I once wrote an article with the title, “Psychology, Not Politics Drives Human Affairs.” It dealt with something that ought to be obvious, but isn’t – that we spend most of our time dealing with superficial things while ignoring our deeper nature (which drives everything.) We devote our lives to the small details of politics, business, pop philosophy and other things that are like paper boats floating on the scary, bottomless sea of human psychology. That sea is where the action is. It is a place that can be damned disturbing, so we would rather not think about it. We spend our time arguing about our little boats.
Something else we don’t like to think about is history. The average American’s sense of history goes all the way back to last week’s TV Guide. But the emotions of even the distant past are alive inside of us, passed along by those who raised us. Our minds were imprinted in childhood by adult caregivers who had lived through their own era, and who in turn were shaped by earlier adults, and so on. In this way the emotions, dreams and horrors of ages past are being played out in the here and now.
Is this important? Understanding it is absolutely central. But under no circumstances do we want to contemplate things like this. There is no video game too tedious, nor unimportant chore too unimportant, that we would not choose doing it over thinking about things like this. We might even prefer to watch an old movie on TV. And maybe, if the movie was old enough, Stepin Fetchit might walk onto the screen.
He was one of the worst of the black caricature comics of the 1940s. He was doing a kind of thing that predates movies, something which was done live in touring shows, called minstrel shows, at the turn of the century. In some cases the performers were white men with burnt cork rubbed on their faces. Other times they would be real African Americans, and you have to wonder about their motivation to put on a performance like that. The whole point of it was to show black people as intellectually hopeless, lazy, childlike, and questionable in terms of morals.
Today is March 3, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the film, The Birth of a Nation, which was the first modern movie, though it was a silent. The creator of the film, D.W. Griffith, was indeed a genius. Tragically, he was also racist to the core, and went to the limit in portraying black people as vile sub-humans in what remains one of the most influential movies ever made. Prior to Birth, movies were called flickers, and had a running time around fifteen minutes, and usually just one motionless camera shot, like a stage play. Birth of a Nation ran three hours, cost a phenomenal $2 per ticket to see, and featured cinematic techniques that were ground-breaking for the time and still in use today.
The era of Jim Crow entertainment lasted a little over a hundred years, from the 19th century minstrel shows up until the late 1950’s, when the image of African Americans began appearing closer to human, although as marginalized as ever.
Some of the performers in Jim Crow times had decent comedic timing and skill, and might have had some potential to be valid entertainers – had there ever been a normal black person on the stage or screen to offset their bizarre caricatures. But apart from maybe Paul Robeson, such a person was simply never seen. We tend to forget that now, and the young people of today have never known it, because the old racist movies aren’t shown anymore. But until the time of Sidney Poitier, the images of black people in the national culture were either crude racial stereotypes or they were non-existent altogether. Whenever we have another review of the problems of black people in America, I have to wonder, might this situation have had something to do with it???
The 1970s “blaxploitation” cycle of movies were a different kind of caricature, where at least Pam Grier and Fred Williamson got to kick a little butt. Were they any closer to reality than Stepin Fetchit? The hip hop era started in the early 1980s. So, it’s been thirty years of hip hop now. How close is the hip hop world to what would be an optimum way of life for African Americans? What might be achievable in the next thirty years, assuming we all dispense with cynicism?
The Academy Awards program of a few days ago was boycotted for the near absence of black people among the nominees, like every year. Pop culture isn’t everything, of course. It’s not reality. But seeing the images of the Jim Crow entertainers gives us an insight into the head-trip that was foisted on black people in that era like nothing else can. The psychological damage done in those days will take another generation at least to level out. It is a cliché of discussions of race relations to say “we still have a long way to go.” But it shouldn’t be so long. When we wake up to how it was in the past, with clear understanding, then we start the move to a better place.