In the midst of all the hype over “The Butler”, we must be reminded of how history is created for and managed within particular visions of our contemporary world. This hit movie, which opens today, is something that I want to see this weekend. It is the story of Cecil Gaines, a Black man who served as butler to several US presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to the Ronald Reagan. I love these stories…emotionally laden tales of Black men who are propped as center pieces in the emergence of American society into the great racial cornucopia that we live in today. Another popular movie that came out recently is “42”, the story of baseball player Jackie Robinson. What I find extremely interesting is how the breaking of “color barriers” by Black men has often overshadowed the ways that Native Americans infiltrated White social spaces since the 19th century. Major League Baseball published an article in 2011 describing how important Native Americans have been in Major League Baseball. Of central importance in this article is an inability for the author (or anyone) to contextualize these Native Americans next to the image of the Black citizen within Jim Crow America.
How do we explain Jackie Robinson transcending Jim Crow baseball when Native Americans were struggling just as much to be able to show their high level of skill 50 years before Robinson?
Today’s story of the Black butler and the Black baseball player provides a bit of joy based in the American metanarrative that at these particular moments all of the U.S. overcame the great racist divide. But this joy makes no sense, in the wider scheme of things, when we consider the images that define our everyday lives. For example, I’ve often considered how Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben differ from the Land-o-lakes Indian maiden. There are numerous food items that use Native American fictive images as their mascots…but not in the same way Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are used. The Native American images are void of agency…docile…without matching humans in “real life.” On the other hand, human equivalents of aunt jemima and uncle ben existed and to a large degree still exist in American society. “The Butler” is testament to this. No one can name a Native American equivalent to the Land-o-Lakes maiden. She epitomizes Indian non existence within American society (not simply segregation).
While “The Butler” gives a brief glimpse into a very troublesome American history defined by Black oppression, it also confirms how important Black folks have been in the politics of American society where others (importantly Native Americans) have been unimportant. My family and various older folks in the Lumbee Indian community told me numerous stories about life in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. Chief among their complaints was the ability for Black women to obtain roles serving as aids or housekeepers in hospitals when Native American women could not.
At some point, post Civil War, post Obama presidency, we must change this perpetual struggle to rectify Black and White relationships – to educate our children through the prism of Black and White segregation – in an effort to illustrate how struggles for civil and human rights begin by addressing the death, disfigurement, and absence of Native Americans in history and in contemporary society. This means removing ourselves from the Black-White racial paradigm that defines the hoopla over “The Butler.”
How about we think up a new story of American progress. How about, for example, we make movies examining how Iroquois men were called upon to finish the top of the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis because Black and White men couldn’t finish it? (There is a small line in this article about the Gateway Arch that says Mohawks were among those who finished the Arch. They were THE ONES who finished it.) How about we have a steadfast conversation about how we have yet to acknowledge how Native Americans preside as the original entrepreneurs in the United States (I mean, President Jackson did not remove Native Americans from the South because they were merely squatting. They were making money! And lots of it!)
The heralding of Black Americans in the shadow of White oppression is great. Nevertheless, it must be matched by the dedication of our story telling ability to the other parts of the American landscape that remains so ripe. There is a scene in “42” where Branch Rickey looks at Jackie Robinson and says “You’re a medicine Jack.” This statement is meant to make us all feel better about the progress our nation has made. But I ask, what would it mean for Native Americans to have a medicine? That is, what would it mean for Native American images to be central components of stories that are stuck in the mire of American life….not in feathers and on horses, but in metalworking outfits and holding baseball bats?
If you ask folks back in North Carolina, out in Oklahoma, and up in New York, there were quite a number of Native American baseball players whose ability to be a medicine to Native American youth was razed…not by a segregated baseball environment but by complete invisibility. Begin discussing Native American people as the truth…as the temples of success and achievement. Show Native American children how our heritage of extraordinary ability has been oppressed and muddled to degrees that are unimaginable.
Then place the real stories in feature films. Use my idea about the Mohawks. It would make for an awesome film.
But back to the Rickey statement to Jackie…
What does disease do after a long time without medicine to combat it?