So You Love that Racist Movie?

Scene I

Y’all, Gone with the Wind was my first grown-up movie (that means my first movie that wasn’t a Saturday morning matinee where my friends and I ran up and own the aisles acting like fools). We went at night, my mother and two sisters and I. Watching this movie I learned a very important plot point. During the burning of Atlanta, as Scarlet whipped the horses through the flames, guiding the rocking wagon away from destruction, my little sister wailed, afraid for Scarlet’s life. But my mother said, “Don’t worry. Scarlet is too mean to die.”

The movie was important in my personal history. Memorable. Part of my family lore. Instructive in my professional writing life. All of it. And it doesn’t matter.

Scene II

All of our childhood, my mother waited and waited until her three daughters got old enough for her to read to us from Uncle Remus. She’d try and read a bit and ask us, “Did you understand that?” We didn’t. Harris wrote in broad dialect. My mother had grown up with the books. She loved the briar patch, Br’er Rabbit, and the lessons the stories taught. At bedtime, the four of us snuggled in bed, our little girl hearts next to hers as she read to us what was incomprehensible.

Love. Generational tradition. Enjoyments Mother wanted to pass down. And it doesn’t matter.

Scene III

Song of the South, the Disney movie, was based on the Uncle Remus stories. Mother took us to see it, a cartoon. My family all grew up in the restrictive, segregated South, but Mother laughed (honestly, snorted) at the attempts to force her to comply with racial mores of Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. Yet, she loved Harris’s stories. And it doesn’t matter.

Scene IV

Mother did not read to us from Dr. Seuss. She was probably too non-compliant for that (Seuss was a priggish moralist, at least many of his stories were–read his ham-fisted plots with adult eyes, you’ll see.) But if she had read to us from them, and we loved them, it wouldn’t have mattered.

The Theme

Gone with the Wind was embedded in my life–I used as a spoof in a St. Paddy’s day parade in the 1990s. But when people I admired in Memphis asked the Orpheum Theatre why in the hell they were still including that racist tripe in their summer movie lineup, I quit loving it.

Similarly, Uncle Remus and Song of the South were embedded in my life. But when I heard the white ear through which Harris wrote, I quit loving it. “Dialect,” they call it, but it’s only dialect if you’re white.

Time has passed, and what was once important in my childhood has marinated. My relationship with it has changed. If similar experiences are in your background, and you bow up like a cat spying a snake when asked to reconsider childhood loves, ask yourself why.

Is your reaction caused by embarrassment? Maybe defensiveness? The flush of shame that accompanies your remembrance of enjoying that which is through modern eyes so clearly wrong? Or is it just grief at having to give up what you once loved? If so, ask yourself: what makes you cling to your childhood experiences rather than honoring the person in front of you?

The Plea

If any of this rings with familiarity, we are in this together. May we all be willing to see with new eyes what we once loved. Sift the chaff of racism and retain that which matters.

The love.

The beat of Mother’s heart against mine.

The lilt of her reading voice.

The safety of being with my sisters.

The timelessness of love.

Everything beyond that is pure pride. And, Lord, how unimportant can that be?

Me when someone says that which they have loved in the past keeps them from considering the feelings of those living in the present.

Gone with the Wind, Jackson, Mississippi, Racism today, Song of the South, Uncle Remus, Walt Disney and Racism

Comments (4)

  • I am impressed with your candor in this piece and the previous one. I applaud your serious effort to lift up the dilemma faced by the privileged as they confront their own racist thinking and the institutional racism of the present. The quotation from James Baldwin is perfect for your pieces. I agree completely that we must face our own past experiences and present beliefs as we struggle to address the unpleasant and deeply racist realities of our times.
    The writing in these two pieces is brilliant and just right for the difficulties you address.
    Keep.writing like this and the Pope will be safe.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you, Joe. I appreciate it. Much of the time, the reaction to being told something is racist is a hurricane of confusion–embarrassment, denial, guilt, rejection, ridicule, an inkling of truth denied. It often takes a while to come around to letting something go. As my brilliant friend often reminded me when asking for tolerance of those struggling, we’re not all there yet. ps “the Pope will be safe”–that’s a new one on me

  • I like how you organized this post, Ellen. I’m trying to think of childhood loves that I should no longer love, but I don’t remember much. I didn’t even see Gone With the Wind until I was 23 and laid up in a hospital and it was the only movie available on TV at the time. Before I saw it then, I was more familiar with Carol Burnett’s play on it 🙂

    Too often people shrug off the racism of their favorite authors, musicians, artists as “it was just part of their time.” But there were plenty of forward-thinking, equality-minded people back then. I don’t believe anyone had to be racist. While we might always be sensitive to our individual and cultural differences, there’s no justification to think that another human being is only worth 3/5 of a white man, for example. To class someone as inferior just because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or their sexuality, or their sex, or their ableness, is repugnant. I think I’m going off on a tangent here,

    I recently read an opinion piece on the latest US Supreme Court ruling, one where Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. I forget the case name, but basically the ruling will make it easier for courts to sentence underage people convicted of homicide to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I understand that states can still enact other protections for underage offenders, and that many states don’t even allow life without parole sentences for juveniles, but the hypocrisy in Kavanaugh writing the majority opinion on this case when he himself demanded that his teenage transgressions not obstruct him from becoming Supreme Court justice just blows me away. That man has no humanity, in my humble opinion.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thanks, Marie (WordPress keeps telling me to use headers :)). I so agree about forward-thinking people having lived in all past times. It’s a truth we don’t want to acknowledge because it means they made choices and we, too, will be judged for our choices–ack! As I read what you write about Kavanaugh all I can think is how the sin Jesus most railed against more than any other was hypocrisy. There’s a reason for that. And it’s related to what you wrote earlier: the desire to be above judgment for our choices. so we shift the gaze to others. Thanks for giving me more to think about, Marie.

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