Some thoughts on Racism in Gone with the Wind

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I read a post today at the wildly hilarious blog Books are My Boyfriends, where the blogger, Kit, raises a question about how to compartmentalize a book like Gone With The Wind that is rampantly racist. Here is what she says:

 GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell- I loved this book growing up and going back and reading the plot and characters and prose are top notch and also this book is REALLY racist and I’m trying to figure out a way to compartmentalize but I’m not sure I can. Because if there was a book that glamorized Nazis and made Jews in concentration camps Mammy and Prissy-like caricatures and it won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture and non-Jewish readers were like “Kit, you have to put this book in historical context” I would be like “I don’t live in historical context, I live now where it’s really fucked up to glamorize atrocities.” Does anyone else have strong feelings about this? I know I have strong feelings, I’m just trying to sort out what they all are.

Thanks so much for bringing this up, Kit, and I really hope you read my response. I do feel very strongly about racism. Gone With the Wind was quite one of my favorite books when I was in college, and I still really like it, but whenever I read it, I’m sort of aghast at the blatant prejudice, and wonder what African American readers feel about a book that depicts their ancestors as beings with subnormal intelligence, and suggest that white people actually did them a favor by keeping them as slaves because they are obviously like children (the book actually says this) and incapable of taking care of themselves. The depiction is done in a non-malicious way, and I think that actually makes it worse. As though Margaret Mitchell never really thought of the implications of writing about a real race of people, describing them as slow, stupid, lazy, amoral, greedy, and either completely accepting of their inferior status in life, or running about murdering and raping white people. She just took it for granted that all this was true and none of it mattered much, the story was about white people anyway (slaves don’t have stories, duh)













painting by edward windsor kimble, source: 1st art gallery .com

But would I recommend this to a younger reader? Yes I would, irrespective of whether they are black, white, brown, or yellow. One reason is that despite its racist overtones, Gone with the Wind really is a fantastically told story, paced beautifully, with rich, layered (white) characters, and a protagonist I could really dislike but never forget (see my character doodle of Scarlett O’hara here). If you turn your nose up at Gone with the Wind because you heard or read that it is racist, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Another reason, secondary, but important all the same, is that Gone with The Wind does, in fact, give a historical perspective. Probably not of the white-black chemistry in the time of the civil war, but certainly of the mentality and attitude of a white person born in Georgia in the early twentieth century towards the issue of slavery. From Margaret Mitchell’s point of view, the real atrocity was the rape and pillage of the south by the north, Slavery was a non-issue. And you can see why that would be. Mitchell’s story lay in her history. Her grandfather fought for the Confederates. The people she saw and heard while growing up were white people, who had memories of the civil war, who had been widowed in it, who had lost property and wealth, and who had certainly owned slaves and thought it was a natural and normal thing to do. Born after the abolition, Mitchell did not even see slavery first hand, and it is unlikely she had a lot of black friends who could give her a perspective. I doubt she would really have been interested; as I said, slavery was a non-story for her.

That is a really narrow point of view, but is a real one, it existed, and Gone With the Wind gives us a pretty good picture of it. Not what slavery was really like, but what post-abolition, world war era white people thought it was like. And that’s interesting too, and should be kept alive, because it tells us how a racial atrocity lives on in the memories of the perpetrator race.

If someone wrote a book today with characters like Mammy and Pork, they would be torn down, and rightfully so, because that book would be a malicious, intention way to perpetuate some twisted racial ideas of the writer. But GWTW was written in a time when people actually thought like that, and so it stays on our bookshelves like a photograph of the minds of a people.

I once started a book called The Wind Done Gone, meant to be a retelling of Mitchell’s story through the eyes of the plantation slaves. If I had thought it would counter GWTW’s racism, I was wrong. The book was every bit as racist as GWTW, if not more, and had the further disadvantage of being badly written.

What do you think? Should we judge past books based on present sensibilities? What is your take on Gone With the Wind?