Last night, we listened to the magnificent Minnesota Orchestra as the front band for the 1939 classic film “Wizard of Oz”. It was a wonderful evening. I felt a bit guilty being there, given what has happened in Haiti in the last few days; on the other hand, we had these tickets for almost a year.
I did watch the film with new eyes last night. It remains a wonderful film with lots of positive messages for one who chooses to look for them. (In the lobby, at intermission, I noticed a poster borrowing from Robert Fulghum’s “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten“: “everything I need to know I learned in the Wizard of Oz“. A lot of simple truth there, I thought.)
I don’t remember when I first saw Wizard of Oz, but it was long after it was made. Even though I was born a year later than the film, in 1940, movies were a rare treat in my growing up life in the country.
Last night coincided closely with Martin Luther King’s birthday, and last night I looked at the casting for Wizard of Oz. I looked pretty intently. I do not recall a single face that looked unlike mine. The cast was, best as I could see, totally white.
That is how it was, then. If African-Americans had any roles at all, as in the famous Civil War epic Gone With the Wind produced about the same time, Negroes were kept in their proper subservient place, invisible or inferior; and if their role was important, whites in black face filled in just fine, if I remember rightly.
I describe a deeply ingrained American attitude. And, yes, it has played out in Haiti for its entire 206 year history as an independent Republic, right up until today.
Coincidentally, this past week I listened to a talking book, The Hornets Nest, Jimmy Carter’s first novel, an account of the Revolutionary War in the South, in the years 1770-1790. (The audio book was excellent, worth my time.)
Carter’s book outlines the tension and violence in the south often relating to whether or not there should be slaves, and how to deal with the native population. (One doesn’t need to read a book about what happened, but Carter effectively develops how the grass roots embrace of slavery and eradication of the native Indians evolved and became institutionalized.)
This afternoon I finished the fifth and last CD of the book, and in Carter’s epilogue, the final sentences recounted Thomas Jefferson’s reluctant but firm embrace of slavery as the only way to assure white dominance and continuation of the “American Way of Life.”
Carter in his last words also notes the official continuation of American slavery till the Civil War, and the separate-and-unequal prevalence to the present in our country.
It was Jefferson who was U.S. President in 1804 when Haiti’s slaves defeated the French and declared their independence from France, only the second free Republic in the western hemisphere. A free Haiti was an intolerable threat to our own United States, ourselves a slave state; meanwhile, the vanquished France successfully starved the infant Haiti Republic almost to death, with the U.S. standing by, and so it has gone for Haiti until the present day.
No wonder, some Haiti advocates wish us to be gone.
Our racial climate is different now, than it was in the time of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, but not so much.
The conversation about Haiti, spoken and unspoken, is dominated by racial attitudes that we have been brought up with.
There is an opportunity, in this time of horrible crisis in Haiti, to slowly begin to change the conversation.
I wonder who, or how many, will actually try to do so….
A bit more on Thomas Jefferson and his own personal attitudes here.