One of the reasons I like my new (temporary) job is because my work environment is a hotbed for daily HR violations. No one has a filter, including the director for our division. However, as free as Mr. Englishman is with sharing his often inappropriate thoughts, he can’t hold a candle to Rob, a massive 6’ 5” graduate from Georgia Tech. Rob is White, born and raised in the South, jovial and has only the slightest odor of prejudice about him. And for that, I like him – I like to know precisely where people stand when it comes to race.
Yesterday, a random conversation crept up. Out of now where, Rob started talking about one of his favorite childhood movies: Song of the South. He was going on about why he didn’t understand how people could think that movie was racist.
“I love that movie! You can’t get that movie here in America,” he lamented. “My wife had to order it from somewhere in Europe, like France or something.”
“Ummm…that’s probably because of all the racial stereotypes laced throughout the movie,” said Shana, another engineering egg head (she’s Black). “It’s very ‘Uncle Tom’ in that way.”
“Yeah, but it’s Disney!” countered Rob. “I get that slaves weren’t always happy, but as far as the story goes, I don’t see the racism. I dunno. Maybe it’s cause I’m White that I don’t get it.”
At that point I burst into a fit of laughter. Nicole, a petite brunette and recent UGA grad implored Rob to stop before he said anything else that could be perceived out of turn. She turned pink and looked very uncomfortable. I continued to cackle and felt obliged to chime in.
“I haven’t seen the movie Rob – I’ve only read the books. I didn’t see anything racist about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, but as soon as I see the movie, I’ll let you know if Black people should be offended…or if I should be offended that you’re not offended.”
So last night, thanks to the power of YouTube and the internet, I found Song of the South online.
Oh My God.
I haven’t laughed that hard since Chappelle’s Show.
First of all, there is ample opportunity for everyone represented in that movie to be offended. That being said, it’s hardly worth the trouble to get so worked up. You have this wealthy White couple travelling from Atlanta to whatever Podunk town Grandma lives in by horse and carriage. They are sitting in stony silence with their Black maid and androgynous child in tow. When they finally speak, the father is having a most difficult time getting his wife to comply with whatever it is he wants her to do. We later discover that he wants to drop the boy (oh…that effeminate creature is a BOY?) off at grandma’s and return to Atlanta with his wife. She flatly refuses. This, as I see it, is the beginning of Disney’s propagation of the weak absent male/father figure – a theme that has continued to run rampant throughout their films ’til today. In turn, the White mother, although well meaning, is a frigid, uptight, hardnosed b*itch who thinks she knows everything –another offensive Disney theme as it relates to women.
The storyline line for the slaves in Song of the South was nowhere near as offensive as it was absurd. First of all, the little slave boy (whose name escapes me right now) wantonly bursts into little Johnny’s bedroom early in the morning with his bare feet and frog in his pocket for both of them to play with. Nuh-uh dude. You’re a slave. You sit silently and wait for Johnny to wake up, and then do his bidding.
Next you have a group of slaves marching off to the fields at dawn, singing spirituals in perfect 4 part harmony as they prepare for a 12 hour day of drudgery in the intense Georgia heat and humidity. Yeah, right!
Finally, the most absurd scene of all was the pivotal moment when Uncle Remus is informed by the madam of the house that he must stay away from little Johnny because his stories are making it hard for him to decipher truth from fiction. In that moment, Uncle Remus decides that he’s going to leave the plantation, mournfully lamenting that he’s become nothing more than an old rascal whose stories do neither harm nor good. Okay, that’s all well and good, but again – you’re a slave Uncle Remus! You’re not going anywhere without your freedom papers! I think I burst into another fit of laughter when I saw him hop into the back of a fortunately placed wagon that was oh-so-fortunately heading away from the plantation; like escape from slavery was just that simple.
In the end, everything turns out just “satisfactual”. Uncle Remus returns to the cotton farm and skips into the sunset with 3 little children and a host of animated characters.
Now, it’s hard for me to get offended by either the characters or the subject matter in this movie. I know and understand that Black people hate to be presented as undereducated simpletons, but that was how our people survived 400 years of oppression. To speak with proper grammar and diction meant that you were (assumedly) educated, and the penalty for education was often death, or at best, banishment to the dreaded Deep South. Add to that, we had a 19 year old male visitor come to our church this Sunday and give a 30 minute testimony in the same pitch, tone, diction and turn of phrase old Uncle Remus used a in pre-civil war America. Should I then be offended (or ashamed) that this modern man sounds like a ‘bumbling Black simpleton’, painful as it was to listen to him? Hardly. That’s not only unfair, it’s ridiculous. His accent is a result of his education and geography.
My upbringing was somewhat schizophrenic, which probably contributes to my inability to take offense to what many deem ‘offensive’. On the one hand, my militant Black American mother was raising me to believe that all White people were racist and out to do irreparable harm, while on the other, indirectly teaching me to ignore the racism that exists within my own race by refusing to address it.
How’s this for ‘offensive’: When my mother would read us the Brer Rabbit stories, she would delight us by mimicking the voices of the characters. The books were accompanied by a .45 record that had the soundtrack from the movie that we would play on the stereo as she read.
“I was bo’n and raised in de briar patch!” she howled dramatically. My sister and I would then do a livley jig to the tune of the song How do you do?