So You Love that Racist Movie?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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?