There were 16 years between Eva Braun mugging for the camera, aping Al Jolson in Blackface, and the 1953 release of Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” cartoon Southern Fried Rabbit, where Bugs Bunny, just like Eva, is to be seen “shufflin” around in Blackface – Dixie style. In seemingly endless “Looney Tunes” episodes, just like this one, Bugs plays the foil to incessantly excitable characters, not least Yosemite Sam. Yosemite, plays a Confederate General in this story, constantly offended by the uppity “wabit,” to quote Elmer Fudd. The racism is hidden in plain sight. There was a decade and one-half between Braun rivaling Jolson, and the cartoon featuring Bugs in Blackface, yet, now it’s been but three days since Gucci, the fashion house, pulled from its shelves, a black neck sweater, known as the “Balaclava Jumper.” This followed unbroken incredulity as most of us tried to imagine how anyone at Gucci missed the fact that the Balaclava Jumper resembled, or at the very least, evoked a Blackface caricature, . . . . . and I might as well sharpen this point to say, does it ever, and “in Spades.”
The fashion house provided the standard-issue apology on its social media accounts: “We deeply apologize for the offence caused by the wool balaclava jumper. We can confirm that the item has been immediately removed from our online store and all physical stores.” Somehow, this statement managed to be simultaneously as coldhearted, as it was halfhearted, lending nothing of substance to counter the unfolding scandal or dodge the fallout created by a design, which, in and of itself, is above all, ungifted. In its wake, we must admit too, it is ahistorical, and so unforgivably tactless, reckless and rude (And Gucci, note to self, under present circumstances, it’s beside the point that the jumper has been stitched from wool . . . . . Once it reaches the Fashion Collection at the Met, and undoubtedly it will, filed away under Petite Scandal, an intern will dutifully note on the incoming condition report, “material: wool,” but even then, it will not count). But let’s move on: I’m of two minds, are you? Is the derisory design in and of itself more offensive than Gucci’s absent-minded historicism?
Gucci stepped up to fall on its own vogueish sword; the superficial self-sacrifice to its own undisguised, or perhaps, for all we know, its routine undercurrent of racism, a bias somehow stifled until now? I’m still in the air on which would be poorer, superficial self-sacrifice or routine racism? At its best? The statement is as feeble, as arrogant. As a first question, to pick back through this, because it counts, whom on the Gucci Design Staff said, laden by a heavy French accent, “Let’s Go With, You Know, The Nigger Jumper!”? Gaining perspective with reflection along our way, do keep in mind, that it was three years after Bugs’ racist cartoon played to movie house audiences, without objection, that fourteen year old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. Things take time.
Perhaps only vaguely, but surely you will remember hearing something of Emmett Till’s heartbreaking life. On August 21, 1955 Emmett, who lived in Chicago, arrived in Money, Mississippi to visit family. Three days later Till, and his cousin Simeon Wright, visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. The store was owned by Roy Bryant, and his wife Carolyn who was in the store alone that day. According to accounts, Till was in the Bryant’s grocery store with his cousin, when he may have wolf-whistled at Mrs. Bryant. Vividly, Wright recalled: “Well, it scared us half to death,” and “You know, we were almost in shock. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough, because we had never heard of anything like that before. A black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? No.” When Roy Bryant learned what had happened, he and his half-brother John William ”J. W.” Milam kidnapped Emmett, and then bludgeoned him to death in a shed, as you do in Mississippi. Emmett’s grieving Mother, determined for everyone to be witness to Bryant and Milam’s unequivocal savagery insisted on an open casket. What had been done to this teenager, by grown men, who, as an aside, called themselves Christian, I can only describe as hopeless. But in 1956, without a lawyer in sight, Milam explained his blamelessness to Look Magazine:
Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers – in their place – I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m gonna make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.
For now, enough of Bryant and Milam, these members of the dangerous classes. Travel with me once again, back to the future, navigating towards Gucci’s balaclava jumper. “. . . we deeply apologize for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper . . .” echoes the sentiment of Milam’s original racism: ” Well, what else could we do?” And now, what shall we, and I mean you, and I, make of this, . . . what else can we do in this, our own zeitgeist moment, when blunt insensitivity, deeply ingrained by society and its history, passes unblinkered. The wool balaclava jumper. Is it really nothing more than the misguided sales strategy of a multinational corporation? Unfathomable. I picture this as a zeitgeist moment because it is of a piece with other unfathomables, and near the top of my list? The “naked wisdom” of the American people, who landed Mr. Trump squarely in the White House (between his trips to Mar-A-Lago), a wisdom that revealed who Americans really are as a people, while anticipating the near term collapse of their influence and in turn, their global power. Despite that these, and other contemporary examples, remain individually unplumbed – they nonetheless, collectively represent a brusque summary of where we are, bobbing about in the wake of our own post-Enlightenment epoch.
Stirring over this, I just happened to have had the good fortune to read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece “Diderot Dicta,” where he reviews two new books about Denis Diderot. Truth to tell, my abiding interest in Diderot peaked to unbridled fascination, while living in Stockholm for a time. One evening, passing through a graveyard, our shortcut to a restaurant, I learned from Daniel Birnbaum, then the Director of the Modern Musset, that Diderot died in Stockholm, and his lover, Catherine the Great, “arranged” to (literally) keep the philosopher’s heart after his death. Why not? Truth be told, his heart truly belonged to her. I wouldn’t mind if someone, kept my heart, and she knows who she is . . . .
Now that’s what I call Romance (Or perhaps some advanced version of “tough love,” sitting just beyond the reach of my imagination). Gopnik has reviewed Andrew S. Curran’s Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, and Robert Zaretsky’s Catherine & Diderot, and along the way, decorously, takes up the Enlightenment as his theme. Gopnik rightfully lifts up Jeremy Bentham, another favorite of mine, who, by the way, arranged to have himself taken to a local taxidermist immediately upon his death, so that in his future, he could be rolled in for faculty meetings where he taught at the University College London. In the intervening decades since his death, Bentham has been officially listed in faculty meeting minutes, as “present but not voting.” It was of course, Bentham who scouted, amongst other exceptional ideas, the notion of the “ideal prison,” or the Panopticon; a sterling example of the Enlightenment. Our own notion of rehabilitation still broken by inflexible Old Testament virtues, remains somewhere in the distance outer rings of the future civil society Bentham envisioned. Nevertheless, he remained devoted to reform across political, civil and social life. He was stunning at forecasting the future. To take things a step further, Bentham, accounting for everything, from his politics to his unblinking compassion, should rightfully have been a Swede.
Musing over Diderot, Gopnik summarizes phases of the Enlightenment, writing: “Where Pre-Enlightenment Europe was sporadically cruel, post-Enlightenment Europe was systematically inhumane; where the pre-Enlightenment was haphazardly prejudiced, the Enlightenment was systematically racist, creating a ‘scientific’ hierarchy of humanity that justified imperialism. ‘Reason’ became another name for bourgeois oppression, the triumph of science merely an excuse for more orderly forms of social subjugation.” Gopnik’s own reckoning, bourgeois oppression . . . merely an excuse for more orderly forms of social subjugation, provides the foundation for my present thoughts on “Blackface.”
And so, we refocus, meditating on “Blackface,” as the philosophically “essentialist” subject it is, or, the unfathomable subject it has come to be, or both. And by “unfathomable,” I mean, by example, Emmett’s irreversible fate, or the irreversible folly of America’s citizens, who, in staggering herds, elected no more than a womanizing real estate agent to lead the Free World. I long to have better feelings for Americans than that, but within this outer realm, within its apparent and irreversible maliciousness, there it sits, the nastiness of their Blackface.
Ronald Jones, London and Cambridge, February 2019