Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Attached to Nothing

Funny how on the bicentennial marking the abolition of slavery all we have in the political headlines is the mini whirlwind created by the Republican party yuking it up over a new rendition of "Barack the Magic Negro." This says it all. Not only does a sizable chunk of our populace not see the problem with a little satire to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," they apparently don't see the need to deal with the history of the slave trade. So much is intertwined here it's difficult to know just exactly where to unbraid this knot.
Let me begin with the word Negro. As Malcolm X used to say, "It attaches us to nothing. There is no Negroland." Like the racial and ethnic stereotypes needed to justify holding humans in bondage, the "magic Negro" takes its place alongside Uncle Tom, Old Mose, Aunt Jemima and every other mammy, sambo, picaninny, and coon who danced, grinned and yessuh bossed their way through the last 300 years.
But this magic Negro is a bit more complex. He represents what Toni Morrison calls "the Africanist presence" in our film and literature. I'd add our popular culture as well. We see these shadow figures waiting in the wings in novels like The Great Gatsby and TV shows like Designing Women. Jack Benny had Rochester and Shirley Temple had Bill Robinson. It's safe. As George H W Bush (the elder) would say, "SAFE, SAFE, at this juncture."
No sexuality in those ol' Aunts and Uncles, mammys and buffoons. Happy, always happy, just the way we like them; just the way we need them to be.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, one of my favorite versions of the Africanist presence was in the old Our Gang Comedies. Usually Buckwheat, Farina, or Stymie, these Black Little Rascals all showed up, seldom together, but definitely with equal status. Sure some of the story lines and caricatures were racist, but those actors could do very little about that. As Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award said, "The way I see it, I got two choices, I can work in Hollywood as a maid for $5.00 a week, or I can work in Hollywood, in the movies as a maid for $500. a week."
Hard to argue with that. It's such a difficult thing to assess whether you'd work under those circumstances or not. But then our history shows those pioneering performers also had careers within their own communities. They didn't always have to play those demeaning roles. Even more fascinating is how even under those racist circumstances, the talent of those artists was evident. As the old Maria Muldar song says, "You couldn't call it soul, you had to call it heart." Maybe heart and soul.

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