I was recently reading up on the 1926 Civil War film The General, starring the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Turner Classic Movies was about to air it, and I wanted to decide whether to add it to my already bursting DVR. Maybe I should have guessed what was coming. Nonetheless, I felt jolted when I got to this part of the Wikipedia entry:
In early 1926, Keaton’s collaborator Clyde Bruckman told him about William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. . . . Keaton was a huge fan of train history and had read the book. Although it was written from the Union Army perspective, Keaton did not believe that the audience would accept Confederates as villains and changed the story’s point of view.
I had to sit and think about that one for a while. Keaton did not believe that the audience would accept Confederates as villains. Why on earth not? Hadn’t the Union defeated the Confederacy just 61 years before this? What was wrong with opposing those who had tried to rip this country apart, now that the country had been put back together?The lesson is that if we don’t tell the true stories, if we fail to pass them down to future generations, the lies will rush into the vacuum and take over.
The problem, as I realized when I did some more digging, was the Lost Cause myth. It wasn’t exactly unfamiliar—the recent debate over Gone with the Wind, probably the most famous fictional example, had brought it back to mind even before this incident. But I don’t think I had ever fully realized the degree to which it had permeated the culture in the decades after the war—and how long that influence has lasted. To this day, when we dwell on the images and ideas that the mention of the Civil War brings to mind, we can sense its silent but potent presence.
The Lost Cause, according to Smithsonian Magazine, was defined by one of its own defenders as follows:
The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other. The North, “invigorated by constant struggle with nature, had become materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” The South had a “more generous climate” which had led to a finer society based upon “veracity and honor in man, chastity and fidelity in women.” Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought, achieving noteworthy victories against staggering odds. This was the “Lost Cause” as the late nineteenth century saw it, and a whole generation of Southerners set about glorifying and celebrating it.
And their glorification and celebration were effective. While the North won the war, the South won the culture by pushing all this romantic nostalgia. Their view took hold of the popular imagination. And as far as movies were concerned, Southern values—and Southern dollars—held sway at the box office for decades. This is not to say that racism didn’t exist in the North—only that it was the South that, as Isabel Wilkerson put it in The Warmth of Other Suns, was “nursing the wounds of defeat and seeking a scapegoat.”
If, like me, you’re an avid viewer of classic film, you probably know some of the stories and the statistics: How D. W. Griffith set an early precedent with Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that’s renowned for its technological achievement and appalling for its open embrace of the Ku Klux Klan. How Hattie McDaniel—the first African American to win an Oscar, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939)—was barred from attending the Atlanta premiere of her own movie. How black actors forced to play dumbed-down roles, and white actors in blackface, were common sights in films of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. How brilliant black performers like the Nicholas Brothers couldn’t get starring roles, only short scenes that could be cut when their films were distributed in the South. How Lena Horne, a black woman, wasn’t allowed to play the mixed-race Julie in Show Boat (1951) . . . in a storyline that was about the wrongness of racial prejudice. And how, for every pro-Union film to come out of Hollywood, there have been dozen of pro-Confederate films, vigorously selling the myth of genteel masters and contented slaves.
Looking back at these once-prevalent trends, it’s natural for us to feel disgusted. But I can’t help feeling something else as well. I can’t stop marveling at those stubborn people who deliberately cut themselves off from stories and performances that might have enriched their lives and brought them genuine entertainment and inspiration. I mean, imagine not wanting to watch Fayard and Harold Nicholas dance or hear Lena Horne sing! Imagine creating a climate of fear and hatred so powerful that it made Sidney Poitier sleep with a gun under his pillow when he went to Tennessee to shoot In the Heat of the Night (1967). Imagine being so mired in your own pride and arrogance, so insistent that your ancestors had the right to own human beings, that you were still taking it out on the descendants of those human beings—to your own deprivation.
Not long ago, I read a story along these lines that left me reeling. It was the story of what happened when Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) tried to create a television drama about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. His efforts were reportedly met with such rage by members of the viewing public that he had to shift the story to New England and make the victim a foreigner. When he tried again at another network, he ended up having “to move the story back 100 years, erase any direct allusion to Till, as well as any black and white racial dynamics in the script.” Everyone knew who Emmett Till was, and yet it was unthinkable to tell his story.
As we grapple with this difficult legacy, many voices have spoken out against the censoring of movies like Gone with the Wind. I agree that they shouldn’t be censored. They should be seen and discussed and considered in new lights, as many of us have done and continue to do. (Whenever we classic movie fans on Twitter livetweet the movie, at the #TCMParty hashtag, we always have plenty to say not just about Scarlett’s wardrobe and man troubles and headstrong ways, but also about her utter cluelessness and callousness about slavery. And we’re in accord that Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy is the moral center of the film, and awed by how McDaniel was able to pull that off under the circumstances.)
But the deep irony we’re all missing here is that for so many years, it was the racists doing the censoring. They were the ones who wouldn’t let us retell some of the most powerful stories we had or who forced us to twist them into unrecognizable shapes that couldn’t possibly upset anyone. “The Lost Cause myth was the political correctness of the postwar South,” observes Sidney Blumenthal dryly in The Atlantic, “and a political correctness that dominated American history writing and culture for decades after Reconstruction.”
You have to admit, they’ve got a lot of nerve calling other people politically correct now.
The way to come to terms with the sins of our past, then, isn’t to repeat what they did. It isn’t to try to cover up the stories that we told in those days. The way to do it is to tell more and better stories. It’s to mine the treasure trove of true stories that were hidden or distorted. To take just one of hundreds of examples, when is someone going to make a movie about the ex-slave couple who became detectives in the South? Why has it never even occurred to anyone what a great action movie we could get from that story?
This isn’t just about entertainment. As the Bible makes clear, telling stories is one of the most important acts we can accomplish—so important that God again and again instructs His people to do it. He tells them to teach their children the old stories of His power and goodness, to set up memorials to remind them, to never let them forget. The lesson is that if we don’t tell the true stories, if we fail to pass them down to future generations, the lies will rush into the vacuum and take over.
History, the old saying goes, is written by the winners. If only that were true. If the winners had written the story of the Civil War, we’d probably all be a lot more knowledgeable, and a lot more honest, about what actually happened before, during, and after it. We wouldn’t have been handed down the resentment, bitterness, and untruths that the losers left us. And we’d probably have even better movies and more great performances than we already have.
But it’s not too late. The stories are out there, just waiting to be told. To pass up that chance, to ignore those stories, is to live in the kind of cultural and historical poverty that we’ve already put up with for far too long.