Oh sorry, I was supposed to lead up to that. Proper argumentative essay and all that jazz. But yeah this is horrible. . . and yet it is undeniably great literature.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is one of the best-written novels in American Literature, I do recommend reading it. . . Unfortunately, Mitchell used her amazing talent to write something incredibly racist.
Allow me to clarify my view of looking at works from the past through modern eyes. I don’t think it’s fair to judge a work written in the past with concepts of the current era. For example: If Huck Finn had been written today, it would be racist, but I think it’s only fair to take into account the culture in which Mark Twain lived and his intention with the character of Jim. In that culture, at that time, it served to humanize the plight of runaway slaves. With that taken into consideration, I don’t think Huck Finn is racist.
Of course, this is just my opinion. You can disagree, I just wanted to clarify the yardstick that I use to measure books that deal with sensitive issues. So under this criteria, is Gone With the Wind racist?
Gone With The Wind is a story about a rich, slave owning, Scarlet O’Hara, and the effect the Civil War has on her and everyone around her. Much like Fiddler on the Roof if you don’t know the story, shame on you, go see the movie! . . . and maybe grab some laundry to fold or something, because it is LONG!
In the novel, Mammy, Big Sam, and Uncle Peter all talk about how proud they are to be slaves of a great family, even going so far to say that they don’t want freedom.
For her part, Scarlet laments over and over again how the northerners don’t know how to treat the slaves they freed and how better off slavery was for blacks. While it’s certainly true that freed-slaves faced many hardships and discrimination, we’re talking about freedom vs. slavery! Even in the 1930’s when this novel was written, slavery was wildly considered bad!
To be completely fair to Mitchell, I concede the following statements she makes about the postbellum South:
- Many doctors in the south would have refused to see a freed slave as a patient where they would have previously treated a slave.
- Many freed slaves went back to the same work they did before the war, as hired hands.
- Not every slave in the entire south was whipped or sexually abused.
In conceding these three points in no way am I defending the institution of slavery. In the novel, Scarlet goes on, and on about how her father wouldn’t stand for beatings on Tara, like that somehow makes slavery okay.
Slaves were literally thought of as farm animals and treated as beasts of burden. There is an old saying that goes “It’s a poor farmer that beats his horse.” The issue is not that slaves were beaten, it’s that they were treated no differently than animals. The comparison is what is so revolting, regardless of how they are treated.
The reason that slavery is disgusting is not the living conditions, the work, or the abuse, if it were, the abolitionist movement would have been satisfied with laws about the treatment of slaves. What makes slavery wrong is the fundamental idea that you have a right to rob another human being of their God-given autonomy because of how they were born.
This is never addressed in Mitchell’s novel.
I am about to make a controversial point, so consider this a trigger warning:
In South Africa today, there are many problems. While the apartheid is officially over, South Africa faces many new challenges: continued political corruption, crumbling infrastructure, water and food shortages, high unemployment, and violent crime at an all-time high. Journalists from the area have reported a growing nostalgia even among black South Africans for the apartheid area because while the laws were unfair, at least they were enforced.
I think it is reasonable to assume that during the dark days of the reconstruction era there were much the same feelings among some freed slaves in the American south. If this “things are so bad, I miss being a slave” was what Mitchell was going for, she didn’t highlight how bad things must have been for the freed slaves that it made them actually nostalgic for slavery.
Most of the black characters we see in the novel never even seem to think about themselves at all. They are very flat characters that only show up to serve the white people. So I hesitate to give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt. The novel’s focus on white, former slaveholders, means that any nostalgia is for the “good old days” is relegated to missing the days when “people knew their place” yeah, I don’t feel sorry for you jerks.
When Scarlet meets Big Sam after the war he tells her about his travels up north. He talks about feeling uncomfortable with northerners treating him like an equal and how northerners “don’t know how to treat black folks.” and Scarlet sighs about how they need to be “treated like small children.” Considering that Mitchell lived in the Jim Crow era Georgia, her real meaning becomes horribly clear.
The KKK are portrayed as protecting women from the “drunk on freedom” black men, (yes, Mitchell used those exact words) and trying to fight for their property rights, since plantations were being carved up and given to freed slaves. Oh, you poor former slaveholders they’re carving up your land and giving it to your victims!
There is also a LOT of Dixiecrat rhetoric talking about how horrible the Republicans are for giving freed slaves the right to vote.
From what I understand, Mitchell had family that was “involved in politics” in the 1920-30’s. At that time, in Georgia, that likely means that she had family who were Klan members.
I can’t prove anything of course! It’s just wild speculation on my part, but I’m comfortable with that guess.
There was one moment in the novel I think does deserve some credit. When the war is over, Scarlet has a conversation with a Yankee officer’s wife. The woman is looking for a nanny for her children. Scarlet tells her how to find a ‘Mammy,’ but the woman is aghast at the thought of a black person in her home. She wants an Irish girl. Drawing a loose parallel from the South’s racism against the freed blacks to the north’s racism against the Irish.
At this moment Mitchell addresses that the Yankees did not necessarily want equality with blacks, and had no intention of employing the very people they freed. By doing so, she demonstrates clearly that the northerners were not above racism themselves.
That’s one point for you Mitchell, even a broken clock is right twice a day!