With a lifelong interest in cinema including a defunct vocation as a screenwriter I had a requirement to watch the film Gone with the Wind. It was a stunning achievement of cinema and one can see why it was a blockbuster for its time. But, I also lived in the American South and I know how that region will romanticize its past. I had mixed feelings.
In 2012, I finally read Gone with the Wind and I was shocked. I had to force myself to work through the book. I would pause and look at my partner with a shocked expression or I’d throw it across the room at random intervals. Parts of it made me physically ill. He was curious enough about my reaction that he read the book when I was done.
The writing is magnificent. There are people who will tell you it’s a terrible book because they know it is racist, but make no mistake, there’s good reason why this novel won a Pulitzer in 1937. It is one of the best written books I have ever read from that era and I’ve read heaps.
(If you’re curious, my favorite American novel of 1937 is Northwest Passage.)
When Dan started reading the book I couldn’t wait to hear his opinion. He is always surprisingly perceptive and I asked him why the book made me so enraged. I mean, I knew I was going to read a racist book. It’s not like it was a surprise. He nailed it. He said, “It’s slick propaganda. It’s like Triumph of the Will. It’s beautiful writing all in the service of convincing the reader that slavery was a-okay and it’s so good that it works. Even on you.”
This book is effective propaganda. Reading Gone with the Wind there’s a section that will even have you empathizing with the Klu Klux Klan.
I felt like I had two brains while reading this book. The half of me that was instinctively drawn into the story as I am a product of a racist culture and I’m a white woman. And then the other half of me that was reading it like I was reading it out loud to a Black friend.
Since then I have met lots of women, especially southern women, who apologetically admit that they still love GwtW even though they know it’s racist. When they say it I feel like someone has punched me. Can you imagine telling a Jewish woman that Triumph of the Will is your favorite documentary? Yes, it is extraordinary and groundbreaking film-making but it’s also a love letter to Nazis.
That broadcasters have pulled the lavish GwtW film version in order to add a disclaimer is long overdue, but it’s probably not enough. We probably need a Pop-Up Video annotated version that helps us deconstruct the viewing experience. I don’t think we should block it or lock it in a vault. I think we should be forced to read and watch this work and discuss all the ways the superlative writing manipulates our emotions and teaches us how to sympathize with a monster of a protagonist and her entire poisonous culture. Let’s deconstruct the racist propaganda so we recognize it in lesser forms all around us.
(And I didn’t even mention the enormous sexism.)
All of this is very much on my mind as I venture into writing a book series set in the American South that features some African-American characters. I am conscious that I don’t want to colonize Black spaces and I don’t want to appropriate Black stories. On the other hand, I have been trying to tell this particular story for decades. I looked back at my thesis project and it featured a bunch of Black people and now I realize why the studio executives would often tell me my stories were not “commercial” enough at our pitch meetings. Well, maybe that wasn’t the sole reason they’d pass but it probably didn’t help my chances back in the ’90s. I looked at short stories I wrote in high school that also have Black characters and I just know this is a story that I need to tell.
Thus I have been seriously examining the wisdom of writing this novel series and how to do it respectfully and inclusively. I broke down in tears to my friend that I felt like I wasn’t up to the task of doing this story and he helped me through my creative resistance. So I finally psyched myself up enough to attempt a few chapters back in January and then of course the USA protests started heating up (long overdue protests in my semi-French opinion). So I’m over here, a tiny insignificant artistic type about to take a big swing and hoping like hell I don’t write something that appeals to racists. In fact, the villain in my series is a Karen.
Margaret Mitchell is basically the most celebrated Karen. She weaponized her whiteness with artistic achievement so thoroughly the racist culture gave her awards.