As a pre-teen, my favorite book was Gone with the Wind. I would devour it cover to cover far into the night, a flashlight illuminating the pages. As soon as I finished the book, I’d start over, hoping to beat my previous time. I saw the film many times, too, the screen’s imagery and Margaret Mitchell’s words melting together into memory. Still, it’s the thrill of my late-night, under-the-covers immersion at Tara with Scarlett O’Hara that stays with me.
I think it was Scarlett’s 17-inch-waist that first reeled me in. And, of course, the tempestuous romance between her and Rhett Butler. These sad, misguided fixations alone make me cringe. The backdrop of the Civil War and slavery barely registered. Referring to it now as a backdrop makes me cringe anew, proof positive of how easy it is for me still to retreat from reality.
From an early age, I knew the broad outlines of the Civil War—Confederacy bad, Union good. Slavery was a horror, and Abraham Lincoln was right up there with FDR and JFK in the presidential pantheon. After all, my parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps that’s why I read furtively by flashlight. But I didn’t sneak out of the house to see the movie version of Gone with the Wind. I’m sure we watched it together, and I don’t remember any in-depth discussions. My parents pointed out that Mammy, Prissy, and Sam were stereotypes undergirding the fantasy of loyal black people happily serving benevolent masters. But mostly we focused on those incredible hoop skirts and what Scarlett saw in that drip Ashley.
My first misgivings about GWTW came not from a deeper understanding of structural racism but from feminist critiques. That scene where a half-drunk Rhett shows Scarlett how he could crush her skull between his hands, then carries her upstairs to the bedroom, where she wakes up all smiles the next morning? Not long after my dawning horror that the scene depicted rape, I had another rude awakening: Rhett was a charter member of the KKK.
So I relegated Gone with the Wind to all the other things I’d once enjoyed and could no longer stomach: Coming-of-age stories that romanticized child sexual abuse; Last Tango in Paris; Bill Cosby. I moved on without giving GWTW much thought beyond feeling ashamed by my clueless self.
I’ve evolved some from my oblivion over the decades, though I have barely scratched the surface. I still read in bed after midnight. Now the illumination is provided by my iPhone rather than a flashlight—and also by the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her brilliant New York Times Magazine essay, “What is Owed?”:
“If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.”
I will strive to repay my debt.
John Ridley, “Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now” (Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2020)
Jacqueline Stewart, “Why we can’t turn away from ‘Gone with the Wind’” (CNN, June 12, 2020).
Sam Adams, “Gone With the Wind Is Back on HBO Max With This New Introduction” (Slate.com, June 26, 2020).
Nikita Stewart, “Black Activists Wonder: Is Protest Just Trendy for White People?” (New York Times, June 26, 2020).