No, Prissy is Not the Problem; Sam is

Once I was a staffer at a summer camp for high performing Chicago public school students.  Hanging out with them in the evenings, I just happened to have a copy of Gone With the Wind on DVD and since there was interest, hunkered down with a bunch of them.  One of the kids walked during the long shot of the Depot during the siege.  The one where you start with Scarlett looking for Doctor Meade while dying soldiers moan, and then backs up to reveal a lot of dying soldiers, then backs out more, and then more, until you’ve got an aerial shot of thousands of them.  At this point one of the boys who’d wandered in a few minutes before goes, “Why do you care?  They were Confederates.”  To which a girl answered, “They’re still people.  That’s a lot of people.”  “Meh,” says the boy, “they’re racists.”  This summarizes pretty neatly the loudest, most extensive argument I’m aware of about Gone With the Wind.

I went into it expecting to find an argument for people misreading it or applying modern context to an old book set in an older time.  I was cheering for this argument to be there, and I got a good long ways into the book with my fingers crossed.  I refuse to fault a book for using language that was considered appropriate at the time it was written, and would give decent leeway to anybody using that language when writing about the Civil War South, so the proliferation of racial slurs didn’t cut it for me.  I even gave it a pass on under serving the black characters in terms of development; none of the characters not part of the planter class get good development, black or white. (Slight exception for Belle, but that’s a consequence of using her to flesh out Rhett so I give no credit there)  I was even willing to grant a pass for the various house servants characterizing ex-slaves who embraced freedom as bad people; that happens in a caste system.  Qualifying all praise with a “for a negro” and relentlessly characterizing black actions as African, exotic, or animalistic was annoying, but similar stereotyping got employed for a whole host of things so that could be more lazy than racist.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect to finish the book and declare, “No problems here.”  I was pulling for a, “Given the context, I’d fault the time, not the individual work.”  But, er, then this happened.

De Cunnel, he a might fine man an’ he unnerstan’ niggers.  But his wife, she sumpin’ else.  His wife, she call me ‘Mister’ fust time sh eseed me.  Yas’m, she do dat an’ Ah lak ter drap in mah tracks w’en she do it. (772)

That’s Big Sam telling Scarlett what he’s been up to since the war.  He’s worked as a body servant, an upgrade from his position as a field hand, traveled all around up north, and after encountering yankee women who call him mister and want him to eat at the table with them, freaks out and runs home.  Nothing bad has happened to him, he’s got a good position and a good start, but he panics and runs back anyway.  And this is where I have to draw the line and call shenanigans.  It’s not that I don’t believe somebody in Sam’s position would do that; we certainly don’t have enough of a character developed for me to find it out of character.  Nope, I’m calling shenanigans because of the plot-engine that puts him in that carriage with Scarlett in the first place.

We didn’t need to see a freed slave running back to the plantation to drive home the point that a lot of abolitionist propaganda was, in fact, propaganda.  The sheer impracticality of beating and physically abusing slaves, or holding on to a massive population champing at the bit to escape is well established at this point.  Sam serves no other purpose after this; we don’t even see him at Tara, so there’s no reason it has to be him.  How much more powerful might it have been for it to be one of county boys, brought low and mean by the war, hanging out in Shanty Town and conveniently placed to rescue Scarlett from the robbers?  No, there was no character reason established for Sam to come back, the plot didn’t necessitate it.  Sam decided to flee the north because inside the framework of the book, that’s what anybody from his background and in his position would do.


He’s been promoted to body servant.  He gets to have a big joke over on the ignorant Yankees who don’t know better and pretend they think he’s as good as they are.  He’s got actual money with which to irresponsibly spoil himself.  Some people might freak out and run home, but the vast majority are going to run with it, either because they’re convinced it’s right or because it’s fun to get away with it or because after a lifetime of being coddled by others they utterly fail at self-care and fall apart or any other of a thousand reasons.  Sam was the one waiting in Shanty Town because the assumptions behind his character consist entirely of, 1) He’s a good negro and 2) Good negros go back to the plantation.  And this was less tragic, less wrenching, and had less tension than any of a dozen alternatives I can think of not operating on those premises.

I’ll forgive failure to develop whole classes of characters, dialog and character rendering that a post-Harlem Renaissance writer should have probably known better than to do, and a plot focus that is aggressively uninterested in the inner lives of a whole class of largely off-screen characters all day long.  This was shabby plotting.  Sam should never have been in that forest, and ten seconds of thinking about it with an understanding that even if we don’t care for this book, black people are human too would have made that obvious.

Of course, after that I remembered that the Irish weren’t white yet in 1936 so all of the various slights against Gerald for is Irishness are not just quaint but actually rather loaded, and most of the forgiving I’d done up to that point gets a bit thorny.  Especially when you consider that all of Scarlett’s less acceptable character traits get attributed to her similarity with Gerald.  So yeah, no good.

That said, I do think this book is mostly just aggressively disinterested in all but one narrow class of people rather than deliberately ignoring the fact that the rest of the world is still comprised of people.  It’s definitely launched from bad premises, but it’s mostly ignoring them and lazily relying on established literary convention.  In other words, yes, book is racist, but by default rather than design.  That’s an assessment, not an excuse.  I care, because paying attention to things like that affects how I analyze and read other aspects of the book.  I’d rank this as more of a sigh inducing level of bigotry than a rage inducing one.  But I’m a white Southerner in love with the book and knowing that, I’m going to side with both kids in the opening paragraph and say, “Yes, they’re still people so don’t be cruel.  But it’s okay if you’ve got better things to care about.”


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