Midnight Reading

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.


Worth reading:

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).

Benefit of the Doubt

http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/.a/6a010535ce1cf6970c01b8d06105e4970c-piThe other night I walked out of CVS without paying for photos I’d just printed. By the time I realized my mistake, I was back home and too exhausted to return to the store.

I confessed my inadvertent shoplifting to my husband.

“If you were a black man, the police would be here hauling you in,” he remarked. “You might end up dead.”

This was the same day a grand jury failed to indict a white policeman for the choking death of an unarmed black man whose crime was selling individual cigarettes. Less than two weeks earlier, the Ferguson grand jury let another white officer off the hook for killing an unarmed black teenager who had recently stolen a pack of cigarillos. Two days before the Ferguson decision, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun was shot to death within seconds by the responding white police officer. Earlier this summer, a black man who was inspecting a toy gun while browsing in Walmart was shot to death after alarmed shoppers called the police.

Each situation is different, of course. But the key difference is that they were black, and I am white. I do not have to think about clerks tailing me in stores. I can come and go without arousing suspicion. Even if I were somehow caught in the act with my purloined photos, I would be given the benefit of the doubt. I could buy a toy gun for my child and count on not being killed.

But Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and so many boys and men whose skin is darker than mine cannot. That’s the real crime.

I returned to CVS the next morning to pay for my photos.

“Thank you for your honesty,” said the clerk, smiling as he handed me the change.

I continued on with my day–another key difference between me and those whose days have been cut short.