After I saw Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave for the first time last fall, I commented to a colleague, “I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to listen to ‘Brown Sugar’ again.” This was both kind of a joke and kind of not. One of the most trenchant aspects of the movie was the relentless but very patient and thorough way it laid out the sadistic psychosexual disease with which the white race poisoned both itself and the race it enslaved; the aforementioned song by the Rolling Stones is both a descriptor and a symptom of that same disease. Mick Jagger’s rock-and-roll (that is, somewhat elemental) sense of literary irony, combined with his smirk add further dimensions of discomfort to the tune; on the other hand, or maybe on the same hand, it’s got a good beat and you, whether black or white, but probably particularly if you’re white, as it may turn out, can dance to it. Besides, nobody actually still thinks that the Rolling Stones endorse slavery, and if you read Keith Richards’ autobiography you know that the lyrics to their song generally originate as apt-sounding nonsense words: what we hear in the first verse as “scarred old” is actually “skydog,” which Jagger had recently learned was guitarist Duane Allman’s nickname.
A couple of nights ago, the author Daniel Handler, while hosting the National Book Awards ceremony, made a joke predicated on the fact that Jacqueline Woodson, an African-American author who won an award that evening, was/is “allergic to watermelon.” Various rationalizations, condemnations, recriminations, and apologies followed, and as of the Friday morning I’m writing this, the story still has legs, thanks in part to the tendency of outlets like Salon to get Deeply Troubled and stay Deeply Troubled until they’ve got the whole Deeply Troubling Problem worked out.
My own response to the anecdote was befuddlement of a not entirely purely civic-minded sort. It was more like, “Wait, people actually still tell watermelon jokes?” It sounds glib of me, I know—“Your mode of racism is pretty quaint there, fella! Did Straight Outta Compton accomplish nothing?” My perspective derives from a position I’ve held for a long time, and that Handler’s remarks have maybe shocked me out of holding. It’s this, to begin with: I’ve long considered myself a free-speech absolutist. I’m not sure if my primary influence here was Nat Hentoff or selected issues of Forced Exposure, but there you are. I frequently liked to cite Hentoff’s citation of Brandeis about sunlight being the best disinfectant, the best solution to hate speech being more speech, all that. And as a movie lover, I’ve always deplored censorship, particularly a kind of self-censorship. I understood, conceptually, why Disney would cut the “pickanniny” centaurs in the “Pastoral” sequence of Fantasia when re-releasing that film to general audiences and on home video. But I also bristled at the fact that a film scholar such as myself had no access to an unexpurgated version (the cuts in fact are rather clumsy, from a technical standpoint). Every now and then I’d also express dissatisfaction in my inability to view the Looney Tune “Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs” in anything besides a kind of samizdat format. Yeah, the 1943 cartoon indulges in every kind of broad outrageous and unfair caricature of African Americans, but Looney Tunes were at the time, I old myself, equal opportunity providers of broad outrageous and unfair, so what’s the fucking harm? Just slap a disclaimer on the opening title of a Warner Archive “Censored Cartoons” collection or something and be done with it.
I now have a fundamental understanding of the fatal flaw of my logic here. Lester Bangs’ 1979 essay “The White Noise Supremacists” has a heckuva lot to answer for (including its effective slander of Miriam Linna—I really think subsequent editions of Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung ought to have an apologetic footnote or something) but it does have very valuable passages, including a long quote from the African-American musician Ivan Julian, who was a bit of an odd man out in the late ‘70s punk scene while playing with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Rock Against Racism notwithstanding. Talking to Bangs about levels of music industry racism, Julian said, “I’ll tell you one thing: the entrepreneurs, record company people and shit are a hell of a lot worse. People like Richard Gottehrer, who produced the album, and Seymour Stein and a lot of other people up at Sire records. They were totally condescending, they’d talk to you differently, like you were a child or something. I hard a lot of clichés on the level of being invited over to somebody’s house for fried chicken.”
Invited over to somebody’s house for fried chicken. I read that essay for the first time on its initial publication in the Village Voice when I was 20, and I remember my jaw dropping in piss-and-vinegar indignation. Fried chicken jokes were clearly an old man thing, all other social dimensions implied notwithstanding. This cultural upheaval, the one I was living through, the one I was trying to be a part of, we were going to wipe all that shit out.
That was naïve of me, yes. And as years went by, my opinion mutated, and specifically with respect to the kind of material I describe above. The racist attitudes they embodied, I thought, had by this time been so thoroughly denounced and disproved to be considered completely antiquated, to the point that they could be shrugged off as plainly ridiculous, and hence, the materials containing depictions of those attitudes can be made completely available with no fear of actual harm. And that, I’m afraid, is even more naïve of me—willfully naïve in fact. I’m a straight white male born in 1959 who for some reason honestly thought that watermelon jokes—particularly among literary, or even literate, people—were a thing of the past. Even “meta” watermelon jokes, which I’m not entirely certain Handler’s was. Anyway, for better or worse, Handler, born in 1970, proved me wrong. I can’t really complain if “Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs” stays buried. Given the circumstances, it probably ought to.