Friday, October 25, 2013

Let's Talk About Racism in the Classics

This post first appeared on Book Riot and generated some...heated discussion. Thought ya'll might be interested:

I love Gone With the Wind. Like, named-my-son-Rhett, dressed-up-as-Scarlett-for-Halloween-once, read-it-over-and-over LOVE the thing. But ya know what? It’s racist.
Kit wrote a post recently about how she couldn’t finish her re-read of it because the racism caught her in the jaw, and I was surprised at the response. While there was plenty of “you’re right, but I love it,” (fine, awesome, you do you), there was also a lot of “how dare you” and “this is a call for censorship” and some Paula Deen apologetics (what?) and “if you try to change [the book] I’ll smack you,” to boot. The vitriol and name-calling that came out of a request that we examine an aspect of a book in the canon made me wonder why it’s so hard to have this conversation.
I’ve been blogging about the classics for several years now, and it seems to me that we’re pretty capable of talking about sexism in the genre. Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James- they’ve all come under the microscope for their portrayal of women (rightly so), and while there’s always trolls in those conversations, the idea that someone would find their sexism problematic is accepted.
So what’s the deal with racism? Why can’t we talk about this? Gone With the Wind has major race issues, and it isn’t just because it has slavery in it. It’s about the South in the Civil War, of course it’s going to have slavery in it. But it’s a paternalistic, romantic view of slavery wrapped up in a gold-tinged view of the South that totally denies the reality of the institution. The KKK? An honorable knighthood out to defend the South (and her women, by golly) from the evils of carpet-baggery and newly-freed slaves! Black people who don’t “know their place” in the book are characterized in an awful light. This is the reality of the book. I’m of the opinion that Mitchell was using the romantic portrayal of slavery to make a point about the death of the Old South, much as she was with the character of Ashley himself, but that drawing of slavery without any real negatives for the slaves? It’s as problematic as Rhett is dashing.
Discussions of racism, even more than those of sexism, bring out the “yeah, but that’s how things were back then” stuff. It’s a valid point, and one that I make myself about various works. We wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. But that doesn’t place these books outside the realm of applied critical thought. We can recognize that the book existed in a more racist period in history (or, as Jeff pointed out, 70 years after the fact) and then still go on to talk about how its portrayal of slavery influences modern readers, or how it still is or isn’t applicable to the South today. Readers are allowed to be both bothered by the blackface portrayal of African Americans in the book and cognizant of the historical context.
We can still hang out together with buckets of popcorn and marathon the four-hour movie. We can dress up like Scarlett for Halloween because she’s bad-ass and think Rhett Butler is aces and re-read the book while simultaneously recognizing that the book has problems and that those problems demand discussion. We can love the book’s epic scope, its drama; we can appreciate Melanie’s goodness and Mammy’s wit, we can hold our breath as the South falls apart and the characters do what they can with what they have- but none of that means we have to turn a blind eye to the fact that Mitchell wrote a book that glosses over slavery in ways that need to be criticized.
The book isn’t about the reality of the South, it’s about the backwards-looking, dreamy, fictitious, mythical version of the South that Margaret Mitchell saw being worshipped around her in the 1930s. And the fact that criticism (by which I mean critical thinking applied to its place in the canon) of the racist implications of the book elicits name-calling and ridiculous cries of censorship means that that fictitious myth is still alive in the minds of people who don’t want this conversation to happen. Any book that is taught in schools and loved by so many (including myself), is worthy of our critical eye. If it doesn’t stand up to it, it’s not worth its place in our canon.


  1. Amen. As someone who aso loved GWTW I've been thinking a lot about the Book Riot post. You've voiced my thoughts perfectly here. Just because I love a book doesn't mean I don't see its flaws. I think understanding the shortcomings of a book can help you appreciate it more. I just toured Mitchell's home/museum in Atlanta and one thing I learned there really stuck with me. Until she was 11 years old she didn't know the South lost the war. Her family talked about it as if they had won. They glorified it, so of course Mitchell's view of the South during that time period and the slavery that supported that lifestyle is going to be twisted. Anyway, fantastic post.

  2. "Any book that is taught in schools and loved by so many (including myself), is worthy of our critical eye. If it doesn't stand up to it, it’s not worth its place in our canon."

    I couldn't agree more. I've not read Gone With the Wind, but this post reminded me of Jane Eyre; Rochester's non-white wife was 'othered' as mentally deficient and 'evil'. This doesn't stop my enjoyment of the story, but it is certainly something I want to be aware of and critical of.

  3. Alice, to be Jane Erye is a much more racist work that GWW, darkness connotes evil throughout, remember the Gyosy woman's treatment, Rochester is dark and this adds to his sinister appeal.

  4. I'd like to add some applause for this post, and Melissa's comment about Marget Mitchell not knowing about the war's outcome is fascinating!

  5. Maybe the biggest problem is that one book becomes the sum total of all experience where it should be seen as a snap shot taken by one person with one viewpoint.

  6. Right on! I find this so refreshing. Society today (says this 27 year old curmudgeon) is so f'ing defensive it can't even think straight. "It isn't racist because I like it and I'm not racist, wait - are you calling me a racist?" or worse: "well it wasn't trying to be racist so therefore it isn't racist." We have to be more nuanced than this!!

  7. I homeschooled my daughter and solved these issues by reading widely. We didn't shy away from books with racism (Huck Finn) or anti-Semitism (Trollope) but we balanced it by reading as many black authors and Jewish authors as I could find. Especially Frederick Douglas' autobiography. He wrote movingly about being born into slavery and there were no romantic notions about it. We also read Russian lit where we once again encountered anti-Semitism and balanced that with Primo Levi. Reading books like 'The Good Earth' and Dostoevsky and Orwell gave us great insight into the ideas that were shaping the economic and social revolutions that were to come. I don't think people need to shy away from reading books like 'Gone with the Wind' but perhaps read "12 years a Slave", too. I would hate to see books banned because they might seem like one too many 'white man books' or racist. If it's a classic, if it's a great work, it shouldn't be taken away just because it's contains an idea we aren't comfortable with. We shouldn't make our reading list smaller. I think we should enlarge it.
    It's just an idea but it worked well for us.

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  10. The first time I ever looked down that loaded "racism in classics" gun was reading Heart of Darkness in high-school. I can remember stopping and actually having to analyze what my feelings were regarding race, what my feelings should be, and then triple-asking myself all of the questions you raise here. I'm still asking them.