After a quick comment at Murphy’s Law, I chewed on political correctness some more, and I thought I’d write a bit about Perry. Both of them.
Perry was about 8 weeks old when he arrived November before last. In a moment of temporary insanity – I already had two older adult cats – I took him in. He was a tiny coal black fuzzball with big round amber eyes, so frantic that he couldn’t stop mewing even when trying to eat and drink. He refused to be separated from me; if I put him down he climbed right back up my leg to crawl back into the crook of my arm. Ten hours after he arrived I found myself racing to the emergency vet with an obviously critically ill kitten who was unconscious, breathing shallow and rapid, and had a raging fever. They told me that if I hadn’t brought him in he would not have survived the night. His fever was so high that it was causing neurological problems; his little body was twisting and contorting from the effects of it. They gave me very little hope that he would live. But I have a firm belief that animals, particularly companion animals, are a gift from God. I had invited this little guy into my life and in doing so accepted responsibility for him, so to their surprise I said “Do whatever needs to be done” and handed them my credit card. They never did figure out what, beyond pneumonia, was wrong. It was two days before they would guardedly tell me that they thought he would live. On the third day they told me he could go home; the kitten that had been so desperately ill was literally climbing the walls of his cage, IV still hanging out of his leg.
A name was needed for his records, of course, and so I thought a bit and said “Perry, because he’s black and right now he looks like a million dollars to me.”
That went right by the staff, of course. Most people wouldn’t recognize the name Lincoln Perry. But older folks and movie buffs would probably recognize this fellow:
His screen name was Stepin Fetchit. Born in Florida in 1902, he grew up in a country in which Jim Crow was well established, and began his show business career as the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan was soaring. He was 12 years old and working as a boot black when he ran away and joined a carnival, and from there he steadily developed a career as a singer and dancer. By age 20 he was a vaudeville artiste and the manager of a traveling carnival show. His Hollywood break came in 1927 when he created “The Laziest Man in the World” character in order to stand out from other actors auditioning for a role in In Old Kentucky. Arriving for the audition, he acted confused and as if he didn’t know where he was, and it won him the role. The character Stepin Fetchit made Perry the first black millionaire and the first black man to receive a credit in a film. He appeared in 54 films, has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, received an NAACP Image Award, and was inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame.
History is what it is. Closing our eyes, sticking our fingers in our ears, and singing “La la la!” loudly will neither change what has happened in the past or prevent it from happening again. Art, whether paintings, plays, movies, or radio programs reflects its time and culture. Stepin Fetchit may seem a negative stereotype to some today, but Lincoln Perry was functioning within a particular time and place. He parlayed the culture of his time into an opportunity to do things no other black person had done before. He pulled himself up in an environment where a black man being a boot black for all of his life was more likely than a black man being a film star. An intelligent, erudite man who also had a regular newspaper column, Perry was a pioneer and a leader, and without him and others like him, there would be no Sidney Poitier, no Laurence Fishburne, no Will Smith – he paved the way for black film stars. To ban the image he created would be to denigrate his accomplishments. And it won't erase Jim Crow or the KKK from our history.
Instead of erasing history we should be looking at it closely. We should look at cultural representations of the past and think about them, reflect on them, take warnings from them, learn from them, build on them. Ms. Liang doesn’t like what she believes to be a negative Asian stereotype? Perhaps her energy would be better spent opposing the negative stereotypes so popular today. I’d be curious to know if Ms. Liang and those who signed her petition would have been so actively engaged if, instead of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with its Mr. Yunioshi, the film was “The DaVinci Code”, with its evil monk?
Or if it had been any other Hollywood product of the last few decades that stereotype people of faith as evil and/or ignorant? Or perhaps this latest publicly funded “art” exhibit:
During budget debates few months ago, Jesse Jackson, Jr., beating the drum of “The Republicans want to kill old people and starve children”, stated that one of the reasons he opposed defunding Planned Parenthood was that it would prevent his constituents from having access to abortions. This, to me, was a jaw dropper. If that isn’t a negative stereotype I don’t know what is – a largely black constituency dependent on Federal money not for food or shelter or medication but for an end to one more black life in a community already decimated by abortion. Anybody closely watching Stepin Fetchit’s sly shambling and mumblings realizes that Stepin rarely actually Fetchits. He usually wins, frustrating his “opponent” into doing it themselves. He outsmarts the white “master” time and time again. I can’t for the life of me understand how Mr. Jackson’s constituents win by acting out his stereotype:
I suppose I'm a racist: I laugh at the antics of both Perrys, understanding the whole time that they are masters of manipulation who are actually running the show. That Lincoln Perry found it necessary to build a specific type of character in order to become successful in a white world can be reflected on as a cautionary tale about forcing people into specific molds before we accept them. And the furry Perry who lives in my house still looks like a million dollars to me.