The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

August 3, 2015

How as a Preteen I was Seduced by Margaret Mitchell and Abandoned by American Culture to Her Hegemonic Discourse

I read Gone with the Wind as a required book for my summer reading list between seventh and eighth grade a private girl’s school.  At the time, I was hoping, like almost everyone who is going to turn thirteen years old, for a great romance, proving somehow I was desirable, affirming my blossoming powers of female charm, a romance that would serve my ego.  I had no conscious thought of love by any adult definition, and I had limited information on sex, but I knew this much – the idea of a good-looking boy who would parade around with me in public, letting the other girls at my school know, most of whom I found milquetoast and cruel, that he thought I was awesome, one who would slow dance with me and neck with me at a co-ed party, the kind I was rarely invited to, that appealed to me more than I could say.  Boys often get criticized at that age for only having “one thing on their mind,” but truly, though I did not have a clear picture of that “one thing,” my motives for wanting a boyfriend in the abstract were no less selfish and shallow than any boys at that time of life would have had.  My chief object in this pursuit, one mostly in a state of total fantasy in my sex-segregated life, was to outdo the girls who made fun of me for being nerdy and not obscenely rich the way they were.

Given my summertime agenda, reading about Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks Barbeque, where she stole other girls’ beaux and threw a vase at Rhett Butler while wearing a big, flouncy dress – that was my idea at twelve-and-a-half of a pretty impressive afternoon, if I could get over the Civil War getting declared that day, which I mostly did.  The later descriptions of Rhett Butler’s hot-lipped kisses on Scarlett’s palm sounded pretty good, too.  And as a role model for gumption, Scarlett probably continues to influence me, though her purely self-interested modus operandi is something I hope I have overcome at this less adolescent time of life.

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

I was already literary enough in junior high school to understand, as I read the section of the book that describes the siege of Atlanta, that I was in the presence of a master artist in Margaret Mitchell’s pages.  In rereading the book this summer, decades later, I find myself enchanted by her astonishing narrative structure for this section of the book, the way that certain phrases become refrains.  The scene where the battle is within earshot of the dark city of Atlanta, and in the night, various Southern men knock on Aunt Pitipat’s door, each with different manners of speaking reflective of a diversity of region and class of these Confederate soldiers, where because of the dark, Mitchell confines her evocation of scene to non-visual descriptors only – I actually applauded that scene in my rereading.  I remember at twelve-and-a-half, I was awestruck by the idea of a whole yard filled with wounded soldiers, and with Doctor Meade being forced to alleviate suffering as best he could nearly single-handedly and with limited supplies.  In rereading the scene years later, I still see the mastery of Mitchell.  She was a genius of a writer, clearly influenced by Vanity Fair and the works of Tolstoy.  Let me say we have never had an author in America who was very much better than Mitchell, and perhaps we never will, as far as structuring a complex narrative goes.

But what I learned about my adolescent self, my junior high school, and American culture as a whole while I reread Gone with the Wind horrified me, and I need to share it here.

How is it that in remembering the lush descriptions of Northern Georgia, the hot lips of Captain Butler, the wounded soldiers, the balls and ball gowns, the effete Ashley, the noble Melanie, I nevertheless forgot the horrible, horrible racism of Gone with the Wind as I read it at not-quite-thirteen for my school, a school in Yankee territory?  How did I, who remember vivid details from readings I did years and years ago – how did I not truly grasp and retain the enormity of Mitchell’s racism in reading this book?

Margaret Mitchell’s story tells us that the North attacked the South for more or less no reason – no reason!  For slaves were uniformly happy unless they were of very bad character, according to her.  Masters were benevolent and unabusive, though occasionally an overseer of trashy and Yankee-friendly ways might commit violence entirely independently of slave masters’ knowledge.  For Mitchell, people of color were bug-eyed, lip-jutting children, not merely ignorant by lack of education, but naturally ignorant the way a dog is ignorant of algebra, not because junior high school failed to teach him but because dogs can’t handle problems that solve for X.  For Mitchell, the Klansmen were heroic gentlemen, rather than terrorists.  For Mitchell, people of color shouldn’t vote because they would only be beguiled by slick white Yankee carpetbaggers who didn’t want what was best for the African-Americans, namely slavery.  Why didn’t any of this shock me as a school girl?

Understand that my parents were in the civil rights movement, and they took me to civil rights’ rallies when I was a child, so I absolutely knew that Margaret Mitchell’s understanding of the capacities of people of color was wrong, and if asked, I know I would have said so.  I did not know that the Klan had a present-day existence, and if I had known, I would have been horrified, aware as I was in some measure of what they had done to thwart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I considered a hero.  So again, why wasn’t I shocked?

My teacher who assigned the book to me never mentioned the problem of race in relation to the book, not once.  Who would assign this book to adolescents and not discuss racism?  He wasn’t much of a teacher, anyway.  He flirted with me inappropriately, and again – I was twelve going on thirteen.  I don’t think he harbored any proactive racist views, not that I could tell, but as a current teacher of literature, I find his lack of discussion on a topic central to understanding a text wildly irresponsible.  My parents knew I was reading the book and only asked me if I thought Rhett Butler was a better character than Ashley Wilkes for Scarlett to marry, and they reminded me that my great-great-grandfather had been in the Union navy as a navigator, though not in combat in the war, it seems.   They got a video of the movie and let me watch it to help me write the paper for my class, and nobody mentioned the difference to me of how Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel behaved on screen so differently from our family’s actual, real-life friends of color, and while I remember noticing that their on-screen behavior seemed unrealistic, I also noticed that when white people I knew in real life kissed, no violins swelled as the sky turned red, as they did when Clark Gable kissed Vivian Leigh, and I chalked the mawkish acting of those portraying slaves in the film not to a form of institutional racism but the overall absurd melodrama of the film in general. Why didn’t anybody mention this problem of wildly blatant racism to me, and why didn’t I reflect more deeply upon it?  How could I forget it?

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This revelation of past impressions makes me reflect on how deeply ingrained white privilege must have been in the ambient culture of my youth.  Just as few enough people question why models have to be rail-thin in order for designers to think they will help sell clothing, nobody around me, not even my activist pro-civil-rights parents, saw a problem worth discussing with me when I read this book.  I think like anorexia is a tacit expectation of female youth today, my life in late twentieth-century American culture was so steeped in racism that much of it was invisible from notice.  My parents wanted laws to be fair for all people and cared as much about friends of color as they did about anybody else, but I think they thought little about daily acts of racism that were not specifically mandated or forbidden by law.  It wasn’t illegal, after all, for Margaret Mitchell to write her political message into her book.  It was not unfair that she should be allowed to express her point of view.  But the truth was, I must conclude that nobody was really offended by the tone of her fiction, by the implications of diminished humanity  of so many characters in her book, of her book’s justifying a genocide of such a magnitude that it will never likely be wholly documented.

I must admit that young person that I was, I had already absorbed intensely racist ideas through a culture that was Northern, not Southern, and therefore I was not shocked or personally offended, though I would have told anyone who asked that racism was wrong and that I did not think I was better than a person of color.  I hung out with two twelve year-old girls at school who were African-American, Dionne and Rueisha.  I remember one day – my thirteenth birthday – during lunch hour, we turned on some music in the yard of the school and danced, and some white girls turned a hose on us, and we had to run off the lawn not to get wet.  Nobody got in trouble for this, though the next day, other white girls approached me, but not Dionne and Rueisha, and asked me to never dance during lunch hour again, that I was embarrassing them because we were in the same class.  I remember thinking it odd that they thought I was embarrassing for dancing to R & B, which I still love, but that it wasn’t embarrassing to them that my two friends, who were also in our class, did the same.  I remember pondering whether it was that they were black that made it “predictable” that they would dance, or if even my hilarity-filled friendship with these two girls were the source of eighth-grade embarrassment.  But I thought Gone with the Wind’s message of racial dishonor was merely fictional.  The book made me want to be a great writer.  It made me want to own a beautiful home and treasure it like Scarlett did Tara.  It made me want to see the South. I don’t believe it made me want to own slaves or see any group of people as less than fully human.  But it somehow contributed to my discounting outrageous assertions about race in our culture, and largely because I as an adolescent was not compelled by any adult authority to question the assertions in a required reading assignment.  Like Scarlett, I wouldn’t think about that now; tomorrow was another day.

Dionne and Rueisha and I still danced sometimes after this incident, though not on the lawn in front of our classmates.  Dionne and I transferred in ninth grade to a big public high school, and our circles of friends became largely segregated, as the currents of the culture pulled us apart.  I wish we had had the discussion about the book in class, in my living room, that Dionne and I, who had both been required to read the book, had discussed the racism in it.  Instead, like Rhett going off to fight the Yankees in the last battles of the war, Dionne and I were abandoned like Scarlett on a perilous road with dangers and no clear sense of what to do next.

But this is how white privilege takes itself for granted, how cultural oppression is hard to see to the group that benefits from the oppression.  Even if I had had no friends of color at my snooty girls’ school, I would have been robbed by this education without educating, this reading without contextualizing.  The keys to what we need to know about ending the hegemony present in American documents lies in the discourse of the establishmentarian authors as least as much as it does in those in revolt against that hegemony.  We need to raise our political consciousness so that Twelve Oaks burning makes sense, so that Frank Kennedy’s death makes sense, so that Scarlett’s pathological selfishness makes sense, so that America makes sense.  And then we need to change America into a place where the few oppressing the many is a wholly unimaginable occurrence, something only in the pages of historical fiction, not a present-tense struggle of any kind.  And this is how we get there – not just by revolting against the bad idea but examining it on its own terms to expose its fallacies.

One day I will teach Gone with the Wind to  my students next to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacob’s narrative, and Whitman’s poetry about wounded soldiers.  I will hold the long-overdue discussion, and while this will not stop the deaths of people like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, it will make us ready to shout “no,” to tell those white preppy girls that they are the embarrassment, that black women don’t act like Mammy, nor are they named “Mammy,” nor do they crow smilingly at the idea of some white slave owner asking them to lift up their skirts to show off their red petticoats, and no, just no – we need to unpack it all, admit to it all, and finally be able to renounce it all, truly all of it.

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