Friday, May 30, 2008

Chasing Miss Scarlett...

It is by now no secret to anyone, lest of all you, dear reader, that race is always directly in the center of all my analysis, all twisted up and intersecting with sexuality, class, gender, and nation as I struggle to make sense of the world. There was a time in my life, specifically when I became truly politicized, that it seemed incomprehensible to me that other people could go through life not being obsessed about these things. As I grew, however, and began to think more deeply about these things I recognized that ultimately we are all different people with different paths on this planet -- mine is paved in critical social theory and justice work.

However, I never ceased to be amazed by how ignorant people can be about the reality of social inequality and the ongo
ing effects of white supremacy in the 21st century.

And by "people" I mean white folks.

I recently had to travel to Houston, TX for the final fitting of my wedding gown. My mother had agreed to come with me to learn how to fasten the dress and arrange the bustle for me (it sounds simple enough but trust me it takes an army of two to get this thing on and looking right). We, of course, were not the only customers being served. As we awaited instructions from the seamstress I observed a young Latina preparing for her
quinceƱera and a young white woman in an enormous white dress surrounded by three of her friends and her mother. We were all talking excitedly as the seamstress began to give my mom and the young white woman's mother instructions on how to fasten the backs of our dresses. Although our dresses were quite different, they both had corset backs that had to be tied in a particular way in order to look right and to secure the enclosures. And so the lesson began.

It was all very fun and innocent until one of the young woman's friends made one of the most off-the-wall statements I'd heard in a while. As she tied her friend's corset and watched the
silhouette of the dress take shape she stated, "Oh my God! You look just like Scarlett O'Hara!"



As in Gone With the Wind (1939) Scarlett O'Hara? As in "I don't know
nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies Miz Scarlett!" As in "With God as my witness I will never go hungry again!" The problems with this great heroine of the South are too numerous to lay out but I'll try. The character of Scarlett O'Hara reveals the extent to which race and gender interacted and created the social, cultural, and political landscape of the antebellum U.S. South. She is the quintessential southern belle, pampered and spoiled, a beautiful young woman who uses her charm and beauty to entrap young men and get what she wants out of life. In this sense some have looked to her as a pre-feminist model who recognizes the gendered power dynamics of her environment and attempts to flip the script on stupid men to have her own way. On the other hand, she also fully relies on men to protect her, provide for her and take care of her throughout the film. From her father to Rhett Butler to the enslaved Black men who serve her family (before and after Emancipation), men are central to her life and survival.

Second, the figure of Scarlett O'Hara as the essential Southern belle is rooted in a history of plantation violence that is erased in the romantic and nostalgic representations of the antebellum South. Some (white) women might like to look to Scarlett as a feminist
foremother because of her fortitude and strength in the face of adversity, the fall of the South, and the Yankee invasion, but there are some of us who are the daughters of the women who nursed her, raised her, served her. And although Scarlett might not have known it, we are the daughters of those dark women who were sexually abused and raped by the white men that she looked to for protection. Those same white men who felt her white beauty and pure femininity were so valuable that she must be protected from Black men, our fathers, who posed a threat to her virtue. We are the daughters of Black men, swinging from Southern trees, that strange fruit Billie Holiday sang about, sacrificed on the altar of the Great Southern Dream. We remember the plantation, too, and our memories are quite different. In order to embrace Scarlett O'Hara, we must forget all that we know about the antebellum and postbellum South. White people may have the luxury of amnesia but for Black folks and other people of color that sort of memory loss is suicide.

Is this what young white women in the 21st century aspire to become? Do they still want to be Miss Scarlett? What does it mean that the ultimate standard of white beauty and femininity continues to be that of the Southern belle, living in the lap of plantation luxury, oblivious to the violence that makes her pampered existence possible while simultaneously entrapping her in a world of white patriarchal control? It seems to me that white women if they are to become truly a part of the struggle for justice (be it gender, racial, economic, or environmental justice) must begin to find and embrace new models.

A short detour, however, back to our original story. When I heard the young woman's friend tell her that she looked like Scarlett O'Hara, I nearly stopped breathing. In my mind, if this conversation followed its logical conclusion there was only one place it could go. And it did.

Laughing, another friend responded "Yeah, but she had servants," followed by more laughter. Finally, the mother states, "Yeah, except they were slaves, but, well, you know..." she began to trail off uncomfortably, as the three friend twittered and giggled nervously. Perhaps they looked over to the right and noticed the two dark-skinned Black women, my mother and myself, standing there, the descendants of enslaved Africans and suddenly became aware of their own whiteness. That's my optimistic reading, it's more likely that they saw our black bodies and just didn't want to make a scene. The paradox of the post-Civil Rights Era, since outright bigotry is beyond the pale now, white folks don't stop being racist, they just become more polite about it. Another fine example of good ol' fashioned Southern Hospitality.

This incident reminded me how exhausting patriarchy and white supremacy are for me. I don't wake up in the morning looking for this stuff, mostly I'd just like to live and enjoy my life like every other human being on this planet wants to. As I stood there in my wedding gown, I should have been thinking about how excited I was to be jumping the broom with my partner, a radical man that I adore. Instead I was churning critical analysis as the seamstress showed my mom how to handle the bustle. Feeling like Black folks and women of color are the only people who ever have to work about race or gender is exhausting. The burden of memory is heavy and if we are ever to set this world right, it is time for others to take up their own cross and understand the memory of racial terror, sexual violence, slavery, and white supremacy that provides the foundation for the cultural fantasies that they hold dear. For white folks who don't understand why Black people are still so pissed about race or Black women can never seem to shake the effects of patriarchal white supremacy, ask Scarlett. I suspect she knows quite a bit more about it than she ever really let on.

Postscript: And since my wedding dress was the source for this blog, I have to wonder why is it that so many tired and messed up cultural scripts get reproduced in the wedding/bridal industry. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that I would look and feel like a queen or princess on my wedding day, I'd be suffocated by all the newly acquired cash. Why do these wedding businesses capitalize on the most racist and patriarchal fantasies -- I can assure every little girl does not want to be a princess, a Southern belle or anything else on their wedding day. I had not spent my whole life dreaming about getting married or getting to dress up like a princess...but that reflection is for another blog...maybe.


Struggle For Justice said...

Please read my blog "Struggle For Justice"
I am all for fairness for all people regardless of gender, race,
religion, etc

frank said...

yay blogging courtney! this is absolutely ridiculous. and remarkably unsurprising. see you soon!

Lara said...

great post.

people still astound me with their obliviousness and provoleged amnesia. and at the same time they don´t, at all.

Lara said...

great post.

people still astound me with their obliviousness and provoleged amnesia. and at the same time they don´t, at all.

Lara said...

uh, weird keyboard. ¨priviledged¨...

yippieyippie said...

Southern hospitality indeed.Sigh.

Congratulations, though! Katie told me you're getting hitched!

Chorizo Funk said...


i hope u gave them one of your death stares for that one! Plantation nostalgia.......a No No!

Anonymous said...

I loathe Texas.

Not to say ignorance isn't elsewhere but...

I just loathe Texas t__t;;

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