Friday, August 26, 2011

Rewriting History

By Russel D McLean

I recently read Shaft, the novel by Ernest Tidyman that of course would also become one of the coolest films ever made.

Shaft is actually a well-written novel, a real fast mover, and just an entertaining read. But one part in particular suck out like a sore thumb. The blatant and rather distaseteful homophobia that sneaks through the novel. At one point, Shaft notices a “queer” checking him out. He gives the guy a wink and says he’ll be at a place in Central Park about one am. The other guy nods excitedly and Shaft leaves the coffee house where he’s been using the phone hoping that the gay man knows karate so that he’ll last ten minutes or so against those muggers. Yeah, he’s setting the guy up just for looking at him funny.

It’s a strange moment in the book, and jarring to someone of my generation. But after reaching the end of the sequence I remembered when the book was written and the prevailing attitudes of the time and place. I accepted it was part of the book’s contemporaneous nature and moved on.

But others might not.

It made me think about the guys who want to remove That Word from Huckleberry Finn or the talk about removing some of the more dated and racist jokes from early episodes of Sitcoms of the seventies.


Its all about context. Viewing these things with the knowledge that they are historical documents and that time has moved on, you come to gain an understanding about where and when they were written. Your unease at the references allows you to reflect on why these words and ideas are offensive or unsettling.

But what about the children, I hear you cry.

You know what, you can talk openly and frankly to the children about how times have changed and how such ideas are no longer acceptable. You can help your children to understand how times change, how people are capable of change and how society is different now.
I don’t believe its right to change documents as they were written to reflect modern attitudes and ideas. I believe it is better to place the documents in context, to debate, engage with and understand why they say what they say, why they use the ideas and the words that they do.

Because otherwise we are rewriting history, forgetting the past.

And you know what they say about those who forget the past…


SueH said...

Excellent - someone with common sense and not afraid to use it! Bravo! :-)

Dana King said...

To strip the racist jokes from ALL IN THE FAMILY or SANFORD AND SON would ruin the point of the shows. People need to understand Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford are out there. Shows like this didn't set them up as role models; they made fun of their small mindedness.

(I'never seen either TILL DEATH DO US PART or STEPTOE AND SON, but I suspect the same holds true.)

John McFetridge said...

Yes, we feel this way because books and TV shows and movies are important to us. But to the people who want to "clean" them up it isn't really about morality or ethics or offending anyone - it's about sales.

Cleaning up old movies is the same as colourizing them. There is a belief that there is a big market for these products (and in this mindset that's all they are - products) if only they were... changed in some way.

Like making the popcorn topping "lite."

Thomas Pluck said...

I wouldn't take that out of Shaft, it shows how afraid even tough guy crime writers were of masculinity being in question back then.

Charlieopera said...

Some have argued the George V. Higgin's characters were rough on women. No shit? They were part of a subculture that didn't have much respect for women, at least not the women often portrayed in the novels. Many of the characters some of us write about have those prejudices and Neanderthalisms built into their beings. I suspect the character Shaft, as much as want to like him, probably was a bit of a homophobe. Today it doesn't fly (hopefully in more than a few circles) but that isn't for editors 10-20-100 years down the road to decide (no matter the intent).

Censoring works written in another time, whatever the intent, is silly. The kids can handle it.