody got along and masters treated their slaves with compassion. Maybe some did, but mostly this harshly imposed servitude was a cruel example of what happens when one race (or a nation, in one sense) deems itself superior to another. The protest was followed by the movie streaming channel pulling it temporarily with a promise to bring it back with added historical context. “Gone with the Wind” is gone via the winds of protest until further notice.

I think it is important we remember that slavery was justified in this country, morally and economically, not long after the first slaves were brought by British privateers to our shores 400 years ago. Most of it took place in the genteel, plantation culture of the American South. These states, pre-confederacy, rationalized it was important enough to cultivate and, tragically, to go to war over to the tune of more than 618,000 killed—360,000-plus of that number in the South.

I have mixed feelings about obliterating all vestiges of history, no matter how bad it makes us seem as a nation at times. It is true that most Confederate statues were erected by whites during the Jim Crow years in the South by white politicians and their benefactors, some of them Ku Klux Klan members, to intimidate blacks and to implicitly remind them of where they stood in a segregated society. They also reminded everyone, black and white, that most of these generals and statesmen were supporters of slavery and traitors to these United States.

Pretending History Didn’t Happen?

And yet we can’t pretend it didn’t happen or that these sculptured figures were, and still are, heroic and historic in the South— any more than we can pretend that “Gone with the Wind” is not absolution for the antebellum South that many Americans accepted for decades. So why put “Gone with the Wind” out of sight and out of mind when we can use it to explain who we were and how that has made us what we are?

The word “antebellum” simply means “before the war.” Yet it reinforces stereotypes of southern belles, gracious living and compassionate masters that belie many of the horrors of slavery, as well as an affront to the promise in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” It further complicates this pledge that the man who wrote those words, Thomas Jefferson, was a southern slaveholder himself. Was it evidence that even our Founding Fathers did not see slaves as human, neither men nor women, and therefore not deserving of equality? Some racists see it this way.

No wonder many whites still haven’t come to terms with our prejudices against blacks, Hispanics, Jews and other races and religions different from ours. Even the term “racial tolerance,” which seems instructive and benign, asks only that we tolerate each other, which is merely, by primary definition, neither to interfere with nor prohibit. Secondary definitions add “respect” and “accept,” but is still passive in its meaning.

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, as well as the generals under him, believed their pro-racism/slavery cause was anointed by God. They saw themselves as a governing authority with Christian precepts and Biblical justification.

Romans 13: 1-2 was a favorite, as it was 150 years later as a rationale for the current U.S. position on illegal immigration:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Confederate rebels denied Lincoln and the U.S. government this same distinction by proclaiming that God was on their side. Sometimes, it seems, God just lets us screw up and hopes we learn something from it. For blacks, being free and supposedly equal Americans all these years after the Civil War hasn’t exactly been a cake walk. Witness those 4,084 African-Americans lynched without trial or representation between 1877 and 1950 in the South alone, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. By the way, the term “cake walk” and probably “piece of cake,” meaning something easily accomplished, stemmed from a social event among slaves on southern plantations— a strutting dance competition in which the winners received a cake.

Vocabulary Shaped by Racism

We forget, probably didn’t even realize, that some well-known words and expressions were borne out of racism and the slave culture.

Some of them include:

√   Uppity — Almost always applies to blacks and was a word slaveowners and their minions used to describe slaves who didn’t know their place. Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio commentator, even used it to describe former First Lady Michelle Obama. Actually, he said she was guilty of “uppity-ism,” whatever that is, and called her “Moo-chelle” because she was, in his opinion, overweight.

√ Sold down the river — This expression denoting betrayal actually referred to the practice of selling uppity slaves to crueler taskmasters further down the river (customarily the Mississippi).

√ White trash A reference to whites at the same low socio-economic level as most southern blacks, which spawned resentment and hatred toward their black peers and triggered many lynchings and race riots like the one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June of 1921.

√ Rednecks — This originally referred to rural southerners who were uneducated and bigoted — and most likely considered white trash. The mark of the red neck— sunburn on a white neck— was common among rural southern whites in the summertime.

√ Black sheep — Black was seen as the mark of the devil in sheep and some held the same regard for humans with black skin.

√ Peanut gallery — These are the cheap seats in a theater, auditorium or stadium far away from the action and often separated from other patrons. These were also the seats where blacks were designated to sit on the vaudeville circuit, whose traveling shows were popular between 1880 and the early 1930’s.

Finally, there was the phenomenon of blackface, which was featured mostly in comedy productions and minstrel shows, often with casts of whites portraying blacks and speaking in what was known as “negro dialect.” Using burnt cork, dark makeup or even shoe polish, they would blacken their skin and then, for added effect, paint on oversized lips or don a tightly curled wig. Black minstrel shows were regarded as the nation’s most popular entertainment throughout the 19th Century, gathering momentum decades before the Civil War. Although the once thriving traveling professional troupes went into decline in the 1890’s, they were still popular in various communities in my rural part of Pennsylvania well into the 1970’s as fundraisers featuring local talent.

Seemingly harmless and light-hearted, they were unsettlingly popular in areas where black residents were few and far between. Even humor couldn’t disguise the prejudice, and blackface minstrels came to be regarded by many as festering racism and fostering the notion that people of color were less than human.