It’s with some discomfort that the author names Gone with the Wind, published exactly 75 years ago today, her favorite childhood book: It was thick, it was romantic — and perhaps most crucially for any awkward, bespectacled preteen girl — it featured a headstrong heroine whose appeal to the opposite sex derived more from her charm than her physical beauty.
Nonetheless, there’s no way around the profound failings of both the book and the MGM epic film based on it: Novel and film treated slavery as an incidental backdrop to the war; they glorified and misrepresented the actions of the Ku Klux Klan; and most egregiously, they portrayed the master-slave relationship as one which neither master nor slave should ever dream of altering. In the words of historian and sociologist Jim Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong:
[Gone With The Wind] laments the passing of the slave era as “gone with the wind.” In the novel, Mitchell states openly that African Americans are “creatures of small intelligence.” And this book is by far the most popular book in the U.S. and has been for 60 years. The book is also profoundly wrong in its history. What it tells us about slavery, and especially reconstruction, did not happen…it is profoundly racist and profoundly wrong. Should we teach it? Of course. Should we teach against it? Of course.
Meanwhile, Hattie McDaniel took home a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s loyal house slave, Mammy. She was the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award. The fact that she was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta makes her acceptance speech (1940) even more poignant. It appears above.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.