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Thursday, November 28, 2013

"I hate it when people like Al Sharpton Play the Race Card." You'll Be Surprised Who Said This.

Uncle Remus by Norman Rockwell
Uncle Remus in Song of the South singing Zipadeedoodah

Good Soldier Svejk drunk, singing, in jail
Good Soldier Svejk pleads for his life 
"I hate it when people play the race card all the time."

"I don't see any racism in that. It was a story for children. It reminds me of my childhood. It gave me a warm feeling. It was funny."

"I can't wait for everyone who was alive in 1946 to die. Because we are young people and we see the world differently. Everything is not about race to us. It is normal for us to hang out with people of different races."

"No matter what the makers of this film did, the race baiters would criticize it. Like that creepy Al Sharpton."

At the mention of Al Sharpton, other students grumble.

Three of the four speakers, above, were African American students. I'd just shown them clips from the "banned," allegedly racist, Walt Disney film "Song of the South."

I show these clips every semester. I never tell the students in advance what I am about to show.

I ask them, after the lights come up, to write two things: an objective description of what they just saw, and a subjective account of how it made them feel.

They watch a scene in which a little white boy runs away from his Southern home. He is rescued by Uncle Remus, an elderly black man. Uncle Remus tells the boy the story of Br'er Rabbit, and his attempt to run away, and how that attempt ended badly.

Uncle Remus uses this frame story to teach the boy that "you can't run away from your trouble."

"Song of the South" is condemned as racist because Uncle Remus is happy, he is integrated with whites, and he is meek. He is not a warrior. He doesn't fight against white supremacy for black liberation. Also, he speaks in dialect typical of former slaves from the American South.

When I've shown this clip in the past, this is usually what happens. Most students say that they liked the clip. They like it as a colorful, funny, educational entertainment for young children. They find the song "Zip a dee doo dah" to be catchy and upbeat.

One or two students, though, will find the clip horribly racist and offensive and wrong.

This is the first time I've shown the clip that not a single student described the clip as racist.

A third of my class identifies as African American. They were the loudest and most adamant in defending the clip, and condemning race baiting.

I once remarked to a superior on campus, "You know, my African American students often are not very radical. They often have old fashioned values. They often voice respect for hard work and impatience with race baiting. Many think that people should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor rather than pay high taxes for welfare programs."

My superior said to me that it was my job to instill radicalism in my students. To steer them onto the correct, leftist, path.

I don't agree. I think it's my job to help my students be themselves.

Below please find a previous blog post describing a very different screening of "Song of the South."

***

You are in a college classroom. The professor tells you that she is about to show you a film clip. After you finish viewing it, she wants you to write two paragraphs. The first paragraph will record the objective facts of what you just saw: the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The second paragraph will record your feelings about what you saw.

Something about the professor's attitude has you a bit scared. There is tension in the dark classroom. You are anxious. What are you about to see?

In fact, though, the film clip turns out to contain no sex or violence or sedition. It's a clip from a 1940's Disney film. It's set in the South, probably sometime in the late nineteenth century. A very cute little boy is running away from home. He happens across an elderly black man who takes the boy to his cabin and tells him a story about Br'er Rabbit. Br'er Rabbit runs away from home and almost falls into the clutches of Br'er Fox, but, through his wits, manages to escape at the last minute. The fable warns the boy that running away from home won't solve his problems. The old man sings a peppy song, "Zip a dee doo dah." The boy is delighted.

The film clip ends. The screen goes up; the classroom lights come back on.

You breathe a sigh of relief. That was a simple enough film clip. Nothing scary. It's easy enough to write up the two paragraphs. You liked the sweetness and sentimentality of the film, and think that it would be good for small children, but it's not your cup of tea.

The teacher tells students to put down their pens. She asks for student reactions.

Explosion.

An African American student is outraged. She hasn't spoken much all semester. Today she speaks rapidly, angrily and loudly. The film is racist, insulting and demeaning. It is part of white supremacy. Just watching the clip has poisoned the whole class.

The student holds her hand to her chest. She had been shy for most of the semester. Speaking has obviously cost her some effort. She glares at the class. Who will support her? Who will dare to disagree and support this racist film? Who are the racists in class? Her eyes seem to defy anyone to disagree.

A white student, an outspoken feminist and English major, joins in. She's heard about this evil film and denounces it roundly. "Disney banned 'Song of the South'!" She shouts. Not really. Disney has not released it on DVD. You can watch the film on youtube.

You were going to raise your hand and contribute to the discussion, but now you are nervous. "What's wrong with me?" you think. "Why didn't I realize that I was watching an evil film?" You shrug and wait for the discussion to boil over.

Some students, obviously flabbergasted, look to the teacher. What is the approved reaction? What reaction will earn the highest grade?

***

I've been showing this same clip from Walt Disney's 1946 film "Song of the South" for some years now.

Two aspects of this oft-repeated scenario frighten and educate me.

One: Many students don't know the difference between thoughts and feelings. Students produce meaningless sentences like: "I feel that this is good for children." "I think that I enjoyed this."

What's more troubling – much more troubling – the students who react most vehemently to "Song of the South" often can't describe the objective facts of what they saw.

Really. They cannot tell you what they saw. They cannot tell you what Disney put on the screen.

What can they say? "I am outraged. That is racist. I've been victimized. That is racist. I'm very hurt. That is racist."

"What? Tell me, what specific feature of 'Song of the South' is racist?"

"It's racist, I'm telling you. Don't tell me you like that movie. It's racist."

"What? What aspect of the film is racist?"

"It's racist! I'm hurt!"

"Okay. I get it that you are hurt. That's subjective. That's emotions. It's good that you can report that. Let's turn to the objective, to consensus reality. What specific aspect of the film is racist to you? Is it that Uncle Remus speaks in a Southern black dialect? Is it that he is wearing shabby clothes? What specific feature strikes you as racist, and why?"

"You are white! You cannot know how much that film hurts me! It's racist and we should not watch it!"

I've had the conversation, described above.

I want to change it. I don't want to make students who don't like "Song of the South" like it. I want students, all students, to know how to differentiate thoughts from feelings. I want students to be able to say, with specificity, what feature of a work of art makes it a racist work of art, and why. I don't want anyone to use a sense of victimization as a weapon to intimidate, bully and silence others. "I am hurt and my people have been hurt; therefore, you must agree with me." That approach denigrates and circumvents thought, scholarship, and why we have college classrooms in the first place.

I fear, though, that previous teachers have rewarded by students for that stance of public outrage. Whipping up outrage is a practice of political agitators; it is not the best strategy for real teachers. Too many teachers today are eager to whip up outrage, and resist actually supplying students with problem-solving skills.

Two: Students can be intimidated into saying what appears to be the most politically advantageous thing.

My students write down their reaction to "Song of the South" before they know what other students will say. The vast majority of students – over ninety percent – report that the film is a sentimental tale for children, a typical Disney cartoon. Only about ten percent, in their written work, allege that the film is racist.

When classroom discussion begins, those who object to "Song of the South" are often the most vocal. The majority of students who found the film sweet and old fashioned often look confused. Were we supposed to find this film racist?

I strive to remain neutral. When the students who object to the film speak, I write their points on the blackboard. It's frightening and depressing to me to view the facial expressions of many, but not all, of the students who liked the film. Some of them appear to be deciding that they, too, will find the film racist – not because they really believe that it is, but because that is the politically advantageous stance to take.

I fear that if I took a strong stance that "Song of the South" is a racist film, some students might parrot that stance – not because they really believe it, but because the teacher says so.

***

Me? I see both sides. I see why some object to "Song of the South." I see why others embrace it. I strive to present both sides to my students.

BUT the important thing is this – however students feel about "Song of the South," the best teachers, and the best education, will not indoctrinate them into parroting the teacher's stance. It will not browbeat them and bully them with others' suffering to adopt an opinion that is not their own.

Rather, the best teachers, and the best education will encourage students to separate facts from feelings. The best teachers, and the best education, will equip students to make their point using objective facts.

***

I'm not black. I'm Slovak. We are also the oppressed. I told my students, who have never heard of Slovakia, that, historically, Slovaks have been peasants who are invaded and massacred and oppressed. I told them about Lidice, a village the Nazis wiped out. I told them about Soviet tanks rolling in to crush Prague Spring.

I told my students that we greatly admire a folk hero named Good Soldier Svejk. Svejk is fat, unshaven, and a slob. He gets drunk and behaves stupidly. And he is our hero.

Why?

My students totally understand. Of course people who are oppressed and massacred would want a hero who is a Wise Fool, a man who keeps his head down and displays his intelligence in ways that appear foolish, a charming subversive.

Can you understand, then, I ask, why Uncle Remus is a Wise Fool? And why some might admire him, even though his clothes are shabby and he does not speak Standard English?

Hmmm … maybe.

***

A couple of good scholarly articles about Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus:

"The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Times" by Wayne Mixon, here.


"Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris" by Robert Cochran, here.

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