As a nation, America is populated by immigrants and as such, its culture is a mixed bag – a melting pot, if you will, of ethnicities, cultures, ideas and beliefs. As a result, it is difficult to define any one traditionally American aspect of culture as it is bastardised from a whole variety of European, African and Asian influences. However, America can boast its culture as having been affected by these various different influences and as being shaped accordingly. One such major influence is that brought to the table by the African American community who have influenced American culture for decades through music, film, literature and art. The racial tension in America has been prevalent for decades and has been the subject of many different films and books.
One such book which is notable for its discussion of such is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which was later made into a film starring Gregory Peck as the story’s central protagonist, Atticus Finch. Set in small-town America in the 1930s, it tells the story of a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird is a prime example of demonstrating how African American culture and history has influenced American culture profoundly (Bloom 65). It explores the social consciousness of the American view of African American culture and the reluctance it has met in being accepted into mainstream life. The story details how racism can be born out of fear, ignorance, hate, laziness or can even be inherited but the underlying message to all of this is that racism is learned and can, therefore, be unlearned (Shmoop 47).
1930s America had an incredibly appalling view of African Americans. In the south, many people believed to have solved the ‘negro problem’ through the implementation of segregation laws between 1890 and World War One (Jackson 1) and elsewhere in America, white people considered the ‘negro problem’ to be a primarily southern problem. However, the civil rights movement began in force soon after and so began the struggle for black people to gain more rights and respect – fuelled by men such as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Philip Randolph (Wintz 17). The film version of Harper Lee’s novel focuses specifically on the discussion of race and racial tension in the south and does so by presenting the idea that the black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman is deemed guilty before legally so and is killed as a form of ‘public justice.’ This clearly demonstrates the white attitude towards black people as nothing more than a social problem – Robinson is exterminated in much the same way that a cockroach would be: as a social pest, rather than as a man who is deserving of a fair trial. The actions of the white men against Robinson in this film demonstrate their interaction as being aggressive, damning and close-minded, accurately mirroring the racism inherent in 1930s America.
Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1986 documentary entitled Ethnic Notions attempted to explore the reasons for why racial tension is so high in America. As a nation, the effect of the African American culture is profoundly relevant to the shaping of American history and culture. Ethnic Notions endeavoured to explore the reasons behind why racism is so prevalent in the United States, the narrator states whilst discussing cartoon images of black people: “Contained in these cultural images is the history of our national conscience striving to reconcile the paradox of racism in a nation founded on human equality – a conscience coping with this profound contradiction … through caricature.” (Riggs) a nation which immediately hits the nail on the head with regard to the impact of African Americans on American culture: the question remains of why, when a nation is founded on immigration, racism should exist at all. The presentation of black people in the majority of cultural outlets is dependant largely on stereotypes. In Ethnic Notions, upon addressing cartoon images of black people, one interviewee claims that “You look at them often enough and black people begin to look like that, even though they don’t. Um, so that they’ve had a great impact in our society.” (Riggs) and she would be right – for a long time, racial stereotypes were perpetuated by cultural depictions such as black people with exaggerated features performing menial tasks or fulfilling out narrow-minded, stereotypical activities.
This is demonstrated in the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind which is set during the American Civil War. The film depicts like at this time accurately with black slaves being a part of the narrative. In particular, the character of ‘Mammy’ who is a black slave who had belonged to the grandmother of the leading lady, Scarlet O’Hara and now belongs to her. The term ‘mammy’ was one which depicted African American people as described in Ethnic Notions, “The mammy … the pickaninny … the coon … the sambo … the uncle: Well into the middle of the twentieth century , these were some of the most popular depictions of black Americans.” (Riggs). In the film, the characters of Mammy is depicted as being of lower intelligence through her dialogue which is heavily littered with slang and dropped letters such as in this instance, “If you don’t care what folks says about dis family I does! I is told ya and told ya that you can always tell a lady by the way she eat in front of folks like a bird. And I ain’t aimin’ for you to go to Mr. John Wilkenson’s and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog!” (Fleming). This stereotypical image of the African American person is also depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which black people are depicted as being a number of stereotypes including Sam as “the happy darky;” the lighter-skinned object of mystery and desire in Eliza, Cassy and Emmeline; various characters as the dark-skinned Mammy (as previously discussed); the Pickaninny characters of black children; and Uncle Tom as the African American who is happy to appease the white Americans. These stereotypes helped to perpetuate the idea of black people as being subservient. However, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the white man is also shown as beginning to consider the African Americans as people and not just possessions. In one scene (as shown in the novel version), Mr Shelby states “I would rather not sell him,” said Mr. Shelby, thoughtfully; “the fact is, sir, I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir.” (Stowe 5). This shows a shift in views and demonstrates that not all white people are inherently racist. It is not just the African American people who are stereotyped in this way – in the 1950 film, Broken Arrow, the Apache Indians are made to appear hostile and aggressive inducing sympathy for the white people who must ‘defend themselves’ in the face of such adversity. This type of interaction is reminiscent of most ‘cowboys and indians’ style films of the time – most of which are set during the time of the great settlement – and portray the Native Americans as being extremely hostile, portraying the stereotypes which are inherent associated with this race to this day.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the audience is presented with the idea of inherent racism at the core of American society – “Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict underscores the fact that in a racist society, black men receive no justice” (Wilson xv) and reflects the view of African American people which society held in the 1930s and the other time periods reflected in each film respectively. It is this paradox which is reflected regularly throughout American history with the African American man being ‘allowed’ to go about his business as he pleases so long as it fits with social expectations of him. The media, for the most part, perpetuated the image of African American men and women as fulfilling a certain set of stereotypes – films like Gone with the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, clearly push the black stereotypes of the mammy and others, whilst To Kill a Mockingbird clearly argues the opposite – suggesting that society must dismiss its inherent racism and look more closely at the character of a man rather than simply dismissing him offhand as being another part of the ‘negro problem.’
1. Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Print.
2. Broken Arrow. Dir. Delmer Daves. Perf. James Stewart. 20th Century Fox, 1950. Film.
3. Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. Perf. Barbara T. Christian and Esther Rolle. Independent film, 1986. Film.
4. Gone with the Wind. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Selznick International Pictures, 1939. Film.
5. Jackson, Walter A. Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism 1938-1987. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Print.
6. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. London: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
7. Shmoop. To Kill a Mockingbird: Schmoop Literature Guide. Shmoop, 2010. Web.
8. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010. Print.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. Perf. Gregory Peck, Frank Overton and Brock Peters. Universal International Pictures, 1962. Film.
10. Wilson, Charles E. Race and Racism in Literature. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. Print.
11. Wintz, Cary D. African American political thought, 1890-1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey and Randolph. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1996. Print.
a. America – immigrant nation
b. African Americans
c. Racial tension
2. To Kill a Mockinbird
a. Outline of plot
i. Film version
b. Social consciousness
i. Learned behaviour – can be unlearned
3. 1930s America
a. Southern racism
i. ‘negro problem’
b. Civil rights movement
c. To Kill a Mockingbird
i. Robinson’s murder
ii. Lack of civil liberties for black men
4. Ethnic Notions
a. Why racial tension is so high in America.
b. Cartoon images of black people
i. Stereotypical images
ii. Perpetuating racist beliefs
5. Other cultural representations
a. Gone with the Wind
i. Civil war
1. Stereotypically portrayed through dialogue
b. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
i. Various black stereotypes
ii. Slightly progressive views of race
c. Broken Arrow
i. Stereotypical portrayal of native Indians
a. Inherent racism
b. Reflecting the lives of black people
c. Black stereotypes
d. Ref. to ‘negro problem.’