A Thing or Two About THE WIZ (or, Some People Just Don’t Get It)

the wizLast night, NBC aired a live broadcast of the musical, The Wiz, based on the all-black Broadway play that first debuted on Broadway in the 1970s. The Wiz had been an adaptation of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which in and of itself was an adaptation of the literary works of L. Frank Baum. Not surprisingly, there were people who freaked out about last night’s broadcast of The Wiz.

wiz

Tin Man meets the Wiz in the original Broadway production of The Wiz.

I’m not going to respond to those people directly…because they aren’t worth my time. But I do want to share an excerpt from a much larger piece I wrote several years ago. In my essay “Worlds Without Color,” I discuss at length The Wiz, and how it factors into what I call “oppression through omission.” The essay is included in my book Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture. Here is the excerpt for “Worlds Without Color.”

When The Wiz first debuted on Broadway I was about eight-years-old, and by that point I had become so used to worlds without Black people, that I had started to think it was normal. The Wiz made no sense to me, and sounded like a bad idea, because I had been conditioned to think of that particular type of reality as not including Black people. This is what happens with omission of entire groups of people for prolonged periods of time. And as bad as it is for Blacks, it is far worse for Native Americans and other groups, whose level of omission runs much deeper. By not seeing images that reflect ourselves in these realities projected upon the screen, our very existence is compromised. It is as if we don’t exist, because there is no one in Oz that looks like us—and in turn we become dehumanized. This dehumanization is just another extension of the same dehumanization that justified slavery and the genocide of Native Americas. We were robbed of our right to be human in this country, and then as a type of mythology emerged in the form of motion pictures, we were either misrepresented—further dehumanizing us—or we were denied visibility, making us non-existent in the realm of story and myth.
The purpose of mythology and story is to explain the existence and experiences of humans. Story and myth are the ways in which we process and express who we are and what we’ve experienced. It doesn’t matter if these experiences are triumphs or tragedies; there is an innate human need to tell stories to make sense of our lives. It is through story and myth that we define who we are in relation to all that surrounds us, or has happened to us, and helps us deal with the traumas we have endured. The problem in the United States, however, is that the stories and myths used to explain the American existence are informed by the racial ideologies that dehumanize people of color. This results in a mythological construct that either dehumanizes people of color, as is the case with The Birth of Nation, or ignores them all together, as is the case with The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings, which in turn dehumanizes through omission.

To read more of this essay, please check out Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture.

 

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