Believing is Seeing: Amazing Grace, the Confederate Battle Flag, and Judy Garland in Black Face


In 1938, sixteen-year-old Judy Garland had already been under contract to MGM for three years, and the studio was just figuring out how best to use this diminutive young woman with a big voice. The answer seems obvious in retrospect: create roles in which she played a diminutive young woman with a big voice, as in the Andy Hardy movies and of course most memorably in the Wizard of Oz. On her way to the Emerald City, Garland starred in Everybody Sing!, a combination family comedy/backstage musical in which Garland played a character also named Judy, the daughter of a playwright and a theater actor. Against her parents’ wishes, Judy decides to audition at a local nightclub, singing in a “jazz style” that wins her a job. The audition scene, however, is disturbing to watch, although the logic of the movie assumes otherwise. Take a look:

Watching this clip in 2015, it’s hard to pay attention to Garland’s musical performance when we are confronted with the astonishing sight of Judy in blackface, wagging her finger and using a burlesque version of black speech. In the classroom, a clip like this always leads to the same question: couldn’t audiences see how offensive this was? The short, and too easy, response would be some version of “well, people didn’t think this was bad back then,” or “things were different back then.” The notorious example of The Birth of a Nation, however, complicates this belief, as large number of Americans, and not only African Americans, protested against that movie’s racist portrayals of black characters by white actors in blackface. The historical evidence clearly tells us that there were audience members in 1938 who would have seen Garland’s performance as troubling and racist.

But maybe that’s the real question we have about this clip, and it’s really a question at the heart of thinking about the history of movies in America: what did audiences see when they watched Everybody Sing? If you were take aback at all by the clip, that suggests that while you and an audience member from 1938 who enjoyed Garland’s performance may have focused your eyes on the same series of images, you each saw something very different, which brings me to the title of today’s blog entry–believing is seeing—and it’s connection to the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

In his remarkable eulogy—a funeral sermon, really—for the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, President Barack Obama took as his main text the hymn “Amazing Grace,” focusing on the lines, “I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see.”

As a result of God’s grace, the president said, the hate-filled act of a racist gunman had acquired a redemptive power that was bringing the country together in revulsion at both the killing of nine members of the Emanuel church community and also the legacy of race hatred and white supremacy that motivated the killings. As the president put it, paraphrasing the hymn, “[God] has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind,” and he used as his specific example the remarkable and remarkably rapid series of events that were leading to the removal of the stars and bars—the Confederate battle flag—from government buildings, public displays, even from the shelves of Wal-Mart and the virtual shelves of Amazon: “For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.”

So here’s the question raised by these events and the president’s powerful oration: why were we blind for so long? And while we’re at it, why do we suddenly see this pain now? To me, the case of the Confederate flag raises the same questions about seeing and believing as the clip from Everybody Sing!: how could people not see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, as a symbol of race hatred? And many of these usual answers to this question mirrored the quick responses to Judy in blackface: “not everyone sees it that way.” The signs carried by supporters of keeping the flag flying above the South Carolina capitol grounds declared that the flag was about “heritage not hatred,” but the signs themselves admitted that those carrying them were well aware that many did see the flag as a symbol of hatred. (And just as a matter of practical advice, if you find yourself constantly having to insist that a symbol you’re wearing is not about hatred, you might want to reexamine that symbol).

Reactions to both the Garland clip and the Confederate battle flag remind us that when it comes to perception, we all see what we believe or want to believe. For those who believe in white supremacy and see the world in terms of racial hierarchies, it’s not surprising that they see the Confederate flag as a symbol of those beliefs. But there are also those of us who might recognize the racism of Garland’s performance and of the Confederate flag, but who also want to believe they are ultimately harmless, or at least as not reflective of an ongoing systemic problem of injustice and violence. The blood spilled in the Emanuel church, however, changed what many Americans, including members of the South Carolina state legislature, saw when they looked at the battle flag, because the shocking nature of that event shook their belief that the most toxic effects of racism were behind us.

In 1939, the year after Everybody Sing! appeared, Judy Garland starred in The Wizard of Oz, her most famous of her many famous roles. That same year, Gone With the Wind also debuted, a movie filled with images of the Confederate battle flag and telling a story of a “heroic” slave owner named Scarlett O’Hara. David O. Selznick, the producer, anxious to avoid the controversy that still followed The Birth of the Nation, worried about the use of what we have come to call the “n-word,” and decided to eliminate it from the shooting script.

David O.Selznick with the stars of Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh.
David O.Selznick with the stars of Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh.

Even in 1939, Selznick knew that his movie would be endorsing a view of the Confederacy—a way of seeing the history of race and slavery—that he wanted to appeal to a variety of beliefs about American history, including the belief that the war was safely behind us, that nostalgia about the old South was romantic and harmless, and that watching a young white woman from Kansas in blackface was now just innocent fun. As President Obama suggested last week, the events of history can have a way of jolting those beliefs and changing the ways we see, not just the Confederate flag, but also the collective visual memory that is American movie history.