A while back–before the most recent shooting and the furor over what the Confederate flag symbolizes–I decided it was time to re-read one of the books considered an American classic…Gone with the Wind. It had been many years since I had read it or seen the movie, so I didn’t have strong memories of it. I requested the electronic version at my library, and it took a while before it became available…ironically about the time memories/history of the “Old South” were hitting the news.
I’ve been finding it difficult to read.
Not because it is poorly written. Far from it. Margaret Mitchell had a wonderful way with words. Her dialogue is realistic, her characters–her white ones–much more than cardboard caricatures, and the story draws you in.
But I find myself cringing at her portrayal of plantation life and the “happy darkies” before the war and the paternalistic view expressed by some of the characters with their doubts about whether or not the slaves could be trusted to take care of themselves if they were freed. And while the speech of the white characters is realistic, the “patter” she gives to the African-American characters portrays them in many ways as less than children.
Interestingly, the further I get into the book, the more I find myself comparing her portrayal to that found in the movie Glory, the story of the United States’ first all-African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. That movie also deals with former slaves during the Civil War, but it treats them as real people, with the ability to become more than they had been allowed to under slavery.
The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts are not perfect…far from it. But Col. Robert Gould Shaw expects them to become soldiers…believes they can…and they do. In one scene, he and his men are commanded to go on a foraging expedition with another regiment of former slave soldiers under the command of an officer who–even though a Yankee–treats them as Margaret Mitchell treats her African-American characters…as children who don’t have the potential of being any more than children and who need to be taken care of by superior whites.
While I enjoy the story of the “romance” between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, I am realizing just how deeply the paternalistic racism that Mitchell expressed has seeped into our society–and how the baggage from the Civil War still has not been dealt with.
Yet it must be. We have to be willing to take an honest look at ourselves and how we see “the other”, whatever our racial background., Until we are willing to have those difficult conversations, we will continue to be a divided country, still stuck in the 1860s in many ways.
I think we can do better than that.