Even before the emancipation proclamation there was white guilt over slavery. The so-called ‘cakewalk’ was a dance which, by varying accounts, was a parody by slaves of white people dancing or, in another incarnation, a dance by whites attempting to imitate the dancing among their slaves. They were attracted to the dancing styles of their slaves.
Despite the ostensible separation of whites and blacks there has been a persistent fascination with black culture by white people. Take the example of jazz. Jazz is an authentic American art form which has its roots in black culture, in ragtime, blues, worksongs and gospel. From the beginning it was something that fascinated white people who then imitated it, attempted to co-opt it, make it their own. Admittedly many of these imitations were, like the cakewalk, pretty bad. But some were serious attempts at emulation.
From the very beginnings of jazz there have been white people who were attracted to it, recognized it as an art form. Some simply attempted to profit from it, to take the profit away from black people as they were accustomed. But it is the people who recognized it as an art form and promoted it that I want to focus upon here.
Witness the proliferation of ‘Dixieland’ jazz with white players. Woody Allen fronts such an ensemble and the music is featured in some of his films. He is a filmmaker who manages to shoot in New York and present a tableau free of people of color yet he pays homage to the New Orleans style with his band.
People well-versed in jazz history can name quite a few white artists who contributed most admirably to the development of jazz: George Shearing, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, etc. to name but a few. Of course it is also worth noting that the major innovations in jazz seem to have been done by black people: Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, etc.
It is clear that white people have embraced jazz as a viable art form one that inspired their own creativity. Take, for example, George Gershwin. His feel for rhythm and melody produced some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century. His opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’ has rightfully been praised as a masterpiece. Gershwin is one of the more visible artists whose work was heavily informed and inspired by jazz, by black culture.
As mentioned before there were attempts at maintaining the separation of whites and blacks but white audiences still filled the ‘Cotton Club’ and similar venues to see the genius of the masters of the form. As the twentieth century progressed, of course, the ability to maintain the separation became progressively more difficult. White people couldn’t stay away.
Rock and roll with artists like Sam Cooke, Little Richard and so many wonderful Doo-Wop groups took hold of the youth of the 50s and 60s in spite of the attempts of parents and clergy efforts to exorcise the “demon” that possessed their children. Some of the (unintentionally) funniest efforts to take control of this music include covers of ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Pat Boone and similar pale imitations of the real thing by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. But none of these imitations succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the white kids.
I present these musings as prologue to this essay because I wish to suggest that there is significant precedent on which to base an assertion. I believe that the most loving and successful art by white people in forms that originated in black culture are actually homage to those forms and are, in the sense of psychohistory, an attempt by white people to come to terms with white guilt and to exorcise the demons of the practice of slavery.
The photo parody at the head of this essay is not intended to disparage either the book or the film ‘The Help’ except to say that it is important to note that the perspective of both the book and the film is that of white people. This does not necessarily detract from the value of them but it does give a clue as to why black people are less enamored of the work. It is not black people’s’ experience of the events. It is a white person’s perspective in an attempt to come to terms with those events.
So we come now to the Quentin Tarantino movie, ‘Django’. In an interview on NPR I heard Tarantino discussing the genesis of this film and reflecting on his youth and upbringing. He had a great deal of contact with black culture and he stated at one point, “…black culture is my culture.” Some will see that as an overstatement but I took it as a sincere One. Indeed he has absorbed a great deal of black culture and credits that with much of his success today.
Back to Django. I saw this film not knowing what to expect. I had stopped following Tarantino’s work pretty much since ‘Kill Bill’. What I saw was a story of a freed slave coming to conquer the white slave owners and reclaim his bride at first with the assistance of white people but then alone. I saw serious attempts to honestly depict some of the actual cruelty of slavery and the sadistic actions of white slave owners. I did not see racism in the core of the film. I saw Tarantino’s fascination with and genuine affection for black culture.
The character of Django is, i believe, that of a comic book superhero with essentially superhuman powers (and luck) who comes to right the wrongs done to him and, potentially, to his people. Just as Spider Man, Superman, Batman, etc.(and later Wonder Woman and the female superheros) conquer crime, Nazis, etc. as the tenor of the times require Django is a superhero who comes to assuage white guilt and perhaps offer acknowledgement and even apology for the sins of 400 years of black slavery from which whites profited. But even though he is a black man onscreen saving black people he is a white superhero ultimately solving white people’s problems.
Has Django or ‘The Help’ solved the problem of racism? Of course not. That would be a very racist statement. These films and other art forms produced by white people and informed by black culture are, I believe, a step in the long process of coming to terms with what my ancestors have done and an attempt to offer some small reparation for an insult that was repeated by many generations. I eagerly await more films by black directors and writers who will present a perspective more satisfying to black audiences (and instructive to white audiences).
I don’t know how many more generations will repeat the sins of racism (would that this were the last) but I take some comfort in the fact that there are some white people willing to make an effort, who attempt to be anti-racist. I can’t end racism by myself but I am glad to have Django to lend me a hand.