My “love affair” with Gone With The Wind has been going on for as long as I can remember. It was quoted in passing in some of the books I read, routinely praised as one of the best stories ever written and its characters eulogised in various ways in other books. So when my dad quietly handed me a copy of a paperback version of the novel, I was enthused at finally being able to see/read for myself what the hype is all about.
Gone With The Wind is the single most racist book I have ever read. Written about a period when white slave owners routinely bought, kept and sold black slaves, it is unapologetically racist. The author at every opportunity points out the foolishness of the back race, compares blacks to animals, denigrates the intelligence of black people and even, for the characters who thought themselves good, completely dismissed the idea that blacks were or could ever be equal.
One thing I found fascinating was how the black slaves viewed themselves. Every article/story/book/movie on slavery I have read/watched tells a narrative of black opposition to slavery and racial injustice, pitting the two races in an everlasting battle for equality. Gone With The Wind explores another side of this narrative. There were slaves who were proud to be slaves, who even had a hierarchy based on where they worked and slaves who looked down upon white slave owners who didn’t have as many slaves as was “respectable”. The book even extolls these “loyal” slaves, using them to denigrate other slaves who sought their freedom.
This may be unpopular but I have always wanted to hear the stories of these people: the ones who didn’t fight, those who were comfortable in their servitude, those who for one reason or the other wore their slavery as a girdle of honor. Their stories don’t suit the narrative of black freedom and I can understand why we would want to tell and retell the Solomon Northup story in 12 Years A Slave rather than that of Poke or Mammy in Gone With The Wind. However, they survived the best way they new how, the only way they knew how, and if nothing at all, their stories can at least serve as a reminder of a world we never want to return to and that the desire to be superior to others and dominate them is not just a black or white thing but a human plague.
Having said all of that, Gone With The Wind is more than just a book about racial relations in the 1800s. It is up there as one of the most incredible pieces of writing I have ever seen. If you’re momentarily able to ignore the underlying racism and prejudice against the Yankees in the book, it is a wonderful body of work which challenges you to rethink your definition of heroes and villains. The protagonist, a self-obssessed and self-centered young woman, is in simple terms a villain who you still keep on rooting for because the world around her is the bigger villain. It’s about life and living. It’s about those tiny little things which over the years transform us from what we used to be to what we are now. How many of you went from wanting to be a millionaire at 20 when you were 5 to just wanting a house of your own at 40 as you grew older and life happened. How have your dreams, aspirations, goals, or even personalities changed over time? These changes are usually subtle, small enough to go unnoticed but cumulatively, they turn us into something completely unrecognizable from who we used to.
I’m not done with the book yet. At times, the racial epithets are just so much I want to stop reading but maybe, in a world that feels like it is slowly regressing on all of the progress that was made in previous decades, especially in relation to race relations, more people being confronted with stark examples of some of the lowest periods of human existence, may allow us a rethink our current depressing path.
And to be honest, it takes wonderful writing to have your readership caring about a spoiled, racist, self-centered, egoistic protagonist.