Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck and Cover

Recap: in an interview with GQ, Phil Robertson, star of A&E's reality TV series "Duck Dynasty," compared homosexuality with raping barnyard animals. A&E, not keen on being associated with that sentiment, suspended Robertson. Some thought that was a violation of free speech and attacked A&E for, I dunno, exercising their own freedom to choose whom to give TV time to or something. The critics of A&E find themselves in the (I hope) uncomfortable company of the Westboro Baptist Church: "A&E suspended Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty 4EVER for telling you fags won't go to heaven. Hello?! GOD HATES FAGS."

Anyway, Phil Robertson's backwards views on sexual orientation are not what I wanted to talk about today. After the jump, his backwards views on race.

What strikes me about this whole "Duck Dynasty" affair is not the manufactured outrage over A&E suspending Phil Robertson for his bigoted remarks about gays. David Frum dismisses that in six words: "Demand for victimhood greatly exceeding supply."

No, what strikes me is how, even today, many people are clueless about the pernicious legacy of racism in America. Blacks were happy living under Jim Crow segregation? This isn't some dug up old quote of Strom Thurmond or George Wallace. It's a sentiment of the star of the number one non-fiction series on cable television today, in fact, in cable television history. Phil Robertson on growing up in pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ -- not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Source: GQ.
Coincidentally, I happen to be reading "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson. The "Great Migration" referred to is the exodus of six million black Americans from the South to cities in the North and West over the course of six decades from 1910 to 1970. Why did they leave the South, if, as Phil Robertson claims, they were all happy and no one was singing the blues? Maybe things weren't as happy as Phil Robertson imagined.
There was nothing to keep a planter from cheating his sharecropper. "One reason for preferring Negro to white labor on plantations," Powdermaker, a white northerner, observed, "is the inability of the Negro to make or enforce demands for a just statement or any statement at all." ... That did not keep some sharecroppers from trying to get what they were due after a hard year's labor. During the lull before harvest time, one of George's uncles, Budross, went to the little schoolhouse down in the field and learned to read and count. When it came time to settle up over the tobacco George's grandmother Lena had raised, the uncle stood by while the planter went over the books with her. When they got through, George's uncle spoke up. "Ma, Mr. Reshard cheatin’ you. He ain't addin' them figures right." The planter jumped up. "Now you see there, Lena, I told you not to send that boy to school! Now he done learn how to count and now done jumped up and called my wife a lie, 'cause my wife figured up these books." The planter's men came and pistol-whipped the uncle right then and there. The family had to get him out that night. "To call a white woman a lie," George said, "they came looking for him that night. They came, fifteen or twenty of them on horseback, wagon."
Maybe the reason Phil Robertson never heard any complaints from blacks was because they didn't feel free to share any complaints with him, a white person. Here's how a black who grew up in the system explains it:
By the time Lil George was old enough to notice, it seemed as if the whole world was crazy, not because of any single event but because of the slow discovery of just how circumscribed his life was turning out to be. All this stepping off the sidewalk, not looking even in the direction of a white woman, the sirring and ma’aming and waiting until all the white people had been served before buying your ice cream cone, with violence and even death awaiting any misstep. Each generation had to learn the rules without understanding why, because there was no understanding why, and each one either accepted or rebelled in that moment of realization and paid a price whichever they chose.
I'll have a full review of "The Warmth of Other Suns" in due time. Something tells me that it's a history that isn't being taught but America sorely needs to learn.

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