I’ve been giving it some thought and the thing is that I’m just not sure that it’s that obvious to everyone that the crows in Dumbo are racist caricatures–especially because, looking at them now, they don’t seem to be particularly negative caricatures and I think we tend to think that since racism is bad and evil that everything that is racist will be obviously bad and evil.
And let’s be clear–it’s easy to see the crows in Dumbo as good because they are good; they are nice to Dumbo when few others are and they do help him learn to fly and their intervention directly results in him being reunited with his mother. But there is a world of difference between being good characters within the context of the movie and being non-racist.
But also, I don’t want to get into a bunch of high-faluting theory because I believe this is an important point and important within the context of what happened to Nathan Vaughn, especially since I keep hearing people say “depicting a black man as a crow isn’t racist; the crows in Dumbo aren’t racist. See?” and I don’t want to get distracted.
But the crows in Dumbo are racist caricatures.
It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or racist or that you should never let your kids watch Dumbo. I, honestly, don’t know what it means. That’s the thing about our history. We have all this good stuff that is brought to us by some really ugly stuff and it’s really hard to know how or if you can salvage the good stuff.
I, for one, would have liked to believe that you can watch Dumbo and see that it’s racist and still enjoy it as a piece of great art. Maybe you can’t, though. I don’t know.
I do know that denying that it’s racist is problematic. It borders on delusionally problematic if we’re going to use the fact that we don’t see racism in the depiction of those crows to dismiss the legitimate anger people feel when Nathan Vaughn’s and Barack Obama’s heads are placed on crows and sent out in a political mailing, as if one depiction of black people as crows that can be seen as positive (and “non-racist”) means that all depictions of black people as crows are non-racist*.
So, the crows in Dumbo.
Ask yourself this: What race of human being are the crows? How do you know that?
Just think about that for a second.
Isn’t it weird that you can tell what human race an animal is supposed to be? And why is it that you know what race those crows are?
Because those crows are based on white stereotypes of black behavior.
How powerful are those stereotypes? So powerful that you’re sitting here 67 years after that movie was made and you know what race those crows are.
And when that movie was made, a hundred years after Thomas Rice put on blackface and called himself “Jim Crow”–trading on the idea that, if he painted his face and danced and sang, everyone would know what race he was caricaturing–what was the main crow called in the script?
Do I even have to tell you?
(And what race was the man who voiced that crow? I don’t guess I have to spell that out for you either.)
Thanks to Rice, by the middle of the 19th century “Jim Crow” was a common slur used in reference to black men. Calling a black man a crow, depicting him as a crow, depicting a crow as him… that’s old, old common American stuff.
And the reason I think it’s so important to think about the fact that you can tell that the crows in Dumbo are racially black is because it shows that we all kind of subconsciously accrue this junk. No one had to tell you; you just pick up that how those crows are depicted means “how a black man acts.”
Which brings us back to Nathan Vaughn. Did the people who put together that mailer know that what they were doing was just the latest in almost 200 years worth of equating black men specifically with crows?
I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve thought about this a lot since my last post and I kind of doubt it. Which, frankly, really sucks. I mean, I think–in the same way we all know that there’s something going on with race and those Dumbo crows even if we never gave too much thought to what it was–whoever designed that probably had a sense that it would be “just perfect” to design that with Vaughn’s head on a crow. I don’t believe that that person necessarily had any sense of why he or she thought it would be perfect.
That person knew it would be perfect and probably had no idea why it would be perfect. That’s my guess (though until he or she comes forward, we’ll probably never know).
But for everyone who knows the long history, it was shocking to see. And upsetting. I mean, it’s powerful. It’s a powerful image.
But it’s as powerful as it is precisely because of a long and ugly history that runs right through Dumbo, too.
*Spare me the “But Nancy Pelosi’s head is on one of the crows!” argument.