Models Monday: Learning from Paula Deen’s Dream

With great interest, I have followed news reports concerning Paula Deen’s problematic deposition testimony she provided as part of a racial discrimination suit against the celebrity chef and her brother, Bubba Hiers. Mainstream news outlets strongly emphasize the moment in the deposition when Deen admits to using the word “nigga” and her suggestion that in doing so, she was reflecting an era when white Southerners routinely and publicly found it an acceptable term. Connected to this admission, Deen further maintains that she tolerated jokes whose terms reflected a derogatory and demeaning portrayal of marginalized folk. Fewer mainstream news outlets provide additional commentary on Deen’s very problematic admission that she would love for her brother to experience “a southern style plantation wedding.” In recalling a dining experience where “middle-aged black men” in white jackets and bow-ties worked as servers “that probably made a very, very good living,” Deen advanced the notion that the dress and professionalism of these men recalled the antebellum era in a sentimental way. Deen’s acknowledgements offer much to explore in terms of finding “other models by which to live.”

To begin, if like Deen you believe that the enslaved were “professionals,” allow me to counter this notion. Being a professional suggests at least the possibility for experiencing respect in light of an acknowledgement of one’s expertise. Such respect facilitates a person’s experience of dignity and integrity. Enslavement should be defined against an expectation for respect as well as against an experience of dignity and integrity. An enslaved person could no more be a professional than could a hammer or a wrench. The carpenter is the professional who wields the tools but the tools cannot be the professionals. During the antebellum period that Deen casts as ideal, those marked as professionals were those who procured, sold, distributed, and managed the enslaved who were regarded as property; tools. While the categorial imperative from a Kantian position cautions against treating people as a means to an end, this is precisely how the enslaved were defined; again, as tools–a “means.”

One very good way of challenging romantic interpretations of slavery like Deen’s requires disabusing one’s self of the belief that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind serves as the definitive text for understanding and representing slavery in the United States. Though loved by millions, Gone with the Wind does not capture the violence and brutality of slavery as an institution and so does not encourage a reading of the validity of resistance for those who were enslaved. Mitchell’s work imagines violence and brutality inflicted upon chivalrous white men and genteel white women who offered the enslaved kindness, affection, sustenance, and protection. Violence becomes a force claimed by Yankees who had little respect for the “southern way of life.” I certainly think that people should read the book and watch the film Gone with the Wind. Gone with the Wind is an important text for making sense of Deen like visions of black servants happily serving white people. If you want to understand American racial history, however, you will need to read more books–and this recommendation includes fiction. To that end, if you are going to read Gone with the Wind, you should read it alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Unlike Gone with the Wind enthusiasts who strive to recreate “Tara,” the fictional plantation in the novel, through how they go about assigning names to streets and sub-divisions, readers of Beloved aren’t generally left with the impression that the Garner’s “Sweet Home” plantation should inspire an excavation of blueprints that might shape an authentic replication of this place on contemporary maps; to plot as a point in Google Maps. In Beloved, the repetition and intrusive force of remembering plantations directly opposes sentimentality and nostalgia. For Morrison then, Slavery marks a catastrophe, not an ideal.

Deen’s vision of the antebellum period with “professional” black men in jackets and bow-ties also recalls the famous stair dance routine featuring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel.

Such representations, I think, bring into focus the under-examined pathologies stemming from how race gets imagined as valuable information (drawing from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark). Though I am not a psychiatrist, creating impressions of forced servitude through a portrait of delight, for me, hints at psychosis. Normalizing the imagined pleasures of enslavement seems abnormal. Thus, conversations regarding forgiving Paula Deen and believing her claims that she rejects racism make no sense to me. What does forgiving her have to do with the exposure of her formerly concealed psychosis? Forgiveness, as I understand it, would not address Deen’s delusions of race and servitude.

Forgiveness does not seem to me to be the lens through which to address Deen’s problematic understanding and conceptualization of race. For me, Deen offers a contemporary example of the continued relevancy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s claim that America is a sick society. Forgiveness, as it is being framed through cultural discourse, does not meaningfully consider the ways that absolution might replicate the transgressions it aims to address. In this case, forgiveness appears to mean demonstrating continued support for Paula Deen by buying what she’s selling; literally. Forgiveness then, works like this: I offer Paula Deen financial support by continuing to eat at her restaurants and continuing to purchase her products. Is self-satisfaction with my ability to demonstrate compassion through consumption my reward? If yes, then this is a thin construction of forgiveness. If financial profit defines the terms of forgiveness, how is that altering the suffering generated by Deen’s delusions of race? How does forgiving her extend to others in a meaningful way? King’s notion of forgiveness involved a program for rendering social justice, buying a Paula Deen soup ladle doesn’t seem to carry the same cultural and moral benefits as crafting a civic agenda would. Buying Deen’s products certainly allows for her continued flourishing, but if you’re one of her employees and you’re a black person, be prepared to accept your labor for whites as payment enough. In the world that she imagines, the model of slavery and the satisfaction of slaveholders defines “a very, very good living.” If forgiveness means accepting Deen’s use of racial slurs as a mistake and accepting the validity of her claims that she’s not racist while at the same time claiming the southern plantation environment as an ideal, I don’t see how forgiveness is civically beneficial. Deen’s admissions offer excerpts of a broader ideological interpretation of the world that accepts white supremacy and thus the marginalization and denigration of all others. I don’t see how ignoring this fact, “looking away” as “Dixie,” the Confederate anthem would have it, addresses the wounds of racial trauma. I am more interested in addressing lethal forms of domination in civic terms more than I am interested in the expression of fond feelings for a person who maintains their innocence despite obvious evidence to the contrary…I’m not buying it; literally.

I imagine Martin Luther King shaking his head at how far we’ve overcome.

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