Django Unchained: Revenge Fantasies and Realities

Of course Django Unchained (2012) is your average Quentin Tarantino bloodfest, yet for me the main moment of the film suggests it could have been even bloodier.  In one of the film’s quiet, reflective seconds slave master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) drawls to Django (Jamie Foxx) something like this: “What I don’t understand is, there’s a whole bunch of you and just a few of us.  Now, why don’t you just rise up and wipe us out?”

DjangoIn fact, slaves did revolt often.  In the early 1930′s the number of revolts, highlighted by Nat Turner’s, naturally, was counted at around 30, but less than a decade later more rigorous scholarship, especially Herbert Aptheker’s 1943 American Negro Slave Revolts set the number at well over 300, starting with the South Carolina slave revolt of 1526 and ending just before the Civil War.  Aptheker, who counted 250, defined slave revolts as actions involving 10 or more slaves, with “freedom as the apparent aim [and] contemporary references labeling the event as an uprising, plot, insurrection, or the equivalent of these.”  Add in actions of less than 10, and consider the well-documented small sabbotages enacted daily, and you have acts of defiance numbering in the millions, obliterating all claims that the Negro slave was docile, content, or incapable of planning sustained efforts at freedom.

In this context we can see what might appear like a kind of docility in a different light.  In his great essay “Junior and John Doe,” James Alan McPherson writes:

“The very first articulation of language in their idiom, as expressed in their songs, had sufficient vitality to look beyond the trends of the moment and identify with an age that was yet to come.  The best of them looked back on their own degraded status from the perspective of a future time when their own process-of-self-making was complete.  Denied recognizable human souls by the society that enslaved them, they projected their full souls so far in the future that they became content to look back on their enslavers with laughter, and with pity.”

McPherson’s mention of music recalls Ralph Ellison’s assertion that the blues was a tool of survival, and it defines the depths of superiority Baldwin alludes to when, in his essay “Many Thousands Gone,” he writes that even our stereotype creations like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom,

“…had a life—their own, perhaps a better life than ours—and they would never tell us what it was….[W]e were driven most privately and painfully to conjecture what depths of contempt, what heights of indifference, what prodigies of resilience, what untamable superiority allowed them so vividly to endure, neither perishing nor rising up in a body to wipe us from the earth….”

In the same seminal essay, which I will comment on more at length in another article, Baldwin goes even deeper into the American psyche.  We want, he says, some black man to terrorize us, to take what we feel deep down inside is his rightful revenge.  Slave master Calvin Candie’s question about slaves rising up to wipe him out is actually a double fantasy, a two-for-one wish.  It both satisfies his desire to be punished for his sins, and confirms that blacks are indeed violent and monstrous.  The ultra violence of Django Unchained thus actually gives us comfort.  It wipes the slate clean. We oppressed you with monumental injustice, but now you’ve taken your revenge.  Now we’re even.  But that revenge wasn’t taken through spilling monumental amounts of blood.  Oppression was fought instead not only through appropriate militancy and everyday sabbotage, but also through exercising a superior humanity, and displaying superior talents that wove themselves so deeply into the American fabric that they virtually define what being American is in the arts, in spirituality, in the struggle for human rights, and so much more. White guilt only grew, in other words, and continues to make overcoming racism impossible. That guilt—and the white supremacy ethic it feeds—needs to be faced squarely, not entertained away through bloody revenge fantasies.

 Go to All Things Baldwin for more on essays like “Many Thousands Gone.”
 Go to Louis C.K. for another take on “now we’re even.”

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Thaddeus and Slocum: Black-White, White-Black

ThadSlocumIn his great essay “Junior and John Doe,” James Alan McPherson says, “There used to be the basic, if unspoken, assumption that identity in America is almost always a matter of improvisation, a matter of process…and that, given the provisional nature of American reality at almost any time, ‘black’ could in reality be ‘white,’ and ‘white’ could in reality be ‘black.’”  I kept thinking of this as I watched Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater world premiere production of Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure, written by ensemble member Kevin Douglas.

The play tells the story of two vaudevillians, one black (Thaddeus), one white (Slocum), who lived as brothers, schooled in the biz by Slocum’s Dad, an Irish-American.  They’re not making it to the big houses for the obvious 1908 racist reasons, until Slocum has an idea. He’s been trying out an old minstrel staple, performing in blackface, and proposes that they appear together, both in blackface.  Thaddeus hesitates, of course, though Slocum points out that one of the country’s biggest starts, Bert Williams, is a black man who performs in blackface.  Thaddeus reluctantly agrees.

They go to one of Chicago’s biggest vaudeville houses and watch as one of the main stars, Isabelle, performs a lush, romantic song of the period.  Everyone’s enchanted by this beautiful white woman, especially our two protagonists who’ve just agreed to hide a black identity under blackface.  If they’re caught, they’re through.  Then a series of slips between characters reveals that Isabelle has been hiding her own secret. BertWilliamsShe’s passing. Though she certainly appears white, she would certainly be considered black if anyone knew her mixed parentage.  For decades all it took was 1/32nd “black blood” to be classified as fully black, but for all these years the really dangerous person was the “octoroon,” someone 1/8th black, a combination which often assured white looks, but contained enough black that children might come out looking black.

It’s an identity game—white in reality being black, black in reality being white, blackness hiding its reality under…blackness.  Isabelle and Thaddeus, especially, have their careers—maybe even their literal lives—at stake and eventually fall in love.  For me the play’s central scene is where the two sneak at night into the big Chicago theater where Thaddeus and Slocum originally saw Isabelle, and on whose stage they’ll finally appear the next night.  Thaddeus and Isabelle start to dance, and I thought, We’ve been doing this black/white dance of intimacy, denial, and deception for such a long, long time.

I was at the play to be on a panel leading the audience in a discussion afterwards.  I said that in the introduction to my book Black Writing from Chicago  I had written that all Americans were at least 1/3rd black no matter what they were.  America’s culture, its dedication to human rights, its religious tone—all these and more have been overwhelmingly influenced by blackness.  This mixture of black and white virtually defines what the United States is.  We are inextricably mixed by blood as well but work hard to forget this.  One audience member caught this tension well when she said what most struck her about the play was how close black and white were in private, but how hard they had to deny this in public.  U.S. demographics probably indicate an inexorable movement towards increasing diversity, but given our most recent string of racial explosions—the police killings of young black men in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and other places, and the retaliatory killings of police—I asked the audience whether they thought we were at a tipping point where, on the one hand, racism was going to be lessening or, on the other hand, increasing.  Does the rhetoric and ideology of fear and xenophobia running wild in the 2016 Presidential campaign indicate a turn away from diversity or “just” the last gasp of an old order founded on white supremacy?  Most agreed we were at a tipping point, but couldn’t quite figure out what where we were leaning.  For the “turn-away-from” side, Congressman Steve King’s remarks at the 2016 RNC are particularly symbolic, while I’ve found Chris Rock’s thought about the “last gasp” both quirky and persuasive.

Chris Rock in whiteface.

Chris Rock in whiteface.

As for Thaddeus and Slocum itself, it being a premiere there’s still work to do on the script, of course.  Others have commented on its rushed, slightly unsatisfying ending, for example, and one critic’s comparison of it to Hamilton reminds us that sometimes it’s just unfortunate timing to first appear in the same year an international, supernova sensation does.  I myself did feel distracted at times by scenes and vaudeville acts which seemed to go too long, but I came away admiring how well Thaddeus and Slocum helps us feel how harmful hiding or denying the inextricable mixing of black and white is.  I have written many times that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race and hope the talking space our after-play discussion provided could become more the norm.  Talk after racially charged explosions of violence often leads to damaging discussions.  Art can provide spaces both intense enough and safe enough to begin facing how entwined black and white are and how denying this, as Steve King so spectacularly did, has only nourished and continues to nourish racism.

 Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site.
  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Not As Divided As We Seem?

Obama-Bush-DallasMemAre we, as President Obama said at the memorial for fallen Dallas police officers, “Not as divided as we seem”?  On the one hand, I see more and more whites at protests over police shootings of young black men, and recently a white woman has been walking miles everyday on Chicago’s Southside wearing posters saying, “Black America, I’m sorry.”  Also, as the President has said on many occasions, at the local level more of us are working together and to more effect than in Washington.  It’s not very hard to top D.C. gridlock, however, and on the other hand, there seems to be much more evidence—including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the church massacre in Charleston, Philando Castile in St. Paul, etc. etc. etc.—proving the opposite.  Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort analyzes a growing divide as Americans cluster into less diverse neighborhoods.  The book’s subtitle is Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (go to the book’s website for more).  On this site, in “Graphic Inequality,” I comment on the greatest wealth divide in American history.

I often teach courses on race and ethnicity, and every time it seems racial incidents explode, making sometimes discomforting material even more disturbing.  This past Tuesday I opened my Race, Ethnicity, and the American Experience class by letting everyone talk about the week’s explosive events in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas.  A student had already written me a long email on how police needed more education, and I had replied that they needed to take a clue from the military’s no-tolerance policy regarding racism.  Two veterans are in the class.  “You’re in big trouble if there’s even a hint of racist behavior,” said one.  ”I know this is going to sound crass, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” said the other, “but I was kind of proud of how the Dallas shooter handled himself.”  The shooter had also been a veteran, and the student’s point was that besides more anti-racist training the police also needed better training on how to actually handle guns.  “If you watch the police,” he continued, “they didn’t seem to know what to do compared to the vet.  He’d been well trained.  And if you look at the officer in Minnesota, he’s out of control, out of his mind with fear and has no idea how to act.”  This was a sharp take on a problem I’d only dimly considered before.  None of our discussion, I should add, was in the spirit of wholesale condemnation of police.

Many of these issues were touched upon in an episode of PBS’s Tavis Smiley show, which I happened to watch immediately after returning home from this class.  It was an interview with professor Robin D.G. Kelly and Civil Rights lawyer Connie Rice, which, for the moment, you can watch HERE.   Kelly spoke of “colorblind racism”* and said of  Obama’s comment, “Not as divided as we seem? What country is the President looking at?”  Rice told about interviewing 800 L.A. police officers.  After they got comfortable and realized she wasn’t going to use anything they said against them, officer after officer admitted how scared they were of black people, how little they knew, how they’d never sat down to share anything with a black person.  Fear, lack of personal relationship, firearms—this is a sure-fire recipe (pun intended) for all the tragedies we’ve seen.  Unless things change—starting with ditching colorblind racism and getting our police more training—these incidents will continue to multiply into our future, clouding and disheartening it just as they have clouded and disheartened decades and decades of our past.

* I have written much about how the doctrine of colorblindness sustains racism, disabling our ability to deal with it.  See, for example, articles on Trayvon Martin and on Peg McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack.”

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