As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogues looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”
“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.
Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.
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The great reckoning now sweeping across pop culture has been working through the stacks of literature for far longer. The effects of time are twofold: Most books have fallen into dust, along with the racist values they imbibed. And those few texts that survive have been subjected to rigorous — and ongoing — debate.
Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”
As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?
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Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.
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That is the nature of literature. The words on the page may be frozen, but we’re not. To engage with them carefully and with each other civilly is to reap a better understanding of who we were and are.
Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.
Link to the rest at The Washington Post
Is PG the only one who is revolted by the constant use of the term, “problematic”?