Beginning in 1968 and until 2005, I held classes in Literature and writing at the University of California at Berkeley. Once in a while, I ran into a student who tried to get a rise out of me by writing a racist story or making a racist comment. I’d instruct the class that they could write all of the racist stories that they desired as long as they were fresh and original. That would usually end these clumsy efforts.
One day, I came to class and found written on the blackboard: “Dinner with Professor Reed, bring your own watermelon.” I told the class that the creator of this comment should come to my office or I’d turn him over to the Dean. I knew the identity of the person. He finally showed up. I told him that if he worked as an apprentice to the playwright Ed Bullins, who was preparing a play for production at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Group Theater, I wouldn’t report him. I thought that he’d get a position as a member of the crew. About ten weeks later, I saw the play. Ed Bullins had given him a role.
I never saw the student after he graduated. I don’t know whether his experience in Black theater and working with a Black playwright changed his mind about race. But I suspect that he, like many White students, who were raised in California towns, some of which were former Sun Down Towns, and like-minded people whom I have encountered Europe, Asia, and Africa, received all of his ideas about race from American film and television. Though ideologues might view Hollywood as “liberal,” the industry has produced a lot of films in which Blacks and Browns are dealt vigilante justice. One of the favorite genres is that of a detective who has to surrender his badge for using excessive force whereupon he’s free to go on a rampage of cracking heads. The much-admired film, “Crash” justifies police brutality and stop-and-frisk sexual molestation.
Roseanne did not invent the idea of Blacks as animals. You can blame some of the thinkers from the Enlightenment. Voltaire, for example, did not distinguish between Black men and apes. The Puritans arrived with the idea that North America, according to William Bradford in his 1650 “Of Puritan Plantation,” was “devoid of all civilized inhabitants and given over to savages, who range up and down, differing little from the wild beasts themselves.” Animal imagery was often used to describe president Michelle and Barack Obama.
But I find the hand-wringing from members of the Fourth Estate, the very ones who exhibit stereotypes of Blacks to hundreds of countries, to be hypocritical. Given the segregated media, most of the comments about Roseanne’s outburst were dominated by White pundits and reporters. On one panel, a smug Rich Lowry of The National Review became the judge of what constituted White Supremacy, when the magazine where he works was founded by an Anglo-Irish White supremacist. The few Blacks who were allowed on TV were preaching to what James Baldwin called “The Chorus of Innocents,” who, in his The Fire Next Time, were offered redemption. Mara Gay of The New York Times editorial board preached redemption as a possible deliverance for Ms. Barr and the next morning, Eugene Robinson, one of the token minority members of “Morning Joe,” used the same word.
Of course, Baldwin got tired of redeeming people and ridiculed “The Chorus of Innocents” in his best novel, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. He was deemed ungrateful by his former patrons, and Mario Puzo was chosen to do the Times’s hatchet job on the book, maybe because Baldwin’s Italians are more complex than his.
MSNBC, which did a lot of sanctimonious hectoring of Roseanne has a series called “Lockup” in which viewers are invited to gawk at prisoners who are exhibited like animals in a zoo. Maybe that’s where Roseanne Barr got her ideas.
In 2007, my daughter Tennessee and I were guests of Roseanne Barr’s Las Vegas radio show. I agreed to go on because Tennessee was a big fan of the actress. A CD of the broadcast is among her prized possessions. During the show, Tennessee, who received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Mills College, with an emphasis on poetry, read a lengthy poem about a polar bear whose life was confined to a zoo.
At the end of the show, Roseanne asked me what could be done to solve the problem of racism. I said that education would help. I don’t know about Roseanne’s views about race before or after that show, but since then I’ve had second thoughts about my advice. The kind of education offered by American universities and colleges might even harden her racist views. Those who believe that American colleges and universities are overrun by politically correct radicals haven’t consulted college catalogues. Were they to do so, they’d discover that something American scholars call Western Civilization is dominant and that White Pride is supported in the Humanities divisions. Moreover, radicals of the kind that were present on campuses in the 1960s now can’t afford to go to college.
Some of the schools use “Gone With The Wind” to cover Reconstruction. In this film, enslavers are referred to as merciful “Knights and Ladies.” Maybe, like my student, Roseanne should consult places where Blacks define themselves instead of having their experience interpreted. One such place is the Black Theater, which, like other ethnic theaters, is close to extinction. They need help. Maybe this is a where she can begin her redemption.
Copyright © 2018 Ishmael Reed.