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 Day 19

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L. Frank Baum: Racist

Indian-Hating in “The Wizard of Oz”

by THOMAS ST. JOHN

Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919) advocated the extermination of the American Indian in his 1899 fantasy "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Baum was an Irish nationalist newspaper editor, a former resident of Aberdeen in the old Dakota Indian territory. His sympathies with the village pioneers caused him to invent the Oz fantasy to justify extermination. All of Baum’s "innocent" symbols clearly represent easily recognizable frontier landmarks, political realities, and peoples. These symbols were presented to frontier children, to prepare them for their racially violent future.

The Yellow Brick Road represents the yellow brick gold at the end of the Bozeman Road to the Montana gold fields. Chief Red Cloud had forced the razing of several posts, including Fort Phil Kearney, and had forced the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty. When George Armstrong Custer cut "the Thieves’ Road" during his 1874 gold expedition invasion of the sacred Black Hills, he violated this treaty, and turned U.S. foreign policy toward the Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee massacre.

The Winged Monkeys are the Irish Baum’s satire on the old Northwest Mounted Police, who were modelled on the Irish Constabulary. The scarlet tunic of the Mounties, and the distinctive "pillbox" forage cap with the narrow visor and strap are seen clearly in the color plate in the 1900 first edition of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Villagers across the Dakota territory heartily despised these British police, especially after 1877, when Sitting Bull retreated across the border and into their protection after killing Custer.

The Shifting Sands, the Deadly Desert, the Great Sandy Waste, and the Impassable Desert are Frank Baum’s reference to that area of the froniter known always as "the great American desert", west and south of the Great Lakes. Baum creates these fictional, barren areas as protective buffers for his Oz utopia, against hostile, foreign people. This "buffer state" practice had been part of U.S. foreign policy against the Indians, since the earliest colonial days.

The Emerald City of Oz recreates the Irish nationalist’s vision of the Emerald Isle, the sacred land, Ireland, set in this American desert like the sacred Paha Sapa of the Lakota people, these mineral-rich Black Hills floored by coal. Irish settlements in the territories, in Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota–at Brule City, Limerick, at Lalla Rookh, and at O’Neill two hundred miles south of Aberdeen–founded invasions of the Black Hills.

The Yellow Winkies, slaves, are Frank Baum’s symbol for the sizable Chinese population in the old West, emigrated for the Union-Pacific railroad, creatures with the slant or winking eyes.

The Deadly Poppy Field is the innocent child’s first sight of opium, that anodyne of choice for pain in the nineteenth century, sold in patent medicines, in the Wizard Oil, at the travelling Indian medicine shows. Baum’s deadly poppies are the poison opium, causing sleep and the fatal dream.

The Wicked Witch of the West is illustrated in the 1900 first edition as a pickaninny, with beribboned, braided pigtails extended comically. Baum repeats the word "brown" in describing her. But this symbol’s real historic depth lies in the earlier Puritans’ confounding of European witches with the equally heathen American Indians.

The orphan Dorothy’s violent removal from Kansas civilization, her search for secret and magical cures for her friends, her capture, enslavement to an evil figure–and the killing of this figure that is forced on her–all these themes Baum takes from the already two hundred year old tradition of the Indian captivity narrative which stoked the fires of Indian-hating and its hope of "redemption through violence".

In the year immediately following the huge success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum wrote a fantasy entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It is apparent that his frontier experiences were still on his mind. The book was illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark–tomahawks, spears, the hide- covered teepees, and the faces of Indian men, women, and children, and papooses fill the pages and the margins. Baum describes the "rude tent of skins on a broad plain".

Two crucial chapters are titled "The Wickedness of the Awgwas" and "The Great Battle Between Good and Evil". The Awgwas represent native Americans: "that terrible race of creatures" and "the wicked tribe". Baum condemns the Awgwas:

"You are a transient race, passing from life into nothingness. We, who live forever, pity but despise you. On earth you are scorned by all, and in Heaven you have no place! Even the mortals, after their earth life, enter another existence for all time, and so are your superiors.".

Predictably enough, a few pages later, "all that remained of the wicked Awgwas was a great number of earthen hillocks dotting the plain." Baum is recalling newspaper photos of the burial field at Wounded Knee.

The Wizard of Oz in 1899 ruling his empire from behind his Barrier of Invisibility evokes the 1869 Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the South, the Ku Klux Klan. Baum’s figure King Crow and his by-play with the Scarecrow relate to the Jim Crow lynch law at the turn of the century.

Lyman Frank Baum’s overwhelmingly popular fantasy, and the more violent aspects of United States foreign policy, were welded togehter in the American mind for the next century and beyond.
Frank Baum’s widow, at the Hollywood premiere of "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939, complained that the story had been sentimentalized. Indeed, the old and crudely direct political symbols had been removed, and the sweetness poured in–the new U.S. foreign policy demanded more subtle justifications.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.".

THOMAS ST. JOHN graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and lived in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of "Forgotten Dreams: Ritual in American Popular Art" (New York: The Vantage Press, 1987), a collection of essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Reverend Jonathan Edwards’ "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", the black history driving the films "Casablanca" and the cartoon "The Three Little Pigs", and the Dakota Indian territory symbols in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". The short book "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies in the House of the Seven Gables" is now almost complete and online. He can be reached at: seekingthephoenix@yahoo.com