In the current environment of race sensitivity, I think it is necessary to ask certain questions. I think the best way to move forward as a nation is to have a dialoged. With Halloween approaching I am reminded of a situation last year where children were criticized for dressing up as characters not of their race. In a time when we are pushing for equality and inclusiveness, at what point do we cross a line into racism? In the past Disney has been accused of racism by making most of their characters white and in recent years has done their best to create a diverse cast of heroes and princesses. In our efforts to diversify, what happens if a little girl loves a character like Moana and wants to dress as her for Halloween? In some ways this should be celebrated as the type of color blindness we want to teach our children, but in other ways this is being seen as racism and cultural appropriation. Historically speaking this is actually not new. We have seen examples of this over the past decade, but also from a tumultuous decade a long time ago.
In 2011, Touchstone released the movie The Help based on the very popular novel of the same name. The movie and the book were both massive hits; the book spent over 100 weeks on the best seller list. The story is set during the 1960s in the south and both the book and movie were praised for bringing to light the difficult subject of racism and the treatment of black domestic help. Yet it also showed the strength of the three leading women, two black and one white, as they in their own ways fought against this negative treatment. However, jump forward to the present and the same book and movie are now under scrutiny.
A similar thing happened last year when Oprah Winfrey announced the book American Dirt as her book club pick. Winfrey’s book club is possibly the most famous book club in history and her choices are normally celebrated. Winfrey claimed this book captured her attention from the very beginning and it was a story needing to be told. It is about a middle-class Mexican woman and her son fleeing from a drug lord that recently took over their Mexican town. This incredibly violent story details enduring hardships and the struggle many migrants must go through to try to better their lives. However, probably to Winfrey’s surprise, this book also came under attack.
In both cases the books drew criticism because the authors were white, and their detractors said both women wrote about issues they were not familiar with nor could possibly understand. The Help also is accused of having a white savior complex or the idea that it took a white woman to solve the black women’s problems. Even though, in both cases, the authors were actually trying to shine a light on the struggles of minorities, many felt they were trying to profit from others’ hardships. This may seem like a 2021 issue, where we have become very sensitive of cultural appropriation, but in fact this is a very old one.
In 1852, the most important and highest selling novel of the Nineteenth Century was released. Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe told a fictional story of slaves in the south. The principal character, Uncle Tom, was owned by a good Christian family who came on difficult financial times and was forced to sell a couple of their favorite slaves, slaves who they saw almost as family. Tom ended up being passed from one master to the next, some caring, some bad, and eventually one who was evil and beat Tom to death.
The Shelby’s, Tom’s original owners, were also forced to sell the young son of Eliza, who when Eliza found out took him and ran to freedom in the North. It is a harrowing tale of survival. What Stowe was able to do was put a face to slavery. Many in the north had no connection to slavery or had never met a slave. They only knew what they had heard, that blacks did not have the same feelings as whites. They were not as affected when their young were sold away. Whites used the fact that their slaves seemed to just go back to work and did not seem to mourn those that were lost. Of course, the slaves had no other choice but to go back to work under physical duress. What Stowe did was show the pain and agony slaves endured. She turned more people into abolitionists than anyone else. Even Lincoln when he met her said, “So you’re the little woman that started this Great War!”
The other thing it did was show that slavery hurt whites. The Shelby’s were good people forced to do an evil thing. Throughout the book are constant stories about whites forced to come to terms with this evil institution. In some ways the kind sweet young Eva, who took such good care of Tom, had to die. If not, she would have been corrupted by the institution of slavery.
Even with the success of the novel in some circles the book was condemned. One of the key criticisms was the fact that Stowe had never been in the south or around slaves and so could in no way know what slavery was like. Southerners claimed her depictions were inaccurate and slanderous and the book was banned from most southern states.
Historically speaking, even though Stowe was a white northerner woman, and for today’s standards perpetuated negative racial stereotypes, she possibly did more to bring to light the problems with slavery than any other person. If Lincoln was right, it was this book that brought on the war that brought an end to slavery.
I understand and want to be sensitive to cultural appropriation, but I also fear too much sensitivity is actually pushing us in the wrong direction. I understand the history of black face and as a white man may not understand the pain of cultural appropriation. Yet if a little girl has embraced diversity and her favorite princess is a person of color, is she crossing the line of racism, or should we celebrate her inclusiveness? I am not saying I know the answer to this, but what I fear is from now on we tell children to embrace diversity but when it comes to choosing your favorite characters make sure they are white.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.