Thursday, January 25, 2007

For the good old days, when people knew their place

Today's zombie racist: James Lileks.

Inspired by this 1943 advertisement, he writes:
The Steward was one of those peculiar archetypes of American apartheid – along with the Porter and the Maid. Unlike the domestic servant, though, he contained no sass. Think Uncle Ben: big toothy smile, yassir. Domestic servants, however, were allowed a great deal of sass – listen to the old Great Gildersleeve shows, and you get a perfect picture of the popular idea of this idealized relationship. Gildy is henpecked and outdone by all his domestic associates, but the only person who comes across with any degree of pride or level-headedness is Birdie, the servant, and Gildy's relationship to her is one of kindness and deference. You could say that's easy: she didn't count, so it was easy to be nice to her. But that's wrong. There was a fundamental decency and mutual affection in their relationship. Yes, yes, idealized depiction of inherent inequalities, etc. As the argument no doubt goes, the shows perpetuated inequality by pretending they really didn’t exist. But it's instructive to note what the popular culture held out as the ideal. Equality, not subjegation. Birdie was fully integrated into the family, and shared the same values. Nowadays I suspect a sitcom with a Black servant in a middle-class family would milk the clash of cultures, not the similarities. Wanda Sykes would star.

Links added by me.

For his next column, I imagine Lileks will be writing in the plantation tradition. I'll get him started:
The old plantation days are passed away, perhaps forever. My principles now lead me to abhor slavery and rejoice at its abolition. Yet sometimes, in the midst of the heat and toil of the struggle for existence, the thought involuntarily steals over me that we have seen better days. I think of the wild rides after the fox and the deer; of the lolling, the book, the delicious nap, on the balcony, in the summer house, or on the rustic seat on the lawn; of the long sittings at meals, and the after-dinner cigar; of the polished groups in easy but vivacious conversation in the parlor; of the chivalric devotion to the beautiful women; of the pleasant evening drives; of the visits to the plantation, with its long, broad expanse of waving green, dotted here and there with groups of industrious slaves; of the long rows of negro cabins with little pickaninnies playing about them; of the old well with its beam and pole for drawing, and of the women with pails of water on their heads; of the wild old field airs ringing out from the cabins at night; of the "Christmas gif', Massa," breaking your slumbers on the holiday morn; of the gay devices for fooling the dignified old darkies on the first of April; of the faithful old nurse who brought you through infancy, under whose humble roof you delighted to partake of an occasional meal; of the flattering, foot-scraping, clownish, knowing rascal to whom you tossed a silver piece when he brought up your boots; of the little darkies who scrambled for the rind after you had eaten your water-melon on the piazza in the afternoon--and, "as fond recollection presents them to view," I feel the intrusive swelling of the tear of regret.

--A South Carolinian, "South Carolina Society," Atlantic Monthly, 39 (June, 1877), p. 684. Quoted in Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro, p. 254.

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