Slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”

By: Nikole Darnell

At first glance, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) is incredibly daunting. At 1024 pages, people will often pass over it in favor of something shorter. However, those who decide to take on the challenge of reading the whole book are certainly in for an incredible story.

When I was young, I fell in love with the beautiful dresses the Southern belles wore and the parties they went to and their various dances. I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara: men wanted her and women wanted to be her. Nothing stood in her way: not Yankees, not Carpetbaggers, and certainly not that “scallywag” Rhett Butler. As I grew older, I began to appreciate Margaret Mitchell’s writing style and the way that the book made me feel on an emotional level. My heart began to break for Scarlett because of all the challenges that she was forced to overcome at such a young age.

Saucy Scarlett (Image Source)

Saucy Scarlett (Image Source)

Yet, I also began to think beyond the character of Scarlett O’Hara and the people around her who weren’t given nearly as much of a voice: her slaves. The book clearly presents a romantic view of the Old South and also unfortunately glorifies slavery. One can hardly think about Gone with the Wind without thinking of the old south and all that goes with it—slavery included. Although the major plantation owners in the book all own slaves, the issue of slavery is hardly even addressed. Gone with the Wind follows the notoriously vain Scarlett O’Hara and her adventures in the south during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Slaves are present throughout the pages, but don’t play a major role in the story. In fact, even though the novel is well over a thousand pages, the word “slave(s)” only appears 82 times. It seems to me that a book that takes place in the Deep South during the 1860s would focus largely on slavery, but this isn’t the case. The purpose of Gone with the Wind is to follow the life of a young girl who grows up during this time period.

Scarlett O’Hara is more concerned with her romantic life and money than with the changing social and political environment around her. Even after Union soldiers had damaged Tara, her beloved plantation, Scarlett only worries about finding someone to marry so she can have access to his money. She stops at nothing to get what she wants and even goes as far as stealing her sister’s wealthy boyfriend. But something I find even stranger than Scarlett’s ignorance of the world around her is the way the slaves, particularly Mammy, regard the family.

While Mammy is not considered a main character in the novel, she plays a pivotal role in the progression of the story since she raised Scarlett and her sisters. We never learn Mammy’s real name; that is the title given to her when she was gifted to Mrs. O’Hara as a girl, and that is what she is called throughout the novel. Mammy serves as a nurse and caretaker to the O’Hara children, and this implies a faux-maternal relationship. The name “Mammy” is eerily close to the word “Mommy.” Scarlett and her sisters often regard Mammy as a second mother, and yet she is considered their property. Despite being owned by other humans and being stripped of her name, Mammy is as loyal to the O’Haras as can be. She even goes as far as to order the family around, as she commonly does with Scarlett: “It had always been a struggle to teach Scarlett that most of her natural impulses were unladylike. Mammy’s victories over Scarlett were hard-won and represented guile unknown to the white mind.” The other slaves in the book are not nearly as bold as Mammy and would never dream of standing up to the O’Haras. This difference is most likely due to the faux-maternal relationship Mammy has with the family, and Mitchell implies that Mammy can boss the family around and get away with it, even though she is considered to be an object. Mitchell also implies, in a racist manner, that African-American women have a kind of “guile” that allows them to manipulate those under their care. Adding to this racist fantasy, Mitchell further suggests that Mammy doesn’t find anything wrong with being owned by another human being. Ironically, neither do any of the other slave characters.

The novel also engages with the issue of slavery in other respects. At one point, Scarlett’s father can be heard complaining about how the Yankees want to take his “darkies” without compensation. Even Ashley Wilkes, arguably one of the more noble characters of the novel, has the following exchange with Scarlett:

“I can’t make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.”

“But you owned slaves!”

“They weren’t miserable. And besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them.”

Ashley states that his slaves weren’t miserable, as if there were nothing wrong with a human owning another human at all. Here, Ashley is insinuating that his slaves don’t mind being owned because “they weren’t miserable.” Incredibly racist passages such as these can be off-putting to readers. It is enough to make someone cringe by merely suggesting that it’s all right to own slaves as long as they aren’t unhappy. This idea is, of course, absolutely absurd. You can be kind to someone, but once you have ownership of them, every kind act you do to them is irrelevant. You cannot own someone and still believe that you have their best interests at heart.

Rhett Butler (Source Image)

Rhett Butler (Source Image)

In spite of all this, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is by far my favorite novel. While it is true that its pages are filled with racial intolerance and ignorance, it is also a powerful coming of age story about a strong, yet incredibly self-centered, woman in the southern United States. Scarlett O’Hara is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and while she manages to make quite a few enemies, she is also loved by many. I often feel guilty about claiming Gone with the Wind as my favorite novel because, at times, it can be appallingly racist. Because it provides us with a romantic view of the Old South in the 1860’s, it also, unfortunately, provides an interesting insight into racist depictions of slavery through its portrayal of African Americans. The film version of Gone with the Wind portrays the slaves as happy-go-lucky people with no drive or desires of their own who don’t mind being enslaved. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. When watching the movie or reading the book, one should definitely keep an eye out for the contrasts between reality and fiction. As a child, I enjoyed this story and loved it at face value—I saw only a story about a strong central female character and her challenges. As an adult, I am able to see that the novel is about so much more.

When reading the book through a lens that considers issues of racial prejudice, it becomes an entirely new story, one that forces us to confront the ugly realities of American history. However, the book still has plenty to offer and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it has unfavorable subject matter. It’s true that the story features slavery—something totally abhorrent—but it also has an impressive narrative structure and strong, developed characters. This juxtaposition of both excellent writing and horrific racism truly makes Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a novel worth reading and thinking about for anybody interested in the interconnections between great literature/storytelling and the history of slavery.

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Works Cited

Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind. Australia: 2002. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. N.p. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200161.txt

First Impressions: A Visual Analysis of the Introductory Portion of The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s “From Slavery to Freedom” Exhibit

By: Isabel Vazquez

Impressions are meant to do precisely what the word implies, that is, to impress, to fascinate, and excite in a manner that would be entirely unforgettable. From the moment I approached the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, it certainly was impressive. The trip took place on February 7 and was arranged through my immersive Digital Literature Review class at Ball State University by Dr. Adam Beach, in order for the students to better understand the implications of slavery throughout history. At the entrance of the museum there was a piece of the Berlin Wall right before I entered, with a sign declaring its historical importance. The piece of the wall was covered with graffiti in brilliant colors placed there by many who were eager to express their opinions on the west side of the wall, no doubt. The fact that the piece stood there, right before entering the museum, was, to my mind, indicative of the historical implications that the rest of the museum would ask me to consider.

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Sorrowful Expressions (photo taken by author)

I began on the third floor, as recommended by guest services. The moment I entered the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit, there was a definite change in the mood. On my immediate right, there was a prominent collection of statues in the corner, which consisted of slave men with sorrowful expressions on their visages (see image to the right). They were all sitting, chained, and each displayed a different emotion that, truthfully, was quite shocking and heart-wrenching to gaze at. The detail on them was amazing, so much so that you felt you were intruding into something personal. Some of these figures depicted in the statues were in the midst of crying, some staring quietly in the direction that you entered, and some gazing at the ground in utter defeat. The background surrounding them was of a simple house with a dirt floor, as if they had just been forced off the boat and locked in to prevent escape. There was even hardened sand with detailed shells embedded in it, and quiet sounds from the beach softly playing from hidden speakers and depicting the arrival of newly-brought slaves. The entire beginning of this particular exhibit was created with an immersive experience in mind. There was a prominence, a sort of hushed feeling that surrounded anyone who began the exhibit.

Without a doubt, this entry into the exhibit was meant to forcibly shock you into the history of slavery. From the moment I entered, I felt very much the intruder, and even uncomfortable. Though some people may argue that such an imposing entry is uncalled for, this is exactly what the exhibit was aiming to do. The history of slavery and its implications are not exactly a topic that can be sugarcoated to future generations. The raw introduction to this exhibit was done perfectly and appropriately in that it embodied the beginnings of slavery.

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Facts and Figures (photo taken by author)

Past the statues there was an immediate onslaught of information covering the exhibit walls. There were fine facts and information about the transatlantic slave trade as well as recreations of newspaper articles on slavery issues. A multitude of other modes that conveyed information completely covered the path of the exhibit: posters,

drawings, objects, headlines, artwork, etc. A lot of interactive and computerized stations were placed throughout the exhibit, intended for use by both children and adults. There was also a notable area dedicated to showcasing the reasons behind slavery in connection to sugar and coffee production. As you moved throughout the exhibit, there was this unspoken idea that you were moving throughout time as well. Objects used by slave-owners were on display, such as shackles, whips and chains.

It is truly a powerful thing to see such objects in the context of the museum, in the heat of the moment. Often, you read about these experiences and events in history books, but never do you truly engage personally with any of it. The museum wonderfully displayed this dark theme to its visitors, in showing the power behind this tainted history in a way that made me self-aware of its implications today with an overload of information. The incredible amount of information was intended, in a sense, to overwhelm the guest in order to hopefully make a connection, an impression. And the layout of the exhibit was easy to follow, the fluidity of it modern. Yet, the lighting for the entire exhibit of From Slavery to Freedom was almost antiquated at times, throwing shadows and different connotations, depending on which part of the exhibit you were in. The entrance was noticeably brighter, for example, while, as I delved further into the exhibit, the light changed depending on the particular part of history that was being represented.

The reason for the drastic change in lighting was a means for presenting the history through vision. The brightness of a room can deeply affect the emotions associated with the lighting, and this subtle change from start to finish in the exhibit allows for the mind to unconsciously view certain parts of it in a particular way. For example, the statues at the beginning were not brightly lit; rather, they had shadows and multiple lights illuminating them to create a dreamlike state. The informative portion of the exhibit directly after the statues was even darker in terms of light, creating a personal, sort of heavy-lidded smaller space that seemed to entrap me with its implications of slavery. This form of presenting the material is important in order to gently guide visitors through the rather naturally morbid topic.

Colors of the Sea

Colors of the Sea (photo taken by author)

Specifically, there was this one curious room that was noticeably dark, with enough light to just barely see. The room was surrounded by stone-material inscribed with the names of past slave forts. In the mist of this ebony room was a stunning pillar that emitted light from it. The surface of the pillar, however, was covered in brilliant, tiny rocks of sea colors (see image to right). Shades of blue, green and yellow were wonderfully fixated on its glass surface, making for a stunning monument to the essence of slavery while “Amazing Grace” was playing in the background. However, some guests might disagree with my perception of it. Some of my fellow classmates, upon discussing the museum later on, mentioned how they viewed the room as personally offensive and rather eerie. This same pillar that moved me to recognize the horrid history of slavery disturbed others because of its presence.

This reaction shows precisely the power behind the visual design in general, especially within the framework of slavery. The lighting, different modes of presenting slavery, and the fluidity of the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit ultimately contributed to the essential importance of the history of slavery and to the visitors’ recognition of its modern existence. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center did an incredible visual job in presenting slavery; not only do I applaud this museum, but I look forward to returning.

Proper Punishment?: “Sankofa” and the Politics of Punishment

By: Morgan Aprill

Sankofa (1993) is an independent film that, as director Haile Gerima explained, sought to reconnect African Americans with their forgotten pasts. Gerima’s film follows an African-American model named Mona as she is transported back in time to a slave plantation in the Western Hemisphere. The exact location is unclear, but the film works to encourage African Americans to connect to their ancestral past as the main character Mona is forced to literally relive life as a slave. The film also centers on the African slaves on the plantation who plan a rebellion against their captors, something quite unique among many other films about American slavery (recent films Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave both include a white savior).  Gerima used his film to call African Americans to action and to reclaim their past to strengthen their present existence via an emphasis on their African heritage, and he was unafraid to address issues that Hollywood would not. However, the director’s motivations are questionable when we look at his execution, especially when it comes to Mona and the initiation of the storyline.

Haile Gerima has repeatedly stated that his vision was to create a film that brought back to life the struggles of African-Americans’ past.  For example, in an interview with Diane Turner and Muata Kamdibe, Gerima said that “[he] needed to do a film on the silent violence against the children of Africa because they were created in Africa” (974). In other words, he saw many African Americans who were not talking about the violence in their ancestral past and believed this needed to be changed—even enforced. An African man himself, he seemed particularly concerned with what he saw as African Americans distancing themselves from the violence of their collective past. Gerima particularly wanted African Americans to realize their need to accept their African heritage, as he portrays through Mona’s transformation. Gerima believes reliving the past is essential.

I think it is important to criticize Gerima’s shaming of African Americans. His belief that many are in denial and not African enough gives off an aura of superiority. He resembles his own guardian character who forces Mona to relive a traumatic history whether she likes it or not. Mona loses her own agency and is punished for acting in accordance with the society she saw around her—one that values physical appearance and immediacy. Is her punishment based on her irreverence for the slave castle where she is doing a photo shoot? Or is it perhaps heightened due to the sexual nature of the shoot on the beach as the photographer commands her: “Let the camera do it to you, Mona”? How would this film be different if it was a male model who was at the castle? Would a male model be punished so severely for posing in a provocative way on the beach near the slave castle? It seems like something is going on here relating to the policing of black women’s bodies and their sexualities. Mona seems to be punished for her assimilation into American culture as a model for the fashion industry and one who shouts to her captors, when transported in time, that she is “not an African!”

Mona also seems to be punished for allowing her sexuality to be exploited for profit through the sexy photo shoot. Yet there are many images of her naked body and her rape within the film itself. The line between exploitation/voyeurism and a justifiable forced remembrance of sexual violence is pretty hazy in Sankofa. While Mona is showing control of her sexuality as she models on the beach, once she is transported back to the slave plantation, we see her bare breasts as she is stripped naked and branded; we see her fully naked at the end of the film; and we see sex being used as a punishment as she is raped repeatedly throughout the film by her master. It’s almost as if Gerima is suggesting that asserting your sexuality as a black female should be shameful because of how many were raped and abused sexually during American slavery. There is a sexual shaming evident in Mona’s sentencing to relive slavery. How is that reclaiming anything for women who were tortured sexually and made objects during the history of American slavery?

The fact that Mona is sent back to experience the trials of slavery without a choice seems hasty and sexually charged. Is it her fault that she just did what helped her succeed as an African American woman in her career path? Gerima seems to think societal pressures and stereotypes are not an excuse, and that it’s more important for blacks to emphasize an Afro-centric identity. Using an old castle for a photo shoot that once held slaves who were deported to the Americas does have a blatant feeling of disrespect. If Mona had been posing in homage to those who were shackled and sent to the Americas from that location, perhaps the guardian would have looked on Mona with more respect. It seems the issue comes with the cameraman’s appeal to Mona to be sexy in her photos. There is a time and place to be sexy, the guardian and Gerima seem to say, and the castle of your ancestors is not one of them. However, the offense that Mona seems to be committing is hardly worth such harsh punishment as branding, whipping, rape, and torture. Could not the guardian have given her a stern lecture instead? Ultimately, Sankofa was an important and groundbreaking film, but it still carries questionable ethics and politics when it comes to its overall plot and execution. In this way it is hardly successful and actually fairly problematic when we consider these issues of gender and sexual violence in slavery.


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Work Cited

Turner, Diane D. and Muata Kamdibe. “Haile Gerima: In Search of an African Cinema.” Journal of Black Studies 38.6 (2008): 968-991. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

“Sankofa” and Us: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward

By: Niki Wilkes

The critical reception of the 1993 film Sankofa, especially from those with an academic interest in the field of slave narrative studies, has made it a significant member of slavery film canon. To teach a film study class on slavery without including Sankofa would be like teaching a nineteenth-century British Literature class without mentioning Jane Austen. Over its twenty years of existence, the film has sparked both conversation and controversy, most of which surround the concept of “sankofa” and whether Gerima’s exploration of the topic can transcend his intended audience to give a commentary on contemporary global issues related to slavery.

Sankofa is the story of an African-American supermodel named Mona doing a photo shoot in Ghana who is sent back in time by an angered African holy man to experience slavery so that she can better understand her forgotten roots. The film’s director, Haile Gerima, explores through her journey an ideology called sankofa, which means, “to retrieve the past to move forward” (Dorsey par 1). This film has a particular interest in exploring how the characters actively pursued the ideals of sankofa. Through Mona’s character, the audience sees the benefits of this idea by experiencing her fear-turned-admiration for the African holy man, which was Gerima’s way of portraying the change he wanted African Americans to make in regards to appreciating their heritage and understanding their roots.

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Caryn James found this transformation to be a powerful one, well-represented in the film. Mona starts out, as James explains in his article, “dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blond wig,” evidently showing the audience that she has lost all ties to her past, despite being in her home country (par. 3). Berlatsky goes on to point out in his article, “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today,” that Mona’s fear of her past is made more evident when they go to the castle and Mona encounters the holy man for the first time. This occurred just after the beach photo shoot scene where a white photographer is making explicit commands to “let the camera do it to you.” Despite the evident sexual objectification, Mona runs to hide behind the photographer when the holy man frightens her with the message of sankofa in a language she does not understand. Berlatsky also points out that when she enters the past, she denies her heritage by shouting “I’m not African. I’m American” (1). This is a stark contrast to the end of the movie, where Mona symbolically shows the level of her transformation by listening and approaching the drumming of the holy man and ignoring the voice of the white cameraman (Berlatsky 2). This is a powerful expression of sankofa’s transformative property, which was intended to shock African-American audience members so that they would begin to strive to understand their roots.  For other viewers, who may not have that direct heritage, Mona’s journey still shows how truly diving into the pain and suffering of past slave victims makes returning to the life of blissful ignorance impossible.

Nijla Mumin also praises the film for the work it is doing to give the audience a new type of narrative. She explains that, unlike most films about slavery, Sankofa has no “white savior.” The concept is common in slave stories where the slave must be saved from captivity by a benevolent member of the non-slave class. According to Mumin, Gerima removes slaves from “out of the one-dimensional, passive, ‘victim’ role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories” (par. 3). This idea is supremely important to the concept of sankofa because it requires the person to take an active role in reclaiming themselves.

Sankofa gives audience members the other side of a slavery narrative, which shows how a slave can regain his or her agency. Deeper than that, however, is that the film shows that we are all connected to the roots of slavery. Gerima focuses on African slavery in the Americas, but Mona’s journey can figuratively be our journey as well. Slavery has touched every corner of history and the globe, meaning that we are connected to the institution in one way or the other. We can be both ancestors of slaves and slaveholders. We can also be possible victims or current perpetrators of modern slavery. Films like Sankofa show us that being directly and powerfully exposed to the harsh realities of slavery is sometimes the only way to wake us up. While we will never be forced into the extreme circumstance of Mona, many of us are personally shocked into advocacy by past narratives of slavery. We must look back to move forward.


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Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.

Dorsey, John. “Sankofa: Past Is Prologue.” The Baltimore Sun. n.p., 28 Sept. 1995. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

James, Caryn. “Sankofa (1993) Review/Film; Reliving a Past of Slavery.” New York Times. 8 April 1994. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.

Mumin, Nijla. “Sankofa Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)” Indiewire. n.p. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.