Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Finally watched Birth of a Nation. Yuck.

According to the dictionary on my computer, the term racism means "the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races." There are a lot of people that would read that definition, without the word racism, and happily, even unashamedly, identify with the phrase. I am not one of those people. But they are all around me. That belief about different races is not limited to only people descended from European tribes, I've learned as I've traveled the world. And when people tout any race - their own or someone else's - as smarter, kinder, more family-oriented, sneakier, more violent, more passionate, more creative, better with money, or WHATEVER - than other races, I get a really ugly pain in my stomach. Racism is real.

In our vernacular use, most people, when they say something is racist, mean something much stronger: they use the word for something that has a message that is demeaning at best, and hateful at worst, regarding all people of a particular race. When someone says some book or movie or play or whatever is racist, that's usually what they mean: that the piece is demeaning to an entire race.

When someone says, "Hey, that's racist" about a movie or book or play or whatever, if I haven't seen it or read it or whatever, I'll give it a look. And sometimes, I don't find it truly racist - I don't always think the author or screenwriter or whatever is trying to say something specfici about all members of a race, good or bad. Maybe I do think it's racist, but I think it's more a relic of a time - presentation of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations we all, surely, know now aren't true, right? Often, I think, yes, it's racist - but it's far, far more sexist, so why aren't we talking about that?!

In short, I'm not quick to jump on the oh-my-goodness-that's-racist! bandwagon. So knowing that's my MO, please take this for what it is worth:

I finally watched Birth of a Nation, all three plus hours of it, and it's the most hateful, racist-filled crap of a movie I've ever seen in my life. By far. It's absolutely reprehensible. It's so much worse than I ever imagined. To call it racist doesn't even begin to describe its horribleness. It is hideous.

Tons of old American movies are racist. Maybe all of them. Maybe all of the new ones as well. I love old movies, but loving old movies, like Gone With the Wind, is like loving my grandparents (one of whom I'm relatively certain was in the White Citizens League back in the 1950s): racist, painfully so at times, but there are so many, many other wonderful things about them that are worth loving, worth loving deeply, and I do so, even if, at times, they make me cringe - or even make me angry and ashamed. I look at the entire picture, and see what the heart of the message is, and what might be a product of the time, and see if I can reconcile, if the heart is good and greater than the unpleasantness around it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.

There's a racist joke and a couple of racist scenes in my beloved Duck Soup.  There's oh-so-much racism in Red Dust, yet another film I adore. There's a couple of cringe-worthy comments in His Girl Friday, a comedy we all claim to love. Often, in a quest to not address racism, movies simply ignore that black Americans or Asians exist at all - not exactly racism, but most definitely not anything to applaud. I am fully conscious of the racism every time I watch these films, but it doesn't keep me from enjoying them, because there is so much more there, so many wonderful portrayals of the human spirit and of human values. If I avoided movies that could be considered racist, I wouldn't watch any movies.

And I'm always amazed at how the people so quick to tell me what is and isn't racist will roll their eyes when I start to talk about sexism in movies - especially when I go off on The Philadelphia Story, a movie I LOATHE for its horrible sexist message: men cheat on their wives, but as long as they go back to their wives eventually, or don't entirely leave them, they are just being normal and women should accept it. BITE ME.

But the obvious, hateful agenda of Birth of a Nation... its entire story, its characters, its presentation - EVEN THE TITLE... it is all beyond anything I can get my head around. It has no other purpose than to say that African Americans are sex-crazed buffoons naturally prone to violence, that their subjugation was (and is) for the good of everyone in the USA, and that the only way to have world peace is for white people to be united in their subjugation of Africans everywhere. It also promotes a twisted view of history, saying explicitly that, before the Civil War, there was no one nation, there was no union - just happy independent states doing entirely as they pleased (which makes it perfectly in-line with the modern-day GOP, but I digress...). Birth of a Nation has NO OTHER PURPOSE than inspiring hate and feelings of superiority by white Americans, and to say that the USA should give states the right to subjugate black Americans. It wasn't made primarily to tell a love story, or a survival story, or a horror story, or any kind of story: it was made solely to say horrific things about one race of people, and to claim it was best for the people of that race to be enslaved by another race of people, who the movie says are superior intellectually, emotionally, culturally and spiritually. It promotes a passionate, irrational hatred of black Americans - and it makes the Ku Klux Klan the heroes. That's its message, first and foremost.

Geesh, the movie is so freakin' racist that many of the black characters are played by white actors with make-up, when those characters were required to come in contact with a white actress. This film is widely credited for reviving the long-dead Ku Klux Klan - and I completely see why.

I have always hoped, having not seen it, that maybe it was just really outdated, that it would turn out, once I saw it, to be just to be just archaic and misguided. At worst, insidious. Nope, there's no stealth here - it's infused with angry, intense, unashamed arrogance regarding the film-maker's supremacist beliefs. No subtlety at all.

I can't admire the film-making techniques of Birth of a Nation any more than I can in Triumph of the Will. I don't give a rat's ass that this movie pioneered panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots, the staging of battle scenes, color tinting and having its own musical score. I DON'T CARE. It's like saying, "Sad about the stabbing of that family, but look how well the knives worked! What technique!"

D.W. Griffith didn't make Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages as a follow-up in order to apologize for Birth of a Nation - isn't it OBVIOUS that he made that follow-up because he was so upset at people disgust at B of a N, that he felt the criticism was, itself, intolerance and that such was unfair? Well, DW, yes, the criticism, the disgust, were - and are - intolerance. And humans have a right to express such, to reject your pathetic world view. No, I don't think this movie should be banned. But I also think it needs to be presented honestly and openly for what it is - no sugar-coating, no oh-but-the-film-techniques! justifications. Let's present it as the love letter to white supremicists that it is. That is what it is. Period.

I'm really glad Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed it. I'm glad I've seen it. But I'm disappointed to learn it's even more horrible than I ever expected. Wow.

On a side note: I was on the light rail coming home from Portland in 2013, and was eavesdropping on a group of African women, I think from Tanzania, and a group of Indian women talking about movies they love. And they all love Gone With the Wind, and went on and on about why. They loved it like I do. No mention of its racism was ever made - I kept listening for it, but it never happened. Sometimes I wonder if people in other countries, even Africans, understand the horrors of slavery in the Americas... but I kind of loved that they loved the film without experiencing any racist subtext. The way women are expected to enjoy so many films without getting upset about the sexism.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What is Southern heritage? What is worth celebrating?

What is heritage? It's a thing that can be inherited. Heritage is valued objects and qualities: cultural traditions, music, art, natural landscapes, historic buildings and a particular, shared history that come from previous generations.

Following up to a previous blog, I've been thinking a lot about what being from the South means to me, what heritage that it is a part of it that I want to celebrate.

The first thing that comes to mind: food. Stereotypical, I know. But there is no better comfort food than Southern food. Barbecue, biscuits and milk gravy, fried chicken, sweet corn on the cob, chicken and dumplings (dumplin's!), breaded and fried catfish fiddlers, burgoo... okay, not the healthiest cuisine in the world, and since leaving Kentucky, I've changed my daily diet rather significantly. But I still indulge in those Southern foods every now and again, usually when I want to celebrate something - and always when I visit the region. Going into a soul food restaurant on the West Coast makes me feel at home - waving a Confederate flag does not.

The second thing that comes to mind: music. Everyone from the Carter Family to Bessie Smith to Loretta Lynn, from Elvis Presley to Fats Domino to BB King, from Dolly Parton to Rhiannon Giddens, Southern Culture on the Skids to REM to the B52s to Government Cheese. It's country, bluegrass, gospel, rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, zydeco and on and on.

The third thing that comes to mind: our way of speaking. It's not just our accents - it's our cadence, our choice of words, our narratives, our poetry, our manners - it's what we say and how we say it and our intent behind it. If you've read William Falkner, Tennessee Williams, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers or Alice Walker, you experience this.

The fourth thing that comes to mind: our violent history. The white settlers drove out the native people of the region - and some Indians on the trail of tears took the African slaves they owned with them. Every Southerner wants to claim native American history, but not ancestry that drove out native Americans. Our ancestors were slave owners and slaves, and the time of slavery was never a universally-happy, simple time; rather, white Southerners wanted black Southerners to work in menial jobs, cook their food, entertain them, and take care of their children - but they wanted them otherwise completely segregated and subjugated, living in poverty, and were willing to undertake violent means, even long after the Civil War, to ensure that status. Some of us choose to be in denial about that history, some of us choose to sanitize, even glorify, the history, and some of us would like for it to be acknowledged, remembered, and taught in school - unfiltered.

The fifth thing that comes to mind: how we think of family and community and class. Every culture on Earth will say family is important, and the South is no different. But there's something particular about family and community and South, the way religion permeates it - even if you are Atheist, you cannot get away from religion in the South. There is so much prayer. The only place I've seen people praying that often has been in Afghanistan. Also, how you are related to other people in the community matters - who your blood relatives are, what families you are related to by marriage, and on and on. There are family aristocracies even in the tiniest, poorest communities that can hold a person back from jobs or social advancement. I learned the term trash from my black friends back in Kentucky, who used the term for people that, whether they had money or not, and no matter their racial identification, lacked propriety, decency, tact and grace. And, of course, there is our sports culture. The only place where I have seen sports treated the way we treat it in the South - like a religion - is in other countries where soccer is King. Entire communities here will shut down for the "big game," which might be American football, might be basketball, might be a softball game. And it will be talked about long after that game is over.

The sixth thing that comes to mind: the influence from African slave culture and of segregation. Our food, our music, our way of speaking, and how we think about our history are all affected by African slave culture and segregation. You will find a history of segregation and subjugation in other regions of the USA, but you will never find such infusing the food, the music or the way of speaking to the degree you will find such in the South. There's no way to experience our culture without seeing the deep infusion of slave culture and influence of segregation.

That's our beautiful and ugly, gentle and violent, welcoming and hateful, inclusive and exclusionary. I love it, I hate it. I accept it. And there's no way you can say the Confederate battle flag represents all that, and all of the people of the South - it does NOT. I want a symbol for ALL of the South.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hijacking each other's causes

Like so many thousands of other people, I was beyond saddened by the senseless, pointless killing of Cecil the Lion. The lion population continues to plummet, lions that are still in the wild are getting smaller (because trophy hunters are killing the biggest), and communities are deprived of the significant, long-term economic prosperity living lions bring. Plus, who in the hell wants to live in a world without lions in the wild?!

But the pushback against those of us that expressed our sadness was immediate: on my own social media, I got chastised by a vegan friend who felt my outrage was misplaced and misguided. I saw another friend reprimanded by someone who said she should be more upset about the soldiers killed in Chattanooga. I saw anti-choice/forced-birth activists go after people upset about Cecile. I saw people rebuked by others who said it was insulting that they were talking about a lion in Africa “instead of” #blacklives matter.

How did it make me feel when someone tried to hijack sadness about Cecil? Angry. In fact, it made me instantly double-down, to post MORE about Cecil and related issues, not less. It did not make me want to start posting about the aforementioned causes at all - and many of those causes are ones I support and frequently post about (but NOT the anti-choice/forced-birth folks).

As an activist regarding various causes since the 1980s, I know that pushing a cause always inspires “but why aren’t you protesting such-and-such” pushback. Always. But these days, it seems fashionable to try to hijack someone else’s cause. The most recent example are the people that rushed the stage when Bernie Sanders tried to speak in Seattle. They demanded the crowd give 4 1/2 minutes of silence for Michael Brown, the young man killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri last year. I cringed, just like I cringe when someone demands I bow my head in prayer (I’m an atheist - I will NOT do it) or demands I put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance - which I will NEVER do. The #blacklivesmatter activists refused to let Sanders speak at all. It wasn’t enough for them to get their message out - they wanted to shut down the event and not allow any other message to be said. And as a result, they turned away some potentially really great allies.

I’m not vegan, but I’m happy to significantly reduce the amount of meat in my diet - I know now, through the education efforts of others, that a plant-based diet is healthy, and that meat is not raised in a healthy manner in the USA or a lot of other places - and I'm  happy to hear about delicious vegan recipes - but if you’re going to belittle my compassion for another animal-related cause, I’m going to turn away from you. I’m going to unfollow you on Facebook and turn down your invitations to get together. I am horrified by the murders in Tennessee - but I’m going to stop communicating with you if you badger me about that every time I post about the murders in Charleston or Lafayette, saying, “But why don’t you care about OUR TROOPS and Islamic terrorism?!?!?” I am horrified by the systematic racism in law enforcement and the denial about that racism, and I’m trying to promote ways to improve that as a part of my professional, daily consulting work - I want to be an advocate in every way, not just on the weekends and on social media - but I will not support shouting down allies or demands to adhere to a particular script.

Yes, activism often is most effective when it's in-your-face, when it's disruptive, when it's loud and it's impossible to ignore it. Queer Nation's tactics in the 1990s are a great example of this. But their tactics generated not only awareness, but allies - like me. I credit them with waking up me, a straight girl, about gay rights. They made me an ally. They made me WANT to be an ally.

I will listen. I do listen. Talk to me, not at me. Be explicit in describing what it is you want me to do to support your cause in a meaningful way. Educate me. But don't just shout slogans. And don't belittle my compassion. This isn't about who shouts the loudest - it's about changing hearts and minds.