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Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell (1900-49), an American writer, is the author of “Gone With the Wind” (1936), which was a huge hit as a book and an even huger hit as a 1939 film of the same name. Mitchell died on August 16th, 1949, five days after being struck down by an automobile. She was 48.

In 1900 she was born a white daughter of the South. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia hearing stories about the Civil War (1861-65) and Reconstruction (1865-77) by people who had lived through it, both black and white. She heard about Atlanta burning and General Sherman’s march to the sea. She did not know the Confederates lost till she was ten.

She went to Smith College in New England but dropped out after a year when her mother died. She went to work for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, writing as Peggy Mitchell, but quit after four years because she injured her ankle. Stuck at home and with all the stories of civil war times swimming in her head, she began to write “Gone With the Wind”.

In 1935, after nine years of writing her book, a man from Macmillan Company asked her if she knew of any new writers. She did not tell him about her book, but her friend did. It needed work – and a suitcase to hold it! – but Macmillan loved it and it came out the following year. Somehow they got it down to “just” 1,037 pages.

She was hoping to sell 5,000 copies. But in just one day that first summer it sold 50,000! It quickly sold 500,000 copies, then a million, then a million and a half. By her death it had sold 8 million copies. It made her rich but her life as a private person was over. She was so instantly famous that she never got a chance to write another book.

In 1939, on the opening night of the film, Mitchell said it had:

“been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back”

It was one of the first films in colour. By 1947 it had been shown in theatres four different times. As of 2013 more people had paid to see it than any other film in the world.

Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

I saw it in the eighties. For more than three hours I was expected to put myself in the shoes of a spoiled rich white woman, a slave-owner, played by Vivian Leigh (pictured above). When she was ruined by the war half-way through I was glad. It saw black people in a good light from a white point of view: as loyal servants. Hattie McDaniel, who played such a servant, received the highest White American honour for acting: an Oscar.

Stereotypes: “Gone With  the Wind” pushes the Southern Belle and the Mammy stereotypes, myths cooked up by the South to put a good face on slavery (Mammy) and hanging black men from trees (Southern belle). The film also paints a war to defend slavery as a noble cause.

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: mainly the New York Times (1949) and my post “at least a 100 million”.

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paris_wwii_a

Stage 2: Symbolization.

Now that we are in the Trump Era this post bears repeating, especially in the wake of the Charlottesville riot. The original has been edited to make it fit an F-pattern in an H.G. Wells style. I added a message from Superman in 1949 at the end.

The eight stages of genocide (1996) are the steps that every society goes through when it destroys a people not for military reasons but because of their race, religion, culture or national origins. Gregory Stanton, who had studied the genocide in Cambodia for the American State Department, noticed the very same steps unfolding in Rwanda in 1994 in the middle of Africa. The genocide in Darfur at the edge of the Sahara has since followed the same steps in the same order:

  1. Classification: the division into us and them. This is extremely common in human societies. While it is not a sign that genocide is on the way, genocide would be impossible without it.
  2. Symbolization: words or symbols are applied to the them: the yellow star that Jews had to wear before the Holocaust, skin colour, classifications put on identification cards. Again, this is common and is not a sign of genocide, but genocide cannot proceed unless there is some sure way to tell people apart.
  3. Dehumanization: the them become pariahs: they are seen as less than human, as animals or a kind of disease. The Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches before they were killed by the thousands. Killing them was no longer murder – it was just ridding the country of something bad. Dehumanizing words, like “gook” and “nigger”, belong to this step. Unlike the first two steps, dehumanization is not common! It is the first sick step on the road to genocide.
  4. Organization: To kill people in large numbers you need organization: leaders, followers, a chain of command, duties, meetings, guns, training, hate speeches. Sometimes it is the government that does this, but often it is an armed group that seems to be acting on its own (but which the government is either secretly helping or at least turning a blind eye towards). The killing might start at this stage, but not on a huge scale. Examples: the SS in Germany, the Klan in America, the Janjaweed in Darfur.
  5. Polarization: The first people killed in any genocide are not the pariahs themselves but those who speak up for them. The voices in the middle are silenced through threats, arrests or even killings. Now the message of hate goes unchallenged.
  6. Preparation: the pariahs are often separated from the rest of the country – into camps, reservations, ghettos (parts of cities) or some undesirable part of the country. Their property is taken from them (they are not coming back!). This step leaves them defenceless.
  7. Extermination: the mass killings, the genocide proper.
  8. Denial: The leaders of the genocide downplay it or tell complete lies and say there never was a genocide. As long as they are in denial the killings can go on.

Now you know why “nigger” is a bad word. America has gone through all eight steps with Indians, up to step 6 with Japanese Americans and at least as far as step 4 with blacks.

Stanton says that genocide is preventable by stopping it at one of the early stages.

A message from Superman in 1949.

– Abagond, 2009, 2017.

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Charlottesville riot

Note: For August 2017 I am on a 1949 media diet, so everything in this post is by word of mouth. Next month I will fact check it, add pictures and quotes, and repost it. In the meantime:

The Charlottesville riot (August 12th 2017) is my name for what killed one person and injured dozens as violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia between those protesting for and against bringing down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general. Lee fought against the United States in the American Civil War to uphold black slavery.

Heather Heyer, who was killed, was protesting against the statue. She was run over by James Alex Fields, Jr, who was for keeping the statue up. He drove his automobile into anti-Lee protesters, injuring over a dozen people. Both Heyer and Fields were white. Fields lives in Ohio and is from Kentucky. He fled the scene but police caught him and arrested him.

Pro-Lee protesters were white. Among them were David Duke, the Klan (anti-black terrorists), neo-Nazis (anti-Semites) and the alt-right (white nationalists). The Klan did not feel the need to hide their faces under their white hoods. Duke, who used to head the Klan, said they were there to take back America, as President Trump wants.

(insert David Duke quote here, 20 to 40 words)

Anti-Lee protesters were both black and white, maybe other races too. Among them was Black Lives Matter. The anti-Lee protest was in reaction to the pro-Lee protest, not the other way round.

President Trump was slow to condemn Fields or Duke. It took him two days, even though the press had asked him about it several times the next day. And then he largely undid his belated condemnation! As if in his heart of hearts he sides with Duke and company. In 2016, when running for president, Trump was slow to condemn Duke then too.

(insert President Trump quote here, 20 to 40 words)

The police were not heavy-handed like they are when blacks or Indians protest (Ferguson, #NoDAPL, etc) – even though the pro-Lee protesters were armed.

The governor, who had made no decision on whether to take down the statue, did so once the protests turned violent: he decided the statue of Lee will come down. The pro-Lee protests had backfired.

Terrorism: Neither Trump nor the police accused Fields of terrorism – even though Trump is quick to condemn Moslems who drive automobiles into crowds as terrorists.

None of this surprises me. Not the protests for and against, not the violence, not a white man acting just like a Moslem terrorist and yet not being called a terrorist, not the Klan-friendly reaction of the police and the president. None of it. Given who is president, it was just a matter of time.

– Abagond, 2017.

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The Souls of Black Folk

“The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois was, in effect, his guide to black people in the United States written for white people.

The famous quote:

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

The other famous quote, the one about double-consciousness:

“this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In chapter two there is an account of Reconstruction (1865-77) that avoids the white propaganda that most Americans learn at school.

In chapter three there is a great take-down of Booker T. Washington. I did a post on that. See below for the link.

In chapters seven and eight there is an interesting study of Dougherty County, Georgia as it was in 1901, with its “scarred and wretched land; the ruined mansions, the worn-out soil and mortgaged acres.” And the debt peonage of the mass of black people.

Otherwise George Schuyler’s Dr Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, his parody of Du Bois in “Black No More” (1931), is not far off. Even the name. His Dr Beard was always:

“denouncing the Caucasians whom he secretly admired and lauding the greatness of the Negroes whom he alternately pitied and despised. In limpid prose he told of the sufferings and privations of the downtrodden black workers with whose lives he was totally and thankfully unfamiliar.”

Du Bois underscores this by ending his book with a chapter on Negro “sorrow songs”.

Du Bois says stuff like this (end of chapter nine):

“Deeply religious and intensely democratic as are the mass of the whites, they feel acutely the false position in which the Negro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generous people cannot cite the caste-levelling precepts of Christianity, or believe in equality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more with each generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flat contradiction to their beliefs and professions.”

and then agrees with whites that black people are sunk in “ignorance, shiftlessness, poverty, and crime.” Sure, whites need to drop their colour-prejudice that sees all black people as the same, the high and the low, but blacks need to uplift themselves too. Both sides are to blame.

Thus his cringing moral appeals to the hypothetical conscience of white people.

Ugh!

Far more satisfying is the clean moral outrage of the sixties: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, even John Carlos.

I had heard nothing but good things about this book since high school and was always ashamed I had not read it. Now that I have read it, I am glad I did not read it in high school or at any time before the age of 30!

– Abagond, 2017.

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“Has Science Conquered the Color Line?” (1949) is an article by Walter White that appeared in the United States in Look magazine on August 30th, 1949. It is about a substance called monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone, or monobenzyl for short. It destroys melanin, the substance in human skin that gives it colour.

Walter White was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). I used to think he was white: he had white skin, blue eyes and blond hair. In fact, he could pass for white but chose not to. He wrote an article about that too, “Why I Remain a Negro”, in 1947.

Discoverd by accident: black and Mexican workers who used a certain kind of long glove complained their hands and arms were turning white. They took the company to court. Scientists, meanwhile, found out what chemical in the gloves was affecting their skin.

Not safe: in 1949 monobenzyl was not safe. In some it caused pain, convulsions, or a low white cell count in their blood. And, by destroying melanin, it removed its protection against cancer. Even white people have melanin in their skin, just less of it.

Not long-lasting: monobenzyl’s effects only lasted six to twelve months.

Walter White, though, was confident scientists would perfect it:

“It’s almost a certainty that a safe form of the chemical will be on sale within two to ten years.”

In his vision of the sixties, monobenzyl:

“could hit the structure of society with the impact of an atomic bomb. It carries implications of tremendous social changes – especially in the United States. It could, in fact, conquer the color line.”

” … the color line, the shame of the twentieth century in America, may go forever, as slavery did in the nineteenth.”

Three years before White had written:

“Suppose the skin of every Negro in America were suddenly to turn white. What would happen to all the notions about Negroes, the idols on which are built race prejudice and race hatred? Would not Negroes then be judged individually on their ability, energy, honesty, cleanliness as are whites? How else could they be judged?”

The color line, the line between “black” and “white”, is based mainly on skin colour. Facial features matter too, but White says they are not as important – and are more alike among black and white Americans than commonly supposed, thanks to all the mixing and passing that has been going on in the United States for hundreds of years. In any case, once one had white skin, hair straighteners and surgery could take care of the rest as needed.

Reactions:

Lena Horne:

“Wonderful! This would be the greatest thing for world peace and race relations that has ever happened.”

John H. Sengstacke, editor of the Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, said only a fifth of blacks would use it:

“Negroes are proud of their heritage and do not want to lose it by merging with the white world. They want first-class citizenship, not second-class, as Negroes.”

– Abagond, 2017.

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Josephine Baker: Haiti

Remarks:

This comes from her film “Zouzou” (1934). She seems to be playing a caged bird from Haiti (Hah-ee-tee in the French of the song). She longs to return to her homeland rather live in the most beautiful cage.

See also:

Lyrics:

Ah ! Qui me rendra mon pays
Haiti
C’est toi mon seul paradis
Haiti
Ah ! Dieu me rappelle
Tes forêts si belles
Tes grands horizons
Loin de tes rivages
La plus belle cage
N’est qu’une prison
Oui !! Mon désir , mon cri d’amour
Haiti
C’est de te revenir un jour

Oh, beau pays bleu
Bien loin, bien loin sous d’autres cieux
Je vivais des jours heureux
Mais tout est fini
Seule dans mon exil aujourd’hui
Je chante, le coeur meurtri

Oui ! mon désir mon cri d’amour
Haiti
C’est de te revenir un jour
Haiti !!!

Source: LyricWikia.

Zouzou

“Zouzou” (1934) is a French film starring Josephine Baker. She plays a washerwoman in Paris who becomes the star of the stage. She also falls in love with her white half-brother who is wanted for murder! The high point comes when she sings “Haiti” (pictured above).

The plot has nothing to do with Haiti. Zouzou, Baker’s character, is from Martinique. In the song she longs to return to Haiti, but Zouzou seems to have no desire to leave France, where she has lived since she was a little girl. The song is just something that makes her a star.

Our story: She and her half-brother Jean are brought up by Papa Mele, who runs a circus. It seems they had the same mother but a different father. Papa Mele tells her she is dark because the stork, the bird who brought them to their mother at birth, dropped her down the chimney by accident. Jean later goes off to sea. When he returns she is happy. We (and he) assume it is because she misses her brother, but later we see her become sad when he kisses other women! He never suspects a thing, but his girlfriend Claire does. Since she is friends with Zouzou, it puts her in a tough spot.

When a man forces Zouzou to dance with him, her brother beats him up. But then a day or so later the same man turns up dead! The police arrest her brother. To get money for a good lawyer, she persuades the manager of the theatre where her brother works to give her the starring role in his show. He agrees: his star talent has just run off to Rio with her boyfriend.

The plot is weak and kind of hard to believe, but if it was just a way to get her on stage and sing, it was worth it. Baker has more than enough charm, beauty, and talent to carry the film despite whatever shortcomings the plot may have.

It was worth watching not just for her but also because in the United States, even 83 years later, it is not often you see a white film that is not about race where the main character is a black woman who does not play to stereotype. Maybe I am drawing a blank, but the only Hollywood film I can think of like that off the top of my head is Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard” (1992), nearly 60 years later. Even Diana Ross at her height was only in black films.

Baker did not seem to play to stereotype as far as I could tell. No banana skirts in this one. Though possibly the stereotypes in France are somewhat different. Her race was remarked on but only in passing and not in a mean way. She did have a love story, even if it was a strange one. We were meant to put ourselves in her shoes. On the other hand, all the kissing was done strictly between white characters.

– Abagond, 2017.

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