Shame and Slavery: Tarantino, Lincoln, and Shelby Foote

December 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; Across the Land and the Water, by W. G. Sebald.

It’s the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial tomorrow.  Big deal, y’all.  We’re in the midst of the every-fifty-years retrospectives of our Civil War, too.  And I’m in the midst of a confluence of culture concerned with these events: in addition to my beginning of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative history (which I’m reading intermittently, between other books, probably all of next year and then some), the past week has featured viewings of Django Unchained and Lincoln.  I can’t imagine three more different treatments of slavery and its end.  To my surprise, I’m most bothered by Foote’s history (though, of course, I’m very early in this 2000-plus-page project), though all of them are problematic in their own ways.

(Inescapable SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.)

Django is built around a hyperbolic version of slavery — a Tarantino “movie” version of slavery — featuring a capital-E Evil Slave Master whose passion in life is pitting slaves against each other in fights to the death.  This never happened, pretty obviously, or if it did, there’s no trace of it left to history.  But Tarantino’s stated mission in this movie is to “break that history-under-glass aspect” of slavery in other historical films: he wants it be visceral, and in 2012 you have to be pretty damn brutal to get popcorn-moviegoers to pay attention.  (Although, let’s be real, it’s not like Q has been a model of restraint in other movies.  You know what you’re getting if you go to his movies, including movies about slavery.)  The clever point here is that it could have happened: it would only take one decadent, imbalanced plantation trust-fund kid, after all.

The movie has a number of queasy-making scenes, and the reasons why they were queasy-making for me in a way that nothing was in Inglourious Basterds are interesting.  White American audiences are never comfortable with equivalencies between Nazis and anyone, but especially between Nazi Germany and what we still weirdly call “the institution of slavery.”  We tend, I think, to be acutely sensitive to “exaggerations” of the horrors of slavery.  We are also terribly uncomfortable with even discussing the subject, and I don’t think Django is going to do much to change that: it’s a satisfying cartoon revenge fantasy and that’s that.  It’s especially queasy-making, that Tarantino, Q, my fellow white American, chose to end his movie by encouraging us to heap scorn upon, and cheer the murder of, a loyal house slave.  But it’s of a piece with the rest of the film: it’s motivation is completely justified rage, a desire for exorcism, not white guilt.

And but so newsflash: for all the lazily scornful talk of “white guilt,” white Americans are very bad at feeling guilty and being ashamed, mostly because we remain mostly unwilling to atone for our shames.  We are also acutely uncomfortable with any notion of our history that does not follow lovely inevitable parallel moral, economic, and political slopes to paradise.  We just assume we’re going to win and that if we’re doing so, we’re doing so the right way.  (See also Hollywood, 1900-present; utter lack of national outcry about torture, 2001-present.)  I think that, by and large, the white citizens of this country have managed to convince themselves that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of African people, the marginalization of those peoples for a hundred years thereafter, and the silencing and abuse of women throughout our history, were inevitable “lessons learned” on our path to freedom.  In other words, no cause for shame.

The best thing about Lincoln — and however much it could be seen as a “history-under-glass” movie in Tarantino’s view, it affected me far more deeply than Django — might be how it makes clear that nothing about abolishing slavery was inevitable or easy.  It was messy and sordid and very nearly did not happen, even with no Confederate states represented in the government.  We, as a nation, were fighting this idea tooth-and-claw, 150 years ago, in both the Union and the Confederacy.  We were still fighting the concept of full equality less than fifty years ago.

It is worth remembering that slavery ended seven or eight generations ago.  That means that there are elderly people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents could have told them about their lives as slaves.

Imagine how they might feel watching a Civil War reenactment.  Imagine how they might feel seeing a Confederate flag above a state capitol.  Imagine how they might feel about those men dressing up as Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep millions of black people enslaved.  For that matter, I don’t need to imagine it.  I know how I feel.

What would you call a German reenactor of World War II battles? I think you’d call him a neo-Nazi.  You would not find him an eccentric history buff.

If you live in the South, you hear plenty about how lovely those old plantations are.  I do commend Tarantino for showing just how blood-soaked those white plantation walls were, and for blowing the damned building up at the end.  It’s refreshing.

If you live in the South, you also still hear a lot of comments along these lines:

I am a Mississippian.  Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me.  However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were removed from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it.  Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago.  If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.

That’s Shelby Foote, in the “Bibliographical Note” to the first volume of his Civil War history, published in 1958.  That’s shocking, I think.  That should be far more shocking than blood-soaked Django, than the number of times the n-word is uttered in either that film or Lincoln.  “Sympathy for the underdog in a fight”: that has been the argument for Confederate pride for 150 years, now.  Sorry: underdogs are only sympathetic if they’re fighting the bad guys.  If you’re defending your right to keep people as property, and your economy is based on concentration camps, you’re not worthy of sympathy.  You’re worthy of shame.

Shame.  This is shameful.  And we’ve done our best to forget about it, these past 150 years, and especially these past four years, with talk of “post-racial” America.  The desire to “turn the page and move forward,” our most prevalent national mixed metaphor, is just another way of saying you’d like to bury history and leave it buried.  Reading Sebald is an antidote to that: the ways in which he reveals that the merest scratch beneath the surface of his life shows all the ways in which historical atrocity affect all of our lives.

Hypocrisy and Irony

December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just.  When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs.  However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”

Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral  “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral.  He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him.  (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)

Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book.  The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens.  (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book.  It seems rather petty of him.)

On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them).  Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.”  Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him.  Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.

Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ.  I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics.  Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly.  He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.

Confessions

March 9, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Just a few idle thoughts after finishing this late yesterday:

-Funny coincidence: while I was reading this, my wife Jaime was reading a book subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner. Synchronicity!

-I kind of dismissed the title of this book without a second thought until after I’d finished, but now it has me thinking.  The significance of the title, which is also the title of the actual document written (and/or transcribed) by T.R. Gray based on the historical Nat’s statement (and the preface to which appears as the preface of Styron’s book), now looms large.  I credit some of the shriller criticism of the work with pointing this out to me: there were (are?) suggestions that the book be retitled The Confessions of William Styron or, if you want to be gratuitously insulting, The Confessions of Willie Styron.

I’m taking it a different direction, though: the book is a confession, but whereas the historical confession is a legal confession, detailing what happened when and, so far as Gray can surmise, why and how, this novel is a moral and personal confession, as well.   But Nat remains adamant to the end that he would carry out his insurrection again, given the chance.  So what has he confessed?  His lust; his disgust at the actions by some of his men during the insurrection, especially Will, and his guilt at killing Margaret Whitehead to assure the men that he was capable of killing; perhaps, just perhaps, his confusion (right up until the end) with why he was called to do this only to see it go to hell, and to see none of the effects he hoped for come to pass.  (There’s an ironic twist to the double-titling, too, in that both documents are supposed monologues by a black slave taken down by a white mediator.  I would think that a lot of this is coincidental, but then, from what I know Styron was quite deliberate with his titles: they were important to him.  It’s an obvious title but an interesting one, too.)

-My earlier thoughts on the lack of Jesus in a book so full of the Bible and Christianity (see “The Gospel of the Flies”) recurred to me as Nat has a vision of something like heaven on his way to the gallows, and thinks, “I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.” In a moment, he thinks, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” It seems to be Styron’s final motion toward hopes of contemporary racial reconciliation, coming as it does after Gray smuggles a Bible to Nat in the jail the night before his execution.

-There are thickets of scholarship on this book, and I’ve just started poking around at the outlying shrubbery. One thing it’s got me thinking, though, is that my nonfiction reading on slavery has been too thin. (Another thing it’s gotten me to thinking is that we, as a country, are kind of in a weird time with the topic right now. I mean, it’s a topic that comes up constantly in public discourse, but so much of the discussion seems trite, facile, or assumptive. Is it exhaustion? Aversion? Or have we never been very good, as a culture, about confronting the actual mechanics of slavery? There was Roots, I guess. And, granted, like most cultures we tend to be more comfortable discussing the crimes against humanity of other people. Maybe this is just my own warped view of things.) Anyway, I’m in the market for some books on American slavery: I’m thinking detailed, well researched accounts of the trade and the day-to-day. Plus a sweeping narrative of broad trends from colonies to Civil War. I could do the legwork on my own, but maybe you’ll save me the trouble. Suggestions, please!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with slavery at The Ambiguities.