Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Octoroon

We're all pretty suspicious about the historical accuracy of Hollywood war films or the dream factory's take on the Wild-West, but when it comes to depictions of slavery?  Well all of a sudden  no-one doubts a frame and the Oscar is in the bag.  For myself, I think where are the octoroons?  People like the slave Celeste who Solomon Northup met on a Louisiana plantation: "It required a close inspection to distinguish in her features the slightest trace of African blood."  For Celeste was "far whiter than her owner or any of his offspring."

American slavery and racism may be closely linked but they were not the same thing.  If they had been then there would have been no black slave owners, - over 3700 in 1830 for example - and there would have been no "white" slaves like Northup's Celeste.  The status of a slave in most of the southern states wasn't a matter of race, it was inherited from the mother. If the mother was a slave then so was her child, no matter if it might have, for example, only one black great grandparent - an octoroon.

It was after the Civil War and particularly in the early 20C that race moved centre stage. In the first half of the 19C inter-marriage between free blacks and whites was common enough. In Alabama, for example, census records show nearly 18% of the free blacks and coloureds (classifications based on appearance) had a white spouse - the most common combination being a coloured husband with a white wife.

Starting with Tennessee and Louisiana in 1910, and driven forward by followers of the widely accepted "science" of eugenics, southern states quickly adopted one-drop laws.  One drop of black blood ensured that a family would be classified as black, and fanatics such as Naomi Drake trawled through the public records to ensure that no-one escaped.

One-drop laws appeal to both white racists and black nationalists and it is only in the 21C that the American census has once more allowed for the possibility that mixed-race folk might consider themselves to be, well, mixed.  This American nonsense has been imported into the UK, where public bodies in Wales can easily tell you the supposed racial composition of their employees but will have no accurate figure as to how many of them speak Welsh.

For Hollywood, that great centre of greed and amorality, films about slavery allow the movie world to feel good about itself.  Complex issues are reduced to simple tales of good and evil.  "Why how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us" asks Bass in Northup's book.  It's a question Hollywood won't be confronting anytime soon.

1 comment:

No Good Boyo said...

So you're talking about 'Uncle Tom's' such as those depicted by Morgan Freeman in Django Unchained. Who cares? You're telling me the African-American experience is not negatively influenced by slavery - whoever their owner. It doesn't matter that the President is black, the WASPs still own Wall Street, and assholes in hick counties (including radnorhsire) still think the non-white is sub-human. Strange fruit still exists in the ether.