So for some reason we watched Song of the South last night, a bootlegged version with Japanese subtitles that Leo's uncle gave us yesterday. My mother-in-law was here and watched it with us. There was a heated discussion after we watched it about the film's general offensiveness and why people had urged Disney not to make the movie in the first place. Leo's Mom got quite upset with us for criticizing the film. She kept saying it was a story about a little boy and about the rich oral tradition of storytelling among the slaves on the plantation, and we kept saying it was unnecessarily cheerful about plantation life and of course it's offensive to depict that period of time as pleasant and desirable and that only white people (like her, like us) would wonder why anybody would object to the film. I tried to shift the focus. I told her, imagine a film that was set in the sex trade, and some nice old woman (forced into a life of prostitution), too old for tricks but with a kindness of character, was the one telling the stories to the little boy - the grandson of the pimp/matron of the house - how would she (my MIL) feel about the film then? Would she still insist that we were missing the point? Or would she think the film was offensive?
She got very grumpy. She pointed her finger at me and said, "Have you read Team of Rivals?" (which she loaned to me about three months ago). And I said, sheepishly, "I'm just up to Chapter 3." And she looked me dead in the eye and said, "Read Team of Rivals!" and went into her room and shut the door. This morning, she immediately began packing her car very purposefully.
I see her point, too, of course. She's saying, well, that's how it was, why try to lie about it or hide it or deny it happened? Why couldn't there be some good things to say about that time, and why not celebrate the folk stories of Uncle Remus featuring Br'er Rabit, Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear?
Uh, because, really? Was plantation life really like that? You were there?
Anyway, I can't have this discussion and not link to Cracked's list of The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters.
Race in America. Whew, what a loaded issue. I'm a northerner, raised in the Midwest, schooled in the Northeast. My husband grew up in Orlando, a place I tend(ed) to view as non-regional, or uniquely regional (can central Florida be considered its own cultural region of the US?). His parents? Multi-generational non-land-owning southerners. Rural/small town, deep south kind of southerners. A fact I didn't fully grasp the significance of for quite a while. My husband speaks with a similar dialect to mine. He speaks it whenever he's around me and when he's around my family, that is. When we're around his family, suddenly it's "y'all" this and "y'all" that. It's boiled peanuts and collards. I am reminded of the scene in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" when they first escape and are eating the horsemeat-stew-about-to-spoil with the southerner's relative and he's recounting all the bad things that have happened to their extended relations. It often feels like I've just walked into the filming of that scene when I'm around them. The lesson I've learned here is that when you go on a date with somebody, and the guy totally blasts his family and has very few nice things to say about them, it would be wise to take him seriously.
Also, I just need to say that Leo's mom is a sweetheart. She is the very personification of The Giving Tree. She was upset by our disparaging reaction to her perspective of the film, and totally ready to hit the road this morning. Then we discovered that Q woke up with a raised temperature, sore throat, stuffy nose, and MIL stayed all day, went to the store for food, cooked some split pea soup at Q's request and typically does everything she possibly can at the slightest indication of being needed. We all have so many facets to our makeup. I try to stay on the positive side of things. But I'm also going to put up a fight when it comes to opening Q's eyes - and my own and Leo's and my MIL's - to the damages of racism and the dangers of remaining blind to it due to white privilege. If pointing out the inherent racism of Song of the South means that my MIL gets upset enough to cut her visit short, so be it. Clearly she's defensive about it, otherwise why would she be THAT upset?
She's right, though, that I need to get back to work on Team of Rivals.
Addendum: She just said to me that thinking about black/white issues is painful for her. She said she remembers a black guy she worked with at a library when she was in her early twenties (about fifty years ago), and that he was trying to explain to her that the military was his only real option. She said she didn't truly grasp at the time the import of what he was saying to her. She said, "People can be living right there, in the middle of it, and be blind to what's happening. I'm bothered by that aspect of Southern culture. And there's no way to be free of it. The only way my sons can be free of it is to marry someone outside the Southern culture. And the grandchildren...they need to be kept away, too."
That is deep, people. That is huge. Think about what this woman is saying, about her own heritage. About her children's legacy. That's some pretty powerful stuff.