Saturday, June 13, 2009

A House Divided Cannot Stand Itself

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.


Cee said...

interesting post. We just watched the Hangover with my brother and his fiance (who is black). Watching the movie with her made me think about how she viewed the movie. The portrayal of blacks in that movie was horrendous and stereotypical (and of asians as well). It was a hilarious film but I kept wondering how awful is it that I find these stereotypes so funny and that pop culture eats this stuff up?

It's just so horrible how we treat others in order to laugh (be entertained) at their expense.

gudnuff said...

I have so much I'd like to say about race relations, but I'm unsure how to present it or if it'd be a big mistake that would blow up in my face one day...thoughts about how "race" automatically is seen as a bilateral issue, a black/white issue, in some parts of the country, and asian (southern asia, eastern asia, northern asia, western asia), latin (too many places to list!), pacific islanders, carribean islanders, native americans...such designations aren't even on the map, or are the only designations on the map and African Americans are way down there, not discussed much at all. Oh, I have so much to talk about. Like how Song of the South was set just post-the Civil War, which my MIL didn't think made sense, else why were the slaves still going to the fields each day, and Leo and I argued, where else were they gonna go, it was the only home they had, the only skills they'd been allowed to develop...why do you think the southeast's demographic makeup looks the way it looks today? Check out'll see a lot more people of Mexican ancetry, Pacific Island you see that in the southeast? Not so much. There is so much to discuss. I hate that I'm scared to discuss it.

Hyphen Mama said...

I, too, have so many things to say, but won't here. No need to get googled and slammed for something crazy.

I do like that your MIL came back with what you added later. THAT was a solid truth and for her to share that was priceless.

CatrinkaS said...

On a couple of occasions, my children have had to describe someone of another race - and race didn't come up. Both times, I was surprised when I met the child.

They outgrew it - each time it happened, my child (different ones) was under three. After that, they start to 'see' race. I find that fascinating. It is our job to help them continue to not see it.

gudnuff said...

Hyphen Mama - you're welcome to submit something as "Anonymous" (of course, now that I've said that, if there are any Anonymous commenters, people will think it's you, right? Oh well).

CatrinkaS - I remember that time! I remember when Q was in pre-school, and couldn't remember names, and only described the other kids based on what they had done or said. It made it hard for me to keep track of who she was talking about and I worked hard to attach names to the other kids (I'd spend as much time at the pre-school as I could manage to steal away from my office, and I would make it a point to pay attention as much as possible, to learn about the other kids, get a tiny little sense of who they were), and to get her to remember the names, but I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED that identifying someone rested solely on their name or their behavior/how they made her feel. I have a few more thoughts about this, and will probably write one more post on the subject. It's on my mind a lot, anyway...I hope people will join in the discussion.

gudnuff said...

I just spent an hour writing a follow-up post that I've decided not to post. Ha. Anyway, the crux of it was: do we 'see' race because it's human nature to note how someone is different from us, how you are different from me, or do we 'see' race because we are taught to see it by adults around us? I've decided it's the former. But HOW we see it is driven more by the latter.

law mama said...

It's so interesting to read about the perspectives of folks from different parts of the country on things like race relations, which as a fourth-generation Californian (seriously, they came off the boat from the Azores 100 years ago and we're all still here in Sacramento) I just take completely for granted. But it sounds like you at least have a good relationship with her (oh, to have a helpful MIL!!), which is so cool. So many people refuse to even entertain other viewpoints that aren't directly in line with their own.

Anyway, thank you for the kind words on my post - and certainly, it sounds like with starting law school with a youngin' that you must know all too well what a challenge it is. Good luck to you and keep your enthusiasm up as you get through it. It will be over before you know it.

gudnuff said...

...oh wow, yeah, well, I haven't quite made the transition yet...still rotting in IT with the rest of the nerds...somebody's gotta bring in a paycheck, and at the moment, that somebody is me...

Shelley said...

My mother is from two Florida families and I grew up visiting with them a lot. When my baby was very young, I started to bounce her and sing:

"Old Jim Crow came riding by;
Said, 'Old man your horse will die.
If he dies I'll tan his skin.
If he lives I'll ride him again.' Whooooah."

And just froze. Because it had been sung to me, to my siblings, and I had never really heard the words before - it was just a children's song - innocuous, right? And it was so horrifying to realize that as much as I hadn't thought I was a part of that Southern past, it's there.

Anyway, I still sing it, just with "Little Miss Eden came riding by..."