Is "Gone with the Wind" racist?

My former room-mate (who was black) refused to read "Gone with the Wind) because she said it’s racist.

Of course it’s quite true that the characters say and do racist things in the book. However, it takes in the South during (and just after) the time of slavery. It wouldn’t make sense for them to act like civil rights activists.

Some of the black characters are stupid (like Prissy), but the most prominent black character, Mammy, is portrayed as very wise.

So, what am I missing? Is this book racist?

What must be kept in mind is that the definition of “racist” tends to change over time. Lincoln would surely be considered a racist by today’s standards, but in terms of the 1860s, he wasn’t.

Likewise with GWTW. Considering when it was written and the time period that the characters are living in (when many blacks were uneducated, and purposely kept so), depicting them as such, in that setting, is not IMHO, racist.

Putting the same characters in a 2002 setting, OTOH, would be.

Zev Steinhardt

What Zev said. When you read old books or watch old movies, you have to put yourself in that time and that mindset—not to say that GWTW wasn’t racist even in the late 1930s, but she was also writing about the 1860s.

I have a problem, for instance, with the anti-Semitism in the writings of Edith Wharton and Gerald DuMaurier. I enjoy their work otherwise, but then I butt into some down-home Jew-hatin’, and it floors me. So . . . I suggest reading the old books and watching the old movies; it may dismay you, but it will also give you a good overview of how things have changed.

Gone with the Wind was written about upper-class white folks in the South, as seen by upper-class white folks in the South. Even if it were written today, I think it should’ve been written the same way. This is the way things appeared to those people. The blacks aren’t inordinately stupid, but the white characters are condescending towards them, and the slave-holding society has helped shape the way everyone in it acts. But, dammit, that’s the wat it was!

Kenneth C. Davis took GWTW to task for racism in Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, and, for the life of me, I still don’t know why. Maybe he thought there should have been some grumbling black fieldhands telling the truth as they saw it. But Miss Scarlett wouldn’t have seen it. And, despite what Davis says, GWTW was damned well researched.

What I would like to know, is, how does she know it’s racist unless she’s read it?

I liked GWTW a lot. I mean, yes, it can induce cringing, but I sort of read it with a tongue in cheek way-everyone in the book is pretty stupid, when you get right down to it.

I think it’s racist. It perpetuates the stereotype of the happy slaves who devote their lives to the well-being of their masters. This was a stereotype that slave owners convinced themselves was true, so that they’re own actions wouldn’t seem so morally reprehensible. This notion was shattered by the behavior of the slaves during the Civil War, and afterwards during Reconstruction (Read Reconstruction by Eric Foner. You’ll see that black people in the years leading up to and after the Civil War were just as radical – if not more – than the “civil rights advocates” mentioned in the OP).

This stereotype was brought back after the death of Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow years, this time as part of the justification as to why blacks were second-class citizens. Because that’s what makes black people happy, serving their white betters.

Agreed. This Idealized version of a White plantation with Happy Slaves who choose to remain with their former Masters even after the war is whitewash.

The problem is that the images this book helped create are now the popular images of southern life in the public mind.

But in the book only a handful (maybe 4 or 5) out of hundreds of slaves choose to stay with their former masters even after the war.

That’s true, autz, but these being the main characters, I’d have to agree with what some of the others are saying: the experience of these ex-slaves is idealized and contribute to the mechanics of the plot (Pork’s petty thieving keeps everyone on Tara from starving in latter war years; later Big Sam saves Scarlett from being raped). Even Mammy’s belated approval of Rhett cements his transformation as “genuine”; until she wears the red petticoat they were still mules in horse harness. All characterizations of Mammy are totally in terms of white people. Wise, yes, but remember she is often shown as being more obsessed with the artifical conventions of white upper-class society than the whites even were (and Scarlett was, surely). I’m not sure if it is racist, but if I were black, I’d avoid reading about someone who had so little regard for herself and such high regard for a people that saw her as a wizened old elephant. Think also of Scarlett’s indignation at the Yankee’s questions about Uncle Peter. They call him and “old pet” and Peter is justifably upset. But he’s mad because he took care of Miss Pitty and her family. Her “pertecked” them. His sole function and main duty in life has been to take care of white folks. The assumption that that would make him happy, I’d say, is questionable, if not racist.

That said, part of whiy I enjoy the book is because it show vividly what davidw is saying – keeping themselves under the delusion that all blacks were happy blacks is what made slave-holders able to live with themselves. For a look at what most slaves themselves might have thought, I recommend William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. Roots also provides a good companion volume if you find yourself reading GWTW.

(I must admit I also enjoy the story of Scarlett O’Hara, which is interesting, well-wrought and among the more compelling in literature (in my opinion) even amid all the possibly racist assumptions.)

Don’t confuse my defence of the book with the idea that I personally elieve that this state of affairs is desirable, or unprejudiced. But GWTW is not racist. The characterizations ring true. Myself, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a well-paid and free manservant or maid looking after me. I can’t fathom the idea of a personal slave servant. But such id exist, and, from what I’v heard, could have personal relations with the household. Heck, we’re living with the remnants, still – Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aun Jemima Pancakes – what are these but sentimental holdovers from the days when the black servants (nd slaves before them) were addressed by such ersatz family titles? (Not that it’s sentimentality that maintain the illusion any more – it’s brand familiarity. )

can give reasns for emancipated household servants to stay on – they were trained and fit for domestic service, and little else. I thy didn’t stay with the family they’d been with, they’d be with strangers, and aqrgably worse treated. The fieldhands might have seen the houehold staff as suck-ups and collabortors, and kept clear of them. People who have lived in a situation for a long time are unable or unwilling to shift of their familiar rails. I can easily see the household staff staying on, and being familiar with the white family. No entimentality is required.
For a more balanced view, read Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, for instance (you wouldn’t thin it from the title) – the last chapter describes relations beteen the master and the slaves from both oints of view, and it’ amazing how delusional the master is. Read Frederik Douglass’ memoirs.

But if you’re going to condemn GWTW for not showing the rumbling dissatisfaction o the slaves, then avoid all books about Medieval Europe or Russia or the Roman Empire. Pseudolus in Plautus’ comedy and in the modern musical A Funny hing Happened on the ay to the Frum is a relatively happy and well=fed slave, even if he isn’t black. Do you think it’s a realistic picture?

I don’t. And just cause I say the book is racist doesn’t mean I think the book isn’t worth reading.

Those “family titles” were used because whites refused to refer to older black people as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” The use of “Uncle” or “Auntie” were subtle forms of disrespect.

And after emancipation, most white plantation owners found that their “familial” feelings toward their slaves were not returned in kind.

Strangers? Why not with their own families? And one thing your not taking into account is the passionate yearning to get away from their white masters, and dedicate their work to their own families and their own households. That was a very real feeling at the time – much more than any loyalty to the white slave masters.

Sure, that sounds reasonable enough, but generally, that’s not what happened. While there were schisms between the house slaves and the field hands, they’ve been much exxaggerated in recent years. Their wasn’t that much hostility between the two groups.

Why should I avoid those books? I have no problem reading something that’s racist. I can even enjoy it if it’s well-written enough. But I’m not gonna kid myself and make excuses for it.

Scarlett O’Hara was a slave owner and a racist. GWTW is her book. The POV is Scarlette’s and she wasn’t an enlightened abolitionist, therefore the POV of the book is one of an unenlightened racist.

This isn’t a history book. It is a war story and a romance. About the soon to be ante-bellum south. In what context is can this book not include the racial stereotypes of that time? Astericks and footnotes, maybe?
[sup]*[/sup] This is a work of fiction. Most slaves had a burning passion for freedom and left their white slave owners.

[sup]**[/sup]In real life, Mammy would have slapped Scarlett silly the second the first ember settled on Atlanta.

[sup]***[/sup]Had this been an actual depiction of historical events, Rhette would have listened the only sane words Scarlett spoke in the whole book and not joined the Rebel cause.

[sup]****[/sup]As it really happened, Melanie stabbed Scarlett in the ear with her hand fan.

[sup]*****[/sup]If we want to be real about it, George’s father or brother probably would have ended up with the mill until his son could take over.

GWTW trivia here: Neither Mitchell’s novel nor the movie portrays the burning of Atlanta. The event depicted is the burning of the Atlanta depot, a much smaller fire which occurred two and a half months earlier. A Confederate rearguard intentionally destroyed a trainload of munitions and matériel rather than let it fall into the hands of the advancing Union Army. In the process, some nearby warehouses and a steel rolling mill were destroyed, but that was the extent of the fire.

And in any case, Mammy was back home at Tara when both events happened.

Possibly people merely misunderstand my terminology. I don’t think that GWTW is a racist book in that I don’t think the author’s intent was to show blacks in a demeaning or inferior way. It is arguably “racist” in that the main characters were themselves racist. Biggirl makes the same point I do much earlier. And I don’t see how davidw’s points refute any of my points. Hell, I’m not saying that southern whites weren’t biased and racist. I am saying that a work that depicts this state of affairs isn’t, by most accepted definitions, itself racist.

I love the book, and see it as, not so much racist but somewhat unenlightened, just as some of my grandfather’s views are not so much racist as misguided. The rules have changed since the book was written/grandfather was brought up, and now many things they took for granted seem old fashioned and wrong. I can’t blame either of them for the world around them changing.

Well, context is everything, isn’t it? I enjoyed the book and the movie, and while it isn’t mean and wildly racist, it puts far too nice a face on attitudes that black people are inferior and subordinate. These were the historical attitudes of the sort of people portrayed, but they might be air brushed even then, rather than a bit meaner and a bit more accurate.

I would not expose a young person to this material unless they had a good understanding of the prejudices it glorifies, and some discussion of what the various artists were trying to accomplish. I think that an economic background into the causes and effects of slavery and the old south might be a good angle to approach.

I’d say it is racist, but not in the same way as the Turner Diaries, or something more modern. I suppose that the author may have even been trying to avoid being racist as much as possible, but then it becomes an airbrushing. Once the student understood the context, however, I would not hesitate to expose them to this material. The book is very well written, the film is an all time classic example of the art form, and a clothes and manner film to boot. No film lover should avoid this film, it is magnificant. But yes, unfortunately racist.

Now Birth of a Nation is also definitely racist, meanly so, yet also necessary for a thorough film education. But other than as an example of great film, like Triumph of the Will, it has no other redeeming social importance. I would not show either film to a class of film appreciation. But both would be 100 percent necessary to show to a class of future filmmakers.

One of the great all time novels, Huckleberry Finn, is also racist in many aspects. Twain wrote it as a screed against racsim, but it was so subtle for the audience of his day that it is downright offensive at parts over a century later. But no American claiming a high school diploma should be deprived of its pleasures. It needs an introduction by a teacher sensitive to what Twain was trying to accomplish, how far he succeeded, and where he failed outright.

Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semetic? You bet. Must a person who is educated be aquainted with it? Equally so. Shakespeare was trying to do the same sort of thing Twain did later, but in my opinion, his message for social change was not as successful, but certainly every bit as pointed. Had Shylock not converted at the end, its offensiveness would have been greatly diminished. But Shakespeare probably did not have that luxury if he wanted it produced.

The quality of mercy is not strained.

Do what Aaron MacGruder did.

Huey Freeman as Rhett Butler: “Boy, I’m sure am tired from whipping slaves all day. Where’s my lemonade?”

I think one needs to acknowledge the distinction of a film that advocates racist beliefs and a film that is set in a period where the characters lived a lifestyle that included racism.

Thus, though pre-war slave-owners were racist, I don’t believe the film is.

Amen to Biggirl’s post. It isn’t a history text, people.

And some of us think that this book fits into both categories - they’re not mutually exclusive.