Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, In and Out of Time

I spend way too much time on YouTube.  I make playlists to which I listen in lieu of the radio, and sometimes I go exploring hither and yon, be it for music, old movies, interviews or instruction (although I will, I fear, never perfect the art of making pie crust).  One day not terribly long ago I happened upon the extended version -- the version I remember -- of the staircase scene from "The Little Colonel," starring (never mind what the credits say) Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple.  Along with the clip itself I found a heated argument about racism, stereotypes and all manner of related issues and nonissues.

Since I had feelings and opinions of my own on the subject, and since not all of them had coalesced into coherency, I decided to respond -- and then found my response by far exceeded the permitted length of a YouTube response.  For a while I did nothing, and then it occurred to me that y'all might find some interest in my reaction to the video and to the controversy it stimulated.  Here, with minor modifications (such as not addressing YouTube or any specific denizens thereof) is that reaction:

A month or three ago I read over 80 pages of comments on YouTube regarding a video clip from "The Little Colonel," and since time has passed, I am not certain whether is in fact the clip in question, but I believe it is.  The comments span four years so I have a lot to address; this may be lengthy.

It's difficult to speak about Shirley temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson beyond "wow they were so good" without going on to put them into historical perspective.  Films are not made in a vacuum.  They are made by, and for, people who live in their times, and when we of later times see them, we can't judge them by our times.  (How will future generations judge our output?)  That doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize and abhor racism and other injustice, and learn from it.  It doesn't mean we should forgive it just because it happened a long time ago (and while MOST white people wouldn't pee themselves seeing a black person sitting at the front of the bus, that doesn't mean racism is dead -- and if you're doubtful, just look how may comments upon this clip have had to be deleted).  It just means we have to attain SOME kind of perspective.  Otherwise we have to dismiss the obvious and huge talent of the two wonderful people in this film clip, and that would be a pity.  There is something to be learned from their transcendence of the stereotype (his character is not a slave but may as well be, and yet he is in charge of this little white girl, and if she could even remotely be said to be treating him with disrespect, watch the whole movie and see how she speaks to the grumpy old colonel, whose heart she finally wins) and something to be learned from the fact that in an era in which a black man's holding a white girl's hand COULD cause such a furor, this film got made ANYWAY.

Some of the commenters have suggested reading material and I will add my two cents:  The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin (and after that, everything else he ever wrote, essays, short stories, novels, grocery list, whatever you can get your hands on).  The other suggestions are good too, especially the autobiographies.

About uncles (regarding the perhaps patronizing, perhaps affectionate, perhaps both and perhaps neither habit of white folks calling their male black employees or even neighbors "Uncle," which was under discussion):  I am Jewish (so am I white or not?  By my skin tone, I am about as white as can be without being albino; I am hopeless at the beach, trying to tan; culturally, don't kid yourself) and I was raised to call my parent's close friends "aunt" and "uncle."  Would I call a stranger (of any race) that?  No.  But some black folks today call strangers of color "brother" and "sister."  Was a white person calling a black person "uncle" disrespectful back in the day?  I'm too young, and northern, to know for sure, but I'm not uneducated, nor untraveled, so I can speculate.  I think sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't.  I think a white employer (we're talking about post-slavery here) could call (his or her own) black servant "uncle" respectfully OR disrespectfully, because "mister" might not have been appropriate REGARDLESS of color just because of the relative social positions, and yet the employer might have wished to show affection and even respect; the difference would be in intention and tone.  Calling a black person "uncle" despite not having a relationship with him could be respectful if the black person were older, or disrespectful if said sarcastically or to avoid "mister" (with no relationship, even social position would not excuse that).  It depends, too, what the local practice is for whites addressing whites.  Read european fairytales; children call females who are, to them, total strangers, "auntie" as a sign of respect.  It's not, pardon the pun, as black and white as all that.  There are huge patches of gray.  It DEPENDS.  (I'm still speculating.)  

As for the demeaning roles, yes, blacks could play the funny, silly servant, or a slave in a period piece, or an evil offerer of a reefer in a really daring film.  There is no getting around that.  We're STILL working on that, and only in the last couple decades doing rather well (not so well with Jews -- as performers and creative talent we're overrepresented, but as characters we're underrepresented except as Jews first, people second.  In the sixties and seventies we were either the pawnbroker or Rhoda Morgenstern, and there's nothing wrong with either except when that's all you get.  Look at TV today and tell me which characters are Jewish, and how you KNOW they're Jewish.  Not the actors.  The characters.  But I digress!)  It's painful to watch sometimes.  Take mae west's "I'm No Angel."  In it, black actress Gertrude Howard plays Mae's maid, Beulah Thorndyke.  Her other credits include characters such as "Martha the Maid," "Carolina," "black woman," "black 'mammy,'" "Angelina," "Snowball, servant," "Martha," "Lucy," "Queenie" (in "Showboat"), "Kate -- Mary's maid" and "Aunt Chloe -- Uncle Tom's wife."  "I'm No Angel" is not the only film in which she has a last name, like a proper person, but it's unusual.  As you see, in some she hasn't even GOT a name.  That's how it was.  In "I'm No Angel," Beulah Thorndye is a maid, but she has a name, and she has a musical number all by herself, and it's not a funny, silly one, either.  I am working from memory here; pardon me if I am misremembering, but I have it stuck in my mind that I was impressed BECAUSE of when the film was made, and that she had to play a maid -- she couldn't be cast as, say, Mae's best friend, although she kind of is, come to think of it -- and yes, she had to be funny, and yes, it was demeaning, but somehow despite all that, SOMEONE (I think it was mae) recognized that she had talent, and gave her a serious spotlight in a white movie.  One needs, as i say, perspective.  from small things come great things.

Bill rRobinson probably opened doors for other black performers without even knowing it.  How can one dismiss his role in history -- not black history or white history but just history -- by paying attention only to the fact that he had to play a servant and not to the fact that for three glorious minutes he was featured as a human being and a dancer?  We don't watch BLACK feet tapping up and down those stairs.  We watch AMAZING feet... two pair, in fact.  I'm not trying to ignore Shirley Temple here.  I'm simply addressing the racial issue, a great big issue, a tiny little bit.  Shirley needs no defense; she was a child of amazing talent but she didn't write the script and she didn't control casting.

Those YouTube members whose response to this wonderful clip is to call each other names -- and many comments were hidden, so I can only IMAGINE how unpleasant things got) are now going to be called two names here, by me:  "ignorant" and "immature."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You Can Only Like One Thing

I am an omnivore; that doesn't mean I eat tin cans, or drink cola, but simply that I eat from all five food groups (six if you count chocolate) and do not restrict myself to one or two.  This simple fact seems unfathomable to a rather large group of people.  It has happened more than once, more than twice, even, that I've sat down to eat in the company of other human beings, who, seeing me select, say, chicken, broccoli, and milk, note, "Oh, you're a vegetarian."  They perceive this by virtue of my having deliberately, and not at gunpoint, chosen to include a vegetable in my meal.  They disregard the fact that I have also selected the flesh of an animal and some of its mammary fluids as well.

Okay, the above seems more a case of folks' not actually knowing what a vegetarian is than a case of their believing you have to like either one thing or another, and stick to your likes and eschew the remainder of the known and unknown universes.  However, I've also had folks exclaim, upon witnessing my enjoyment of, say, a Beethoven piano concerto, "I thought you liked rock 'n roll!"  Now, just as a broccoli floret does not negate the slab of chicken on my plate, a Beethoven concerto, while hard to hear if played simultaneously with any other piece of music, regardless of genre, does not in itself negate the possibility of its listener enjoying other genres.

I guess it's a matter of folks' expectations matching their own mental capabilities.  A singleminded person will expect me to like a single thing.  People with at least two brain cells to rub together will recognize the multiplicity of the aforementioned universes and the eclecticity of their enjoyable components.  There is enough crap around to dislike; why not also enjoy all there is to enjoy?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW (and everyone you don't know; make a pest of yourself).

You've seen posts like this on your wall.  You've gotten emails like this.  You've passed these things on without verifying their validity.  You're a baaaad pussycat.

How much time does it take to go to Snopes dot com and check and see if you're unwittingly participating in a hoax?  It takes at least as little time as it takes to forward every bit of effluvium that makes its presence known to you, usually for the primary purpose of clogging up everyone's space and causing widespread panic.  Good job.  You've contributed to the general hubbub.

Rule of thumb:  if something or someone urges you to flood the superstupidinformation highway, don't.  Traffic jams are avoidable.  Just say no... quietly.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


"There's nothin' worse than goin' the post office and standing in line."

No, seriously?  Nothing worse?

Okay, I'm going to take a shot at  a challenge, in no particular order:

Having your hands amputated by Rwandan soldiers.

Having your clitoris removed by relatives in a Muslim country.





(Okay, let's just imagine all diseases and disorders; I think a cold is worse than standing in line at the post office.)

Polyester double-knit leisure suits.

A spat with... just about anyone, but let's say any family member.

Need I go on?  It's just a purely ridiculous statement, almost as stupid as pretending that God wants you to join a certain dating club (and has only mentioned it to the dating club, so its advertisers are obligated to inform you about it).

"You look like a beach angel," followed by a piercing scream.

Yeah, I'm going to buy that product, after its advertisers scream in my ear.

So, you ask, why do I watch?  Because as the optimist Theodore Sturgeon once said, 90 percent of everything is crap.  I put the percentage at 99.   But one percent of everything is a lot!  I try to live for the one percent.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Overheard on a Tube for Boobs

Pardon me if I paraphrase (due to working from memory) the following ridiculous claims I've recently heard on television advertisements:

1. For Stamps dot com: "There's nothing worse than going to the post office and standing in line." What an easy life YOU have!

2. For Audible dot com: (with repulsion:) "My GRANDMOTHER listens to books!" How nice of you to diss your dear old granny; you wouldn't want to be caught dead doing anything SHE does!

3. For Christian Mingle: "God is saying 'it's your turn to act.'" Not a bad concept (for those who believe) but in the context of this ad, it sounds like a testimonial; I want to see it in writing, with an original signature. Also from Christian Mingle: "You're Christian. You're single." I'm neither.

4. For V8, who should know better: "Do you sometimes wish vegetables didn't taste so... vegetably?" No, never. I like vegetables just the way they are. Do you ever wish commercials didn't sound so... commercial-ly?

5. For Fiber One: "Fiber yes, cardboard no." Thanks for perpetuating the myth that anything good for you has to taste like crap. What a wonderful contribution to education. Of course you can get fiber from a banana, too, and bananas are cheaper than Fiber One, possibly because they advertise less (say, whatever happened to Chiquita Banana, anyway? Did she get sued by Carmen Miranda or just fade away?)

6. For Manwich: "There's a full serving of vegetables in every (can? spoonful? gallon? oh serving, oooookay....) of Manwich." No, there's not. Honestly. The main ingredient in Manwich is tomato puree, which is mostly water, and at any rate tomato is NOT A VEGETABLE. It was declared a vegetable by the supreme court over 100 years ago in the context of whether or not to tax its importation, and Ronald Reagan purported to believe that catsup was a vegetable, but politics can't turn a fruit into a vegetable; it can only convince everyone that it is (sort of the same way it can convince people that health care reform involves death panels, and rich people deserve more tax breaks than poor people). Meanwhile, farther down on the ingredients list, less than two percent of this product consists of a dozen items, some of which are dehydrated onions and red and green bell peppers and garlic, and chili pepper not said to be dehydrated, which means it's just the powder. I don't think those count toward a serving, and they're the only veggies mentioned. And FURTHERMORE, they too perpetuate the myth, in some of their other ads, that it is VITAL to hide any vegetable content (as if there BEING any such content were not also a myth!) from children, because veggies are yucky. Of course, children watch these ads and learn that veggies are yucky. Kids who get served real veggies and are not told they're yucky do not necessarily form this opinion on their own, especially if what they're served is fresh and well prepared (meaning, in most cases, not boiled).

Well, a half dozen should hold us for now. Happy viewing.