07 February 2020

A Novel and a Film Get Me Thinking and Writing About Slavery

Theresa Harris
I was thinking about the lives of American slaves after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel, The Water Dancer. There were approximately four million slaves in the United States at the start of the Civil War which would mean there were four million Americans who suffered from PTSD. Imagine, if you will, being subject to actual whippings. Being subject to constant verbal abuse. Imagine being regarded as property with little to no control over your destiny. Imagine having had a loved one, possibly a parent or a child or a spouse, sold away from you. Imagine having been sold yourself. Imagine living with the threat of being sold away from your family. Imagine being a woman who had been raped — with no chance of preferring charges or having any sort of justice — and being subject to further sexual assaults. Imagine being told that you are less than as a person by virtue of your skin color. This had to have caused serious PTSD to every single one of those four million people. The type of slavery practiced in the United States and colonial America was a particularly cruel variety as should be remembered whenever conservatives try to excuse American slavery by saying that it has been practiced for centuries including in Africa from whence American slaves were kidnapped.

I also thought of the horrible lot of slaves the other day when I watched the film Jezebel (1938) directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis in an Oscar-winning performance. Jezebel is an excellent film which I especially liked after this most recent viewing, my third. According to Merriam-Webster a jezebel is: “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman.” That nicely sums up Bette Davis’ character who flouts society in antebellum Louisiana as she pursues marriage with a fellow Southern aristocrat, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). Jezebel takes place in 1852 and ’53 and the film’s final half is set against the backdrop of a yellow fever epidemic that ravaged New Orleans and its environs. Jezebel features one of Ms. Davis’ many great performances and an excellent supporting cast. The pacing and style of Wyler’s direction is immaculate, the story is engaging and the costumes and set designs are examples of Hollywood at its best. As must be the case in such a film, the cast includes a number of slaves, two of whom, Eddie Anderson as ‘Gros Bat’ and Lew Payton as Uncle Cato, have prominent roles. (The lovely Theresa Harris also appears. Ms. Harris was one of the most striking women in Hollywood at the time and a fine actress but because she was African-American she was reduced to small roles, often as a maid.)

The slave characters in Jezebel serve to give a touch of realism to the film in much the same way the costumes reflect the era. There is a total absences of field slaves. There are no vicious overseers, no whippings, no slave auctions, just contented house slaves devotedly serving their masters.

It’s odd to realize that such a film couldn’t be made today. You can no longer make a film with a half dozen African American characters all of whom are docile slaves. I don’t mean to suggest that this is either right or wrong but surely a modern version of Jezebel, or any other film set in the antebellum south, would have to have at least one strong black character.

There are a wealth of great films from the ’20s through the early ‘50s but only a minuscule minority of them include African Americans characters with prominent roles or who have any dimension at all and that includes some of the films like Cabin in the Sky (1943) with all black casts.

Worse than what you don’t see from Hollywood’s Golden Age is what you do see and hear. In addition to blacks in submissive roles you have many played for fools in comedies. You also have white characters in showbiz roles wearing black face (Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor to name a few). You also hear expressions such as: “I’m free, white and 21,” and “that’s mighty white of you.” Diversity did not exist in Hollywood until….okay maybe it’s only just now getting better but it was downright nonexistent in the first half of the 20th century.

I’m now about to read David Blight’s critically acclaimed biography of Fredrick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, writer, orator and social reformer. Douglass’ life has been a source of inspiration for generations of Americans, black and white.

Who we are is who we were which makes understanding slavery, the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement so critical in our understanding of the United States today. A lot of people want to sanitize the story of slavery. There is both a desire to make it not seem so bad and to look away from it. As a middle school history teacher I matter-of-factly told the story in all its horror to the best of my ability. For the most part students were fascinated that such a travesty existed and they were appropriately appalled. When discussing slavery I could always count on a steady stream of questions, many of them quite thoughtful. Yet some of my colleagues wanted to spare their students the details (which is like talking about war without mentioning that people were killed and maimed). A few African American parents didn’t want their children being taught about slavery, objecting to the idea that their ancestors had been held in bondage. I found this bizarre. For an essay question about slavery one student wrote that her ancestors weren’t slaves at all but “were princes and princesses.” I seriously doubt that her family did any genealogical research that revealed this as fact and it seemed unlikely that her ancestors were royalty who immigrated from an African country. So I found her response to be sad. It is no easy thing to know that your forebearers were slaves but it is no use denying it. There’s certainly no shame in it as there would be if you were the descendants of slave owners.

Despite decades of studying and teaching history I still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around the fact of slavery in this country (or anywhere else for that matter). I ache for those who were victimized by it and wonder at those who perpetrated it and in a very different way ache for them too. Imagine wallowing in the kind of ignorance in which you can accept racial superiority.

Adding to the gloomy tale of slavery is the years of oppression and segregation that followed and compounding that is the fact of a racist president aided and abetted by racist politicians and citizens.

But there’s no use giving in to despair. There are a lot of good folks out there fighting for positive change — one such change would be placing a sane and competent anti-racist in the White House. There are also books like The Water Dancer which, despite its focus on slaves, is more about the underground railroad (Harriet Tubman is a character in the book) and as such is an inspiring story. There are also films like Jezebel. True, it white washes (pun not intended) a part of history, but if one goes into viewing it with that understanding it is possible to view it on its own terms and enjoy it and learn about the times in which it was made.

Remember, truth and beauty are out there and they can nourish your soul and fire your intellect.

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