Don't Whitewash History: Art & Culture In This Time Of Revolution

There are actions being taken right now that have me very concerned. These actions could ruin the Black Lives Matter movement.

[This is a thought piece, so please read through to the end, before comment.]

There are fireworks explosions going off as I write this. It is July 4th, Independence Day here in the U.S. As the anniversary of this time rolls by once again, and we find ourselves in a state of turmoil and upheaval, I find myself ruminating on one of the “freedoms” this country is known for being built upon:

Freedom of speech.

Times They Are A-Changing

Statues topple in cities all over the U.S. (and the world). These statues are of Confederate generals, slavers, and other prominent figures known to be racists.  

That’s not all. After its 30-year run, Cops - one of the earliest reality shows, which followed police officers on their exploits - was canceled. Mississippi, the last state to have the Confederate battle flag as a part of its design, retired that flag and now looks for a new design. People are calling for legislation to outlaw Confederate flag and Nazi swastika images.

On the surface, these all seem like good things. I mean good riddance, right? Especially to Nazis and idols like Christopher Columbus, now synonymous with the genocide of Indigenous peoples in this country and continent (and all the more insulting when you discover he wasn’t even the first European of his era to “discover” America). And I never liked Cops, a mess of a show I didn’t even know was still running.

Despite my feelings, I felt uneasy. Something didn’t feel right.

I watched as HBO Max removed Gone with the Wind from its platform, and my dread grew. The movie was restored to the streaming platform within a couple of weeks, with a new historical context commentary, but things continued to escalate. Other platforms began removing movies and episodes from TV shows, all in the name of...what? Sensitivity? Political correctness? Justice? Did they even know why they were having a fairly obvious kneejerk reaction?

Then, swifter than I could click on a new link in my newsfeed, there was an article stating that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” - an episode from Community (one of my favorite shows) - had disappeared from Netflix and Hulu. It took me a moment to figure out what the problem was until I read that it was due to a moment that was perceived as blackface. As far as I know, there are no plans to bring it back.

Now. I hear that there are people calling for a renaming of Captain America: Civil War, because the term “civil war” is upsetting to Black people, and I’ve had enough.

Censoring Art: A Missed Opportunity to Educate

The problem that I’m seeing with these actions is that they are denying us an opportunity to engage in dialogue. I’m going to skip over the flags and monuments for a moment and focus on the movies/TV series issue.

Art, at its best, is not about being something pretty to look at. It is here to disrupt our thinking, get us to see different points of view. It can be incendiary, even offensive at times (Mapplethorpe, anyone?), but that’s the point. It gets people talking; gets them debating. When one removes a piece of art, they kill that conversation, kill an opportunity for change, and that, my friends, is censorship.

When I saw that that Community episode had been removed, I was irritated. I love that show and have watched that particular episode at least a dozen times. Not only is that a brilliantly written episode, but the story is about bullying, mental health, and suicide. It was an important episode in the series that shows how much heart it has. The “blackface” moment was just adding another layer to what is a surprisingly complex sitcom that asks a lot of important questions. Was it played for laughs? Absolutely. Was it a teaching moment? Hell yes.

I could spend some time arguing whether that was true blackface (yes and no) and whether it was tasteless (it was), but the issue isn’t whether or not it was offensive. Its removal was unacceptable because there is now no chance to talk about it, to view it in the context of its original release, and compare it to the current landscape.

It’s a violation.

Let’s take a look at Captain America: Civil War. Forgetting that this is also the title of the comic book upon which it is based, what happens in this story is - thematically, if not literally - a civil war. The characters central to the plot are comrades-in-arms, a team, brothers of a sort, torn apart by ideology, and forcing each other into a situation that puts themselves and their fellow teammates in battle. The use of “civil war” is appropriate here, if not terribly sensitive, and trying to change this part of the title feels like the height of ethnocentrism and oblivious American entitlement. Do we think we’re the only ones in history to have had a civil war? While each civil war can be said to be unique, we did not originate the word or the pain and trauma of such wars, and it is not a term that belongs solely to us.

Yes, the term can be triggering, and that’s the point. The comic book (and movie) were making a point about the differing ideologies of this country and how that can spark unrest and destroy a group, a country, or an entire species. It’s about government oversight and its merits and pitfalls. In the movie version, a debate over policy and rights sparks into a larger conflict due to a seemingly unrelated incident. Given that the protests broke out due to a seemingly unrelated incident during a pandemic in which policy and individual rights seemed to clash, I’d say that’s pretty damn relevant. I’m referring, of course, to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer after a long train of systemic abuses followed by a disproportionate infection rate hit Black communities everywhere, while people argued over individual rights vs collective safety. 

At the very least, the title opens up an opportunity for people to have a conversation about what civil war is.

The problem that exists in this situation is one that exists all throughout Hollywood as it does in the rest of our culture: that writers’ rooms, producers’ offices, and all the major positions of Hollywood are peopled almost entirely by White people. There’s an astounding lack of diversity, and that’s being called out, and it should. In calling out this lack, we must be careful not to create a worse situation.

Whitewashing History: When the Ends Don’t Justify the Means

What’s particularly frustrating about these removals is that they do not, on the whole, appear to be prompted by Black people. The removal of many of these things was done by the White executives of these platforms, networks, and shows, not at the request of a collective of Black people and their allies. This is problematic for several reasons.

First, it is a kneejerk reaction, a preemptive strike to save face and keep from looking bad.

Second, it’s lazy. It is not truly doing the work of owning their part in perpetuating a system that oppresses, and seeking to undo the damage. In removing these items, these companies can claim they have done their due diligence when they have done very little at all.

Third, removing these images whitewashes history, and I mean that in every sense of the word. Rather than allowing these works to educate people about our past, it sterilizes artistic works to make them palatable and ignores the very real systemic racism that made it acceptable to show such images in the first place. It whitens them by seeking to erase any trace of “race” and race issues in the work, an irony, since race only exists in this country (and much of the world) because White Europeans created it to distinguish and elevate themselves from others.

The results of whitewashing history run long and deep. It’s why history textbooks teach that Reconstruction was a failure, instead of telling how it was curtailed to keep newly freed Black people from gaining wealth. It’s the reason it’s not often mentioned that Abraham Lincoln had talked about emancipation long before Gettysburg (and didn’t actually want it), but waited until there was a victory for the Union army to execute the proclamation. It is why we’re not often told that the founding fathers knew enslaving people was wrong, and wrote it into the founding of this country anyway.

Fourth, it is White people making decisions for Black people yet again. Many of the people tweeting about changing the Captain America title are white. I don’t see many Black people, if any, calling for this, and it feels more like a distraction from real issues. This is not to say that there aren’t some Black people who are genuinely triggered by it - or blackface - and that they might not want such a change. It is merely to illustrate that when Black people say that we want White people to take action, we mean educating and supporting, not erasing proof of oppression. Removal of these works of art does not save Black people from triggering moments. Those are happening in our real lives often enough. And it doesn’t bring about lasting change.

Fifth, it curtails freedom of speech, and that’s dangerous. That's a problem for Black Lives Matter.

Freedom of Speech

Whenever you bring up one of the original amendments/bill of rights, an argument is pretty much going to ensue. But one thing most Americans usually agreed on in the past was “freedom of speech”. The logic was simple: if you restrict someone’s speech, then there could come a time when they restrict yours. That ideal, however, seems to be in danger of being forgotten.

It’s come under fire in the last decade or so...a trend that’s grown from the political correctness movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s into today, but became particularly prevalent as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump to the office of President. His incendiary words and the way in which he shows blatant disregard - if not outright prejudice - towards oppressed and disadvantaged groups has left a kind of trauma in the collective psyche of the nation. There are other issues at play here, too, generational, cultural, etc., but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think things have gotten more intense since his election. The letters TW and CW  - “trigger” and “content” warnings, respectively - have gone from rare instances to a constant in social media posts, online groups, and works of art.

Trigger warnings can be useful for temporary relief, but become pathological when we refuse to deal with our problems, opting instead for spiritual bypassing and sticking our heads in the sand. The problem with trigger warnings on a larger scale is that it’s a sign that we are losing our resiliency in political and philosophical debate, too. As we engage in dialogue, we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, with asking hard questions and sticking through the difficult moments. If we shut down a particular comment or image, however, we lose that opportunity to strengthen ourselves, to build better arguments, to evolve our perspectives, and to educate others. 

"But...wouldn’t it be nice if people were, well, nicer to each other?"

No. That’s what we’ve had before. It’s why everyone was so shocked when we went from Obama, and thought we were making real progress, to Trump, and all the racists "suddenly" came out of the woodwork. There’s a difference between being polite, or nice, and being kind and compassionate. The latter is open to growth; the former sweeps ugly things under the rug to “keep the peace.” But those things are still there, left to fester. We have to face them, not ignore them and hope they’ll go away. Art helps us do that, if we open a dialogue about it, and learn from our past. When we censor that, we lose the opportunity for real change, rather than lip service. 

In addition to that is the very real likelihood that when that old pendulum of change swings back around (and it will), it will be our voices - Black people and their allies - who are silenced. Again.

Now let’s go back to the statues and the flag.

What’s the difference between TV and statues?

At this point you may be thinking that the statues shouldn’t be removed either. They are works of art, are they not, and a part of our history? Technically, yes. However, I would say that there are two distinct differences.

First, you may choose to watch or not watch a movie or TV show, to not listen to a song or visit a gallery with a painting. If an offensive moment appears in a film, you may fast forward, stop watching; this is a form of exercising your freedom to protest. However, that racist statue that sits in front of the government building you drive past every time you go downtown? You can’t really get away from that. You can’t pause it or fast forward through it. It’s always there, even in your periphery as you try to ignore it, never letting you forget what it means...

Second, we as a species are far too concerned with the worship of things: celebrities, war heroes, gods... Honoring individuals who oppressed and committed genocide spits in the face of the groups those individuals hurt. Furthermore, continuing to idolize a racist or some other kind of bigot does impede progress in the message it sends to our people and the world. If you think that those statues are only “showing history” then you are kidding yourselves. There is a reason the saying “put up on a pedestal” has meaning, and the meaning says nothing good about humans.

“So the statues should come down?”

Short answer: Yes, but...

History is written by the victors. Victors built those statues and other monuments (and if you’re wondering how Confederate statues is “winning” remember that no one from the North came and made them be taken down when they went up), and they write the textbooks and spin the stories that get passed down. Now, there would seem to be a new group of “victors” on the horizon. The question is not whether or not the statues should come down. Some of those statues have already come down, and there are talks of tearing down many more. 

The question is, what story will the new victors tell?

Perhaps the victors will erect new statues of people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, and tell their stories. It would be about damn time.

My concern, here, is whitewashing the history that came before these new stories. If we remove the statues and never speak of them again, only telling the stories of the newly chosen, we are at risk of not only missing an opportunity for growth but also forgetting our past once again. As I noted above, the pendulum always swings back around, and in forgetting our history, we run the risk of making the same mistakes all over again.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
~ attributed to Mark Twain

What we can learn from HBO & Warner Bros

So, what then? How do we fix this?

Well, I say we take a page from the HBO & Warner Bros book. Whether we’re talking about art or a local monument, contextualize it. 

Can you imagine if Dan Harmon, Yvette Nicole Brown and Ken Jeong came on before that episode of Community and talked about the history of blackface and the racist origins of Drow in Dungeons & Dragons? Not only would that be educational but it would be a great behind-the-scenes conversation for fans to enjoy.

How about a sit down with an American Civil War scholar, Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr. - as well as Anthony Mackie and Chadwick Boseman, please - and the creators of the original Civil War comic run, as they talk about civil wars around the world, our own civil war, and the role of comic books against the backdrop of history? I’d pay money to watch that.

As for the monuments, etc.? Sure, tear them down, but erect a statue that depicts the teardown of the statue, like that World War II Marine Memorial of the American flag being put up. Or, near a new statue, place one of those commemorative plaques depicting pictures of the original statue and its teardown, along with a description of how it came to be there and why it had to go. Redesign that flag, and put the old one in a museum with a similar description of its origins and commentary on how unconscionably long it took to retire it.

Own it, and make efforts to do better, to grow.

It’s still a form of censorship, but it’s the only compromise I’m comfortable making on that particular freedom. Owning our history and seeking to educate is the way to make amends.

It’s time to stop “rhyming” with the past, and that starts by not whitewashing it.


Addendum: 'Cancel' Culture or 'Callout' Culture?

I've read a few articles interchangeably using these two terms, and I hesitated to include this in the article at all, but semantics matter, and I think there really should be a distinction in meaning made between the two. As I noted above, there's a difference between simply removing something and bringing to light the problems that are inherent in its existence so that it can serve as an opportunity for growth and learning. One is about erasure while the other is accountability.

I submit for the approval of the masses:

Callout Culture - a cultural phenomenon of holding society, organizations, and individuals accountable for systemic issues, by bringing to light troublesome and offensive material in order to open up dialogue to contextualize, educate, and make lasting change.

Cancel Culture - a cultural phenomenon of the calls for and/or the act of the removal or erasure of offensive and apparently offensive material from public or semi-public access without an opportunity for examination, contextualization, and education.


Additional Sources:

Gone with the Wind story:

What do you think? 

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