[this is the first of the promised exam essays by students in my ENGL 517 class entitled “Narratives of Slavery.” Throughout the semester, our discussion had been informed by news items that attested to the lasting legacy of slavery and the attitudes to race connected with that legacy. Meredith Chance’s essay picks up on just such a news item that broke between the end of the semester and the exam itself. SL]
Plantation Mentality Still Exists
[April 30, 2014 – 6:45 p.m.]
This week, NBA Clippers team owner Donald Sterling was accused of being an “antebellum slave master… [who] makes money off blacks but doesn’t see them as equals deserving of respect” (Broussard). Twitter rants are common, though they are not usually directed at owners of major athletic franchises whose teams are currently in the league playoffs, and those rants especially aren’t issued by respected ESPN analysts. One would imagine the behavior of Sterling must have been pretty reprehensible to be called out nationally, and it was. Sterling was recorded telling his mixed-race girlfriend, “Don’t bring black people [to my games].” She asked him if he realized he has a whole team of players who are black, and he said, “…do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?” (Wagner). Through these statements, Sterling exemplifies this generation’s virtual slave owner. He said, “I don’t want to change the culture
because I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t want to change” (Wagner).
Should we find this behavior appalling? Of course, we all should. Do we actually? I’m
not sure. These kinds of comments seemingly occur often, and in fact, Sterling has been at it for many years. In a 2009 wrongful-termination lawsuit that was eventually rejected, former Clippers general manager and NBA legend Elgin Baylor claimed that Sterling had a “plantation mentality” (Manfred) From the lawsuit, Sterling said, “Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players” (Manfred). Sterling seems to embody the racist slave owners we have met throughout the semester, though he doesn’t quite meet the gentility of Garner or the cruelty of schoolteacher. He is somewhere in between, allowing his “players” to believe they are acting on their own accord, but in reality, they are like marionettes, controlled by Sterling and his capital. Theoretically, his players are similar to very well-paid slaves: they are owned, they have no say in their owner’s treatment of them, they must fulfill their daily duties as outlined in their contracts, and they cannot “escape” due to contractual obligations. Even their rebellion had to be silent, taking their warm-up jackets off and turning their team shirts inside out to hide the team logo. They understand they must act in a particular manner in order not to receive punishment, much like the myriad of slaves we encountered in our texts.
Sterling was also recorded telling his girlfriend, “There’s no racism here. If you don’t want to be walking into a basketball game with a certain person, is that racism?” (Wagner). Yes, Sterling, that’s racism. He finally made these “mistakes” on a mainstream level, inciting the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, to bring down the hammer and ban him from basketball for life. But, does banning him, forcing him to sell his team (and potentially make more than a $650+ million profit), and imposing a meagre $2.5 million fine make it all better? Certainly not. Men like Sterling embarrass those of us “whites” who have completely differing opinions on race and racism.
Before this course, I’m not sure how much I would have paid attention to the Sterling
mess. I probably would have written him off as some generic rich, racist, jerk, but I would not have sought out articles and reviewed stories of his past behavior. I want to get in his head, jump around, and jumble all his thoughts up so he can see how much pain this inflicts on those he degrades. He essentially says that we live in a world where racism is dominant and believes there’s nothing he can or wants to do to change it, so why bother trying. If everyone held those beliefs, we would still own slaves in South Carolina. We would not have progressed at all. But, dear Sterling, not all of us feel the way you do, and some of us do want to make a change. Sterling has been accused of “parading” his players in front of women and has commented, “Look at those beautiful black bodies” (Manfred). He sounds like a slave trader at an auction, putting his men on the block and encouraging would-be slave owners to value them based on their bodies alone. Sterling has essentially fallen into every stereotypical slave owner trap set up for him.
This country, and especially this region in which we currently reside, has a history of
ignoring racism, or sweeping it under the rug, in hopes that it will just go away. People in the South don’t seem to realize that things don’t change on their own; people change things. I generalize when I say that many southerners are torn between wanting to forget slavery and needing to remember it. Incidents like Sterling’s remind us that we haven’t come very far in the whole scheme of things. I’ve lived in SC most of my life, and I’ve known many people like Sterling, and I’ve also known many who claim to be his opposite. People can say whatever they want, but it’s their actions that speak loudest.
Returning to graduate school in Charleston at the grand mature age of 28 has given me
more worldly insight than I may have had immediately following my undergraduate education from rural Clemson. This course has made me think back to my childhood, to those friendships I had because I loved the people for themselves and not because of some set of beliefs instilled in me. My childhood African-American friend, Patrice, stands out in my mind. We had a pool in my backyard growing up, and not until one of my neighbors made a comment about her not being able to get her hair wet did I even realize Patrice was any different from my other “white” friends. But, many years later, I still remember that comment, and I can picture Patrice using a kickboard and paddling around the perimeter of our pool at my seventh birthday party to avoid getting her hair wet. That comment has always bothered me because why did it have to be pointed out that she was any different from the other partygoers? The ignorance we had as children seems almost refreshing.
Deborah Seddon says that Sethe holds the Bodwins and all white people responsible for
schoolteachers’ actions, and it’s possible to see how she believes this. But, are we all still held responsible today? Or, is it more realistic to say that schoolteacher is responsible for all of our actions? We should have learned from his mistakes and his ignorance, but, clearly, as shown by Sterling, it didn’t all sink in. The Bodwins, in a way, remind me of Donald Sterling in that they appear as one thing and act as another. The Bodwins appear to be “teammates” with the escaped and freed slaves, though that figurine on their table still bothers me. The one:
Sitting on a shelf by the back door, a blackboy’s mouth full of money. His head
thrown back farther than a head could go, his hands were shoved in his pockets.
Bulging like moons, two eyes were all the face he had above the gaping red
mouth. His hair was a cluster of raised, widely spaced dots made of nail heads.
And he was on his knees. His mouth, wide as a cup, held the coins needed to pay
for a delivery or some other small service, but could just as well have held
buttons, pins or crab-apple jelly. Painted across the pedestal he knelt on were the
words ‘At Yo Service’. (Morrison 300)
Morrison’s depiction of this terrible figurine shows us that even well-meaning whites can’t
escape the bits of racist behavior and thoughts that exist within us. Morrison’s thinly veiled statement that no white person is a good white person bothers me, as I suppose it should. I’m reading it in today’s context, but Morrison means it in a wholly different context. All white people were to blame for Morrison’s text, and all white people were complicit in slavery or racism.
To me, my grandfather exists as a stereotypical old, white, well-off, Charlestonian who is
blind to the progress that has been made in race relations in the last 75 years. But, he’s blind because he chooses to be blind. I do not, nor have I ever, allowed him to get away with racist comments in my presence, but I’ve witnessed others just laugh them off. I know his comments make them feel awkward, but how do you tell your 85 year-old elder that he’s wrong? It’s strange to think that I categorize his, infrequent mind you, statements as either “not so bad” or “offensive” because they are all bad, and they are all offensive, even if they are few and far between. While I do not believe we should be to blame for the behaviors and injustices of our ancestors, we can attempt to rectify the future and prevent further damage. I believe South Carolina, and Charleston specifically, is a place similar to South Africa in which “legislation has changed but the sociopolitical and emotional landscape remains haunted by racism and in thrall to the past” (Seddon 33).
Eusebius McKaiser suggests, “It is all South Africans’ duty to engage each other as
equals both within the public and private spheres” (Seddon 35), and I believe Charlestonians could adhere to his advice as well. Racism is, and continues to be, an issue among white and black people. How can we right the wrongs of those who were responsible for the terrible atrocities of slavery? How can we move on as a society if blame is still placed and if shame is still held? People in today’s world are finally getting around to accepting things/behaviors/ideas that our grandparents would not or could not understand: sexuality, lifestyles, policies, reforms, and much more. Why not add race relations to it? Shame and regret are hard to overcome, but isn’t it time we tried harder than we’ve ever tried? As my term paper identifies, talking about slavery is the only way to heal. So, while we are all present in the middle of a major historical city in the system of slavery, let’s talk about its past. Barbara Applebaum believes that “no white person can claim to stand outside of the system of racist oppression. Privilege speaks through white people—even when we do not intend it” (Seddon 36). White people need not to be
numb to what we say; we need to be cognizant and aware of all potential racist beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in order to promote communal healing. We should not be like Denver and only desire to know the history of our own pasts; we should want to know all of our history.
The novels we have read bring attention the atrocities of slavery and identify that our behavior has repercussions. I know that my mind has been opened up because of this course and the reading of these texts, so I would imagine others’ could be as well. In an age where it’s “cool” to think outside the box and to be an individual, why not bring slave history back into focus and mainstream discussion? Instead of choosing something insignificant to stand behind, stand up for this important issue and this important history.
[April 30, 2014 – 9:36 p.m.]
Broussard, Chris (Chris_Broussard). “Donald Sterling has the mentality of an antebellum
slave master: he makes $ off Blacks but doesn’t see them as equals deserving of respect.” 26 April 2014, 2:10 p.m. Tweet.
Manfred, Tony. Business Insider. 28 April 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.
Seddon, Deborah. “’Be a Mighty Hard Message’: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the
Exploration of Whiteness in the Post-Apartheid Classroom.” Safundi: The Journal of
South African and American Studies 15.1 (2014): 29-52. Academic Search Complete.
Web. 2. Feb. 2014.
Wagner, Kyle. Deadspin. 27 April 2014. Web. 29 April 2014.