There’s been a lot of talk about banning the Confederate flag recently, due in large part to horrific massacre that occurred last week in Charleston, SC. Many discussions have arisen, including one critic’s call to ban Gone with the Wind. Don’t get me wrong…I don’t like that movie. It is a dangerous piece of racist propaganda, but I don’t think it should be banned. Instead, I think people need to recognize it for what it is. In my book, Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification and Popular Culture, I discuss Gone With the Wind at length. Here are some select excerpts from the essay “Lies of History and History of Lies: How Popular Culture Made Us Black.”
The American War of Racial Ideology is exactly what it sounds like—a conflict at the center of which is the perception of race. On one side of the battle are those looking to destroy the myths of White superiority and Black inferiority, creating in their place an ideological construct of equality for all human beings. Both the Civil War and the abolition of slavery represent significant battle victories in the American War of Racial Ideology, but a close examination of Reconstruction and its failure reveals that the war itself was lost. Millions of Blacks were freed during the Civil War, but their status as citizens of the United States and human beings was held at bay by ideology. If slavery is the crucial defining factor in the racial identification of Blacks in America, then it is the failure of Reconstruction that allowed the prevalent ideologies to endure, which in turn leads us to Gone with the Wind.
Written by Margaret Mitchell and published in 1936, Gone with the Wind is the embodiment of the failure of Reconstruction, and the decisive victory of anti-Reconstructionists in the continued perpetuation of racial ideology. Mitchell came from a family with strong roots in Georgia that favored slavery, supported the Confederacy, and were staunchly opposed to Reconstruction. Anti-Reconstructionists were not only opposed to civil rights for freed Blacks, as a culture, many Southerners saw the Confederacy as the victims in what they called the War of Northern Aggression. Within this cultural context, Reconstruction was another humiliation in the face of defeat at the hands of an oppressive regime that had destroyed their way of life while trampling over their rights. Having endured one defeat, the former Confederacy refused to concede the ideological battle represented through Reconstruction. As resistance to Reconstruction grew, it threatened to keep divided a nation that had endured a brutal war that had pitted neighbor against neighbor, until Reconstruction itself gave way to the demands of the South.
The backlash against Reconstruction found its way into the mass media and popular culture of the post-Antebellum South, emerging as an alternative perspective to the Civil War and slavery, a newly formed mythology known as the Lost Cause. The myth of the Lost Cause was the former Confederacy’s way of explaining and reconciling the war, but this reconciliation did not come without exacting a major toll.
Later on in the essay I go on to write…
Compared to The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind is a tame depiction of the Lost Cause. Gone with the Wind has no scenes of the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of hapless Whites being besieged by murderous Negroes, as does The Birth of the Nation. Indeed, the slaves of Gone with the Wind are happy with their lives of servitude, content to serve their White masters, who put up with the comical sass that all happy-go-lucky slaves use to express their lot in life. At the same time, the film and the book upon which it is based, is a by-the-numbers representation of the Lost Cause from start to finish, filtered through the 1939 lens of Hollywood. That is to say that Gone with the Wind is as revisionist to history and dehumanizing to Blacks as audiences of that era were willing to accept. For all of its oppressive polices towards Blacks, American had moved forward enough that the narrative of The Birth of a Nation was no longer completely palatable. Gone with the Wind is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a deviation from the narrative ideologies of The Birth of a Nation, it is just a watered down version, presented with a kinder, gentler face, presented in glorious Technicolor.
You can read the entire essay in my book, Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification and Popular Culture, available from Amazon.