Saturday, October 18, 2008
Fetishism of Pain
We all knew it would get worse before it gets better. Anyone who lives anywhere in this country knows that the racism can ambush you anywhere, anytime. It's no surprise in California's great inland empire that the Republicans in Upland see nothing wrong with their racist depiction of Obama on a food stamp.
"It's just food," they protest. "Like spaghetti and meatballs is with Italians." (They often pronounce I raq and I talian alike)
No, it's not just food; it's history. It's the history of racism in American something beautifully, if not painfully depicted in films like Marlon Riggs' "Ethnic Notions."
I have a collection of this history. I often used it when teaching either history or literature. It's the kind of primary source documents you won't find in the textbook version of America's past, but the kind that exceptional teachers or teaching units don't omit.
To think that this Republican racism is not harmful, is not racist, is not deliberate, is not vicious, is not our history, is to be ignorant. It sometimes takes the form of denial, but the older folks perpetuating this hate filled fear know better. They know about the cartoons, from Bugs Bunny to caricatures that go all the way back to minstrel shows.
These images, embedded in our popular culture, in everything from kitchen items, food labels (Aunt Jemima, the Cream of Wheat man, and Uncle Ben being the most famous) post cards, buttons, Christmas ornaments, story books, fruit crate labels, sheet music, toys, movie images, art, sculpture, song lyrics, even school text books, are who we are, they are where we came from, they are important to know about because they can and do return from time to time.
A few years ago in an institute on American Literature at UC Berkeley that brought together teachers from Atlanta, Georgia, Michigan, and the Bay Area, some of us suggested we watch the film "Ethnic Notions." Yes, it's shocking, difficult to watch, lacerates the eye as H.L.Mencken would say, but critically important. A few of the Georgia and Michigan teachers walked out. They'd seen enough and obviously felt sickened, almost offended that we'd make them sit through this tough history. I overheard two of these so-called teachers talking. "Why do we need to feed their fetishism of pain?" they whispered.
Over the years I have often thought of this comment. It typifies the way some academics intellectualize. But they were right about one thing-pain. It's painful. We need to know.
So what's behind all these images of happy watermelon eatin', fried chicken loving, grinnin' black folks. Happiness. Everybody's happy. Always happy. This is all I need to make me happy. If that's how people are perceived, then you or I don't have to deal with the truth. Don't have to deal with poverty, ignorance, disenfranchisement, oppression, hatred, prejudice, or change. See, everybody's happy. Everything is just fine. What's the problem?
Slavery is a two way street.