Sunday, July 19, 2020

History, Art, Nostalgia: A Rambling Post

Good lord! Finally got to Douglass's appearance in Good Lord Bird and it is so over the top that you can't even call it parody. He's just a whole other person. Short, "stout," a bigamist, a drunk, bloviating, and a child-molester. This is the exact opposite of Douglass.

I'm now a bit intrigued about the choice of Daveed Diggs as the actor to play the miniseries vision of Douglass, given that his most famous role to date has been Lafayette/Jefferson in Hamilton, another feat of casting in which the historical person did not really resemble the character on stage. When that happens, both the characterization and the casting, you have to ask about the intent. The message of Lafayette/Jefferson was much clearer than what may be going on in the miniseries -- or yet even book -- of Good Lord Bird. Hamilton's whole spirit reminded the audience of the freshness and energy of these figures during their own time, but the black Jefferson also constantly reminded the audience that people who looked like the actor playing the character Jefferson were in fact owned by the historical person Jefferson.

No one is going to actually think that Jefferson was black (although who knows with Lafayette, his visage being less ubiquitous in U.S. visual culture.) What about Douglass? Douglass's face should be well-known, aside from the drunken Rochester fools who attempted to steal his statue in December 2018. His life, particularly his personal life, less so. Already, if the internet is any indication, a good chunk of the population is ready to believe that he was a womanizer. Now, will they believe that he was married to two women at the same time? Will that somehow become "fact" the way the fake quote about him being "married to an old black log," used as an epitaph to Jewell Parker Rhodes's dreadful novel Douglass's Womenhas? Or will the casting of Diggs suggest to the audience that something is upside down here?

This is the reason that I decided to read the novel, of course. Visual media has power that the written word, especially non-fiction, does not. I'm not at all versed in the reasons, but it has something to do with the combination of narrative and images that impress themselves on the mind and memory in such a way as to override other methods of learning and knowing. Whatever the physiological explanation, the quandary here lies in the artist's responsibility toward representing history and real human lives in the past.

Artists have license for interpretation that allow them to do whatever they would like; but we historians have to deal with the fallout. Take, for instance, criticism leveled at historian Kate Clifford Larson for the black slavecatcher in the film Harriet. Larson wrote a biography of Tubman, which did not include such a figure, and served as a consultant, which is a paid gig and to whom the creative minds have no real accountability. While black slavecatchers existed, they were something like less than 1% of the overall numbers of slavecatchers, so the artistic choice to have this character cast as a black man distorted a historical fact that was not even in either Larson's biography of Tubman or Catherine Clinton's.

But, I realize that I'm picking on black art here, which puts me in sort of a dictatorial position -- the white arbiter of accuracy in African American art and history. That's not my place. My place is as a student-- a white student -- trying to learn and either understand or accept even if I don't understand.

What were the reasons a black author or a black screenplay writer and black director make these choices? I'll have to think on that more with Good Lord Bird as I finish it.

With Tubman, when I heard that the screenplay originated in the 1990s, it made me think of the "Willie Lynch Letter" that was an early version of an internet meme. For those unfamiliar, this document purported to be a speech given by a slaveholder in colonial Virginia offering methods of dividing and conquering their enslaved population. These methods all reflected divisions within the African American community in the 1990s. This was, of course, not an actual historical document, but rather a call to overcome those divisions, grounded in white supremacist institutions, and unite in the present. So, taking this into consideration, this screenplay seemed to be for a black audience with that same message in mind; and, if you look at the characters, William Still, the composite played by the ever wonderful Janelle Monae, Harriet herself, this is a film that tries to be by and for African Americans. The role the slavecatcher plays, then, is the sell-out, the one who betrays his own people for his own gain. In the end, he serves as a lesson that, under white supremacy, those sell-outs are more disposable than Tubman.

But that wasn't conveyed in the visual argument on the screen. So, more harm done than good. I fear that for Douglass in Good Lord Bird. McBride may be arguing that Douglass, for all of his fame, was all noise and bluster, ultimately impotent, when put next to a man of action like John Brown, "nutty as squirrel turd" though Brown may be. (Now that I think about it, the continued mention of 20 kids does suggest "potency" of another kind, too.)

White art in this realm has done more insidious work. Gone With the Wind, for instance, has a strong hold on imaginations about the Old South as something "beautiful and elegant." Even my students who probably couldn't pick any of the actors out of a line up, and who have never even seen a poster for the film, still have a familiarity with some of its imagery through its ubiquity.

One of the problems in white art about history has to do with romanticism and nostalgia -- which is the subject of the book after the Hemings book. Gone With the Wind's power for its white audiences lay in its romanticism and nostalgia for a time and place scrubbed of its reality, as written by a woman who had not lived through it so much as heard her Mee Maw's stories about them, all washed away by that awful "woah." Book and film could end with a hopeful "tomorrow is another day" note because Mitchell wrote from a period in which she could look back and know that it all ended happily ever after for the Scarlett class. For Mammy's class? Not so much; but you don't have to encounter that because Mammy is loyal and happy in this world controlled by Mitchell and then by the filmmakers (although not in Hattie McDaniel's subtle expressions), all in the same dazzling Technicolor that brought audiences Dorothy's ruby shoes.

My particular interest has to do with Little House on the Prairie. I was a huge fan of the t.v. series from its pilot, which aired when I was in first grade, which led to the books, which led to my interest in history and writing, which set me on this road. I'm less interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder herself than in the stories and their life. Her experience factors into my interest, naturally, but the way the stories themselves have their own life from her memoir that was not published until recently, to the children's books, to her daughter's pillaging them for her own novels, to the public history/literary pilgrimage sites, to the t.v. show, to the scholarship, to the fandom.

As surprisingly grim as those stories actually are -- the first chapter of the first book involves slaughtering a pig, and The Long Winter sees an entire town on the verge of freezing to death -- the word constantly used in relation to them is "cosy." The t.v. show, too, embraces melodrama and even horror with plagues and children's deaths and rape and abortion and kidnapping and on and on. Yet, it too has the sense that everything will work out in the end.

The nostalgia for a "simpler" time seems almost a contradiction in the face of this litany of horror from both stories and t.v. shows, and yet the term "simpler" refers to the bonds of family and a clear sense of right and wrong that exist in the Little House universe. In the t.v. universe, Michael Landon's Charles "Pa" Ingalls is always right. He is the moral True North. For most of the series, Harriet Oleson acts as the repository for all vile behavior and ideas. In the book universe, the threats are always external: nature and the distant government (which obscures the role of Big Business).

The books' action is also set in a vacant landscape, stripped of all but its material historical context. Manifest Destiny, now with Manifest Domesticity, appears as a force of good, stripped of its human cost and set at a remove from most humans, but certainly far from most people who look differently from the Ingallses. In the t.v. universe, watched in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, during the racial clashes of bussing and integration, the American Indian Movement, the feminist movement, and long tail of everything we consider to be "the Sixties," controls what of that it allows into that world and what it deems acceptable of those cataclysmic changes.

The control of conflict, really, is where the nostalgia comes in. Viewers and readers can consume these stories of moral certainty and without the disrupting ambiguities that contemporary life brings. By way of another example, think of the t.v. show The Wonder Years, set in the white suburbs experiencing the encroaching anxieties of the 1960s, viewers in the late 1980s and early 1990s could revisit that time safe in the comfort of knowing that everything turned out ok for their demographic, there in the Reagan/Bush Era.

For Little House, the nostalgia has a double layer. The first lies in the stories -- whether t.v. or book -- themselves and the second lies in the memory of uncritical childhood reading and viewing, either as a family, with a beloved family member, or as part of a favorite school lesson, or with a group of friends, or as an escape to a more certain, loving world than the one the reader/viewer lived in.

So, really, with this project I'm trying to get at the problem of nostalgia, which is adjacent to heritage, both of which crop up in artistic expression, and all of their relationships to history. How do they use history? How do they differ from history? How do they impede or aid the study of history? Just as importantly, I'm interested in nostalgia as a feature of white expressions of history. After all, the t.v. show of Little House liked to include aspects of African American and Native American history, but without the full conflict and disruption that came from encountering that history outside of the control of white paternalism.

Well, this was a ramble that I did not intend to wander down when I started simply to mention Douglass's appearance in Good Lord Bird. The subject should have been dealing with sexual coercion and exploitation in the eighteenth century. That has been a difficult subject to read about because it has reminded me of far too many men in the late 20th and 21st century. But, more on that later.

No comments:

Post a Comment