People are imbeciles. That’s the message I get from HBO in its statement saying that it is pulling “Gone with the Wind” from its streaming service. It’s supposed to mean that the present turmoil will no longer allow the black population to be disparaged or humiliated. Other messages may be that people’s feathers are too delicate to be ruffled or, alternatively, why show ugly things when we can enjoy Disney and turn our back on monsters and monstrous times in history?
Regarding brittle and easily breakable psyches declining to be confronted by unpleasantness, I must admit to ending friendships, some friends acquiring the status of former friends when, raising an elegant hand to a feverish forehead, they declared wishing to keep away from bad news, therefore not watching reports, nor reading newspapers, nor hearing the latest antics of the latest crazy politician or the latest horrors from a dictatorship or a poverty-striken country. One such, not the only one, declared avoiding hearing about “sad” times.
Sad times indeed, and even horrors, over and over, during centuries, in country after country. Among those horrors, slavery stands impressive on the list of crimes of people against people, that extraordinary catalogue of abominations, some cruel enough and creative enough that one can only wonder at the scope through centuries and millenia.
As a human being, I want to know what people are capable of and I do know, I do read, I do see and am constantly appalled by the lengths to which we go (again today when reading about the removal of statues of the Belgian king Leopold II and reminded of his unbelievably harsh torture, murder and spoliation of blacks in Congo) but I also need a respite from having the inhumanity of humans shoved down my throat. “Gone with the Wind” is a period piece. The story takes place in 1864, one year before the Civil War, while slavery is practised with nary an eyebrow raised throughout the South where it’s safe to assume not many whites questioned its legitimacy. That is the way things were, white people living off the fruit of hard labor by Africans kidnapped and forcibly brought to this land of plenty. That was the South, states that Lincoln eventually realized could not continue reaping the abundant fruits of chattel servitude. That African-Americans today can’t appreciate “Gone with the Wind” is only natural. That we should ban it or compare it to D.W. Griffith’s KKK propaganda film “Birth of a Nation” is revisionism at its worst (see clips of “Birth” on YouTube–or good luck watching the entire miserable three hours, a shameful production on par with director Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 Olympics film, glorifying the Nazi regime which was by then gathering steam on its way to destroy the world and tens of millions of people.)
Redacting the worse pages of our history doesn’t help. We can still enjoy Scarlett’s tantrums and Clark Gable’s winning smile while remaining sensitive to Charles Vidor’s infantilizing and insulting depiction of the black plantation workers or the “privileged” house slaves, and understanding why it debases African-Americans today. Refusing to see what is or what was doesn’t help usher in different, more generous or just visions, on the contrary. By all means, let’s keep “Gone with the Wind” while feeling revulsed by the terrible flaws in the systemic exploitation of blacks and what led to the Civil War. Even if 155 years later, the situation is different—not only on the surface, it is to be hoped–a powerful awareness is gaining traction, with whites alongside blacks, struggling side by side every step of the way. Closing our eyes only makes the going more difficult.