Thursday, January 25, 2007

Happy Negro Waiter Guy; Not So Happy

I’ll admit that I have a certain fondness for James Lileks, due to that funny site of his where he takes old ads and books and stuff and makes jokes about them.  Long before I knew that Lileks had part of his brain officially lobotomized by the Republican Party, I liked his stuff.  And while I never read his site anymore as his style was too formulaic, I still admire his stuff as long as he stays on task and doesn’t start heading off into Weirdo Conservative Land.  As someone who once resided there on a regular basis, I can only hope he can eventually be cured as I was.

But via Roy at alciublog, we see that he’s still writing from Weirdo Conservative Land.  And it is a weird place indeed.  Not because he’s conservative, per se; but because the conservative material seems to block out his humorous side.  

And that’s what we see in this column that’s mostly trivial personal stuff about his day, written in his standard humorous style.  And while it’s somewhat boring, I guess it can’t all be gold when you lack a biobrain.  And he ends that section with a little snark towards the Dragnet television show and Bush’s State of the Union address.  As he says, “Five years into the long war, it’s a relief that the President can conclude his remarks by discussing the “Baby Einstein” tapes in an address to Congress. Things can’t be that bad.”  At least I’m assuming that was meant as snark.

But then he goes for what should be his standard ridicule of an old cereal ad that suggests that we can have “Dining Car Service – At Home” if we buy their little cereal boxes.  And the ad shows Happy Negro Waiter Guy happily offering various cereals to All-American White Family.  So far, so good.  And now we should expect to see a good amount of ridicule mocking the ad and its old-fashioned funniness.

But no, instead he suddenly dives straight into Weirdo Conservative Land with a brief essay on the traditional role of black servants and how they were portrayed in olden day entertainment.  And while I’ve never heard the old Great Gildersleeve show, I get the general idea of what it’s supposed to be.  

As Lileks explains:
Gildy is henpecked and outdone by all his domestic associates, but the only person who comes across with any degree of pride or level-headedness is Birdie, the servant, and Gildy’s relationship to her is one of kindness and deference.

Now where the hell did this come from?  Not only is it not funny, it’s entirely weird.  He doesn’t even bother discussing the ad.  He just moves right into an odd admiration of the Negro Servant Role in old pop culture, which has an undeniable tinge of racism throughout.  He gave one brief paragraph after the ad which appeared as if he was going to mock it, and then never mentions it again.  I’m guessing the column got too long so he cut-out the funny stuff.  But why?  Again, I can only imagine that he was overwhelmed by that Republican Lobotomy of his.

Equality, Not Subjugation

And here’s the meat of it:
There was a fundamental decency and mutual affection in their relationship. Yes, yes, idealized depiction of inherent inequalities, etc. As the argument no doubt goes, the shows perpetuated inequality by pretending they really didn’t exist. But it’s instructive to note what the popular culture held out as the ideal. Equality, not subjegation. Birdie was fully integrated into the family, and shared the same values. Nowadays I suspect a sitcom with a Black servant in a middle-class family would milk the clash of cultures, not the similarities. Wanda Sykes would star.

But he’s entirely wrong.  The reason that portrayal of the “equal” black servant was idealized was entirely because that’s how people wanted to see things.  Not because they saw it as a real part of their culture, but because they wanted to believe that there was nothing wrong with that relationship and that the Happy Negro Servant truly was happy.  And that this represented fairness and decency, as long as you treated your black servants with decency.  And that was just to reassure these people that there was nothing immoral about what was going on around them.  And to show them being sassy and unhappy with their position in life would entirely undermine that and be a big bummer.

And that’s exactly what we saw after the Civil Rights movement made that kind of thing so apparent.  Because it isn’t cool to be a servant.  That’s not to degrade anyone in that position, but that’s not really where anyone wants to be.  That’s where they’re stuck being.  That’s why it’s far better to be a restaurant manager than the waiter, and why it’s best of all to own the restaurant.  And for an entire class of people to be denied either of those better options due to their skin color is obviously wrong.

Because no matter how you cut it, the portrayal that Lileks admires is not equality at all.  Equality is not that you treat your inferiors as equals.  It’s that they truly are equal.  That they be given the opportunity to be more than servants.  And if they don’t have the abilities or inclination to be more than servants, that’s fine.  But that it be their choice, as much as it is anyone else’s choice.  Because if they’re not given that freedom, it truly is subjugation we’re talking about, and not equality; no matter how polite you are or how much you treat them as part of the family.  It’s still subjugation.  And that applies to people of any race, gender, or economic background.  Equals are equals.

Equality isn’t something that you grant to the people you like.  It’s our birthright as human beings.  That we be given the same chances to succeed as anyone else is given.  And while things are unlikely to ever be completely equal, it’s pure sham to pretend as if politeness is a substitute for equality.  And that’s why Lileks’ admiration for the Happy Negro Servant is so misplaced.  Not because it reinforces Jim Crow stereotypes (as he suggests people will attack him for), but because he’s misinterpreting why those people needed to believe it.  It wasn’t because they wanted blacks to be treated as equals, but because they weren’t, and it was just too horrible to admit to that.  After all, it really isn’t pleasant to be reminded that the people serving you your food hate your guts.

Pop Culture Marches On

And so the sassy black servant in modern times is merely the next step in that thinking process, to give expression to the fact that it was so obviously wrong.  They’re not being given the freedom to be sassy due to their employer’s benevolence.  They’re given it because their employer can’t do any better and is stuck putting up with the sassy black servant who does a lousy job.  And we don’t need Wanda Sykes for this, as we’ve already seen this character repeatedly on television.  I’m thinking Florence from The Jeffersons, and other shows that I don’t have the time to remember.  

But in all these modern examples, the point is that the servant is an equal because their employer can’t prevent it.  It’s the servant’s right to be sassy.  The employer is the butt of the joke and they, for whatever reason, can’t even fire their sassy servant; primarily because they’re usually the funniest character on the show and the writers couldn’t write jokes without them (e.g., The Jeffersons).  These people are equals.  And it just wouldn’t be funny if you had a servant that wasn’t sassy.  It would be sad and pointless.

Take the show Benson.  It was a spinoff of the show Soap, entirely because Benson’s character was so sassy, and was often the funniest character on the show.  Had their servant been decent and affectionate towards the family, it would have been lame and pathetic and would never have been worthy of its own show.  But as things were, it was a slight embarrassment to Soap to have the smartest guy in the house as a mere servant, and he soon got a show titled after the servant character.

And even on Benson, that relationship couldn’t last.  Again, it was too embarrassing to have such a smart man in a subservient role.  And so he soon was given a more prestigious job, and eventually ended up as Lieutenant Governor and then ran against his boss to be the Governor (though that was the last episode and we never found out if he won).  And I should say, I always loved that show as a kid and was really upset that they never showed the finale.

And again, it’s because of the equality issue, and that it was just too obvious that the smartest guy around was being kept down because he was black.  What other explanation could there be for Benson to remain as a servant?  And in the post-Cival Rights era, it was just too immoral and awkward to continue to have that situation remain, and so they had to give the sassy servant a respectable job.  Because that’s what equality is all about.  Not being treated as an equal, but being an equal.  

And that’s just something that remains foreign to conservatives, because once you understand that rich people aren’t inherently superior to poor people, it becomes obvious that a system that perpetuates that needs changes.  Changes which are entirely unwanted by conservatives and the entire purpose of their movement.   So conservatives like Lileks hold dear to an earlier generation’s attempt to rationalize the obvious immorality of what was going on around them, while insisting that the intent of politeness is enough to satisfy any requirement for equality.  Thus is our modern conservative.


Anonymous said...

Don't agree with every word; it is not inherently demeaning to have a job as a servant, butler, etc. It depends on whether you merely got a job or whether you were given no other choice for your life but to do it. But overall a great post. Glad I found your site.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Tehanu - Yeah, I was kind of in a hurry when I wrote this and should have clarified that servant positions aren't necessarily demeaning. But even then, I'm not so sure that it's a job that anyone would want, if they really had a better option. Besides, I think I was addressing more of the pop culture aspects of it, which is almost entirely how Lileks meant it too. And for a show like Benson, it never really made sense why he would stay as a butler, because he really seemed to dislike it.

And thank god you showed up here in comments. I saw a bunch of people come to view this post, but nobody stuck around. And that made me worry that it was too long and I sucked or something. Not that I need the feedback, but it never hurts.

Anonymous said...

My family had house keepers, and that gives me some perspective to understand what you are saying.