Rochelle and the Movie The Butler

a7bb21a8e4abc30bf1684ed072af5605“I don’t see why people are upset that Paula Deen used the “N” word,” Rochelle remarked when she arrived for a recent interview.  “Black people use it all the time.”  I knew that, but it seemed to me that maybe Rochelle was too young and too uninformed to understand how that word had been used against her race years ago; how it is still used in that way by some.  There is a 38 year difference in our ages; we are of different races; we grew up in very different parts of the country in very different circumstances.  I was not sure my explanation would succeed in getting Rochelle to understand why some people were turning against Paula Deen.  I didn’t think Rochelle watched cooking shows, but she does occasionally watch the news.  Her television is always on in the living room, and Paula Deen’s troubles were all over the news programs and talk shows.

The movie The Butler was also all over the talk shows.  I asked Rochelle if she had heard about it and suggested we go see it the following week.  She would, of course, need to make sure her children were cared for.  As a single mother who has child care problems, going to the movies requires some serious planning.  She had not been to a movie theater in over 6 years, and it had been about that long for me, as well.  It was also not the kind of movie Rochelle usually watches when she rents DVDs. The Butler had received both good and bad reviews, but it does shows race relations in the United States through the somewhat fictionalized story of a Black man who had served as head butler in the White House during six presidential administrations.  It ends with Barack Obama being elected President of the United States.  Rochelle registered as a voter in 2008, and she has now voted twice for Barack Obama.  During both of his elections she was watching the news and asking questions. She hasn’t yet voted for anything except the office of President, but it is a start.  Not only might the movie explain something that I was finding difficult to explain, but it would be fun and time away from responsibilities

Scheduling the movie was tricky.  It was the beginning of the month, and Rochelle had responsibilities to her grandfather.  He has no car and needs to be driven to pay bills and buy groceries.  Her mother lives in another town but does come in for medical treatment and sometimes stays with the children after school; permanent after school care had not been settled yet.  Rochelle, of course, works at the grocery store.  She found a neighbor to care for the children for an hour, and then her mother could take over while we went to the movies one day the next week.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there were about 10 people in the theater.  The main female character, the wife of the butler, is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Rochelle was quite familiar with her.

I couldn’t tell if Rochelle was enjoying the movie while we watched it, but when the lights came up I noticed she had been crying.  I had, too, but was trying to hide it for some reason.  “I loved it,” she exclaimed.  “I want to buy this movie and not just bootleg it.”  Throughout the movie she would lean over and ask me “who’s the president now?”  The movie did put a cut-line in every time there was a change in administration, but it was easy to miss.  Rochelle’s next question was always “was he a Democrat?”

Rochelle had never heard of the Freedom Riders; she didn’t know white people had also fought for the rights of African Americans; she didn’t know about the sit-ins; she didn’t know about the Black Power movement; and she didn’t know that a President of the United States from her state of Texas had engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I am the age of her grandmother and started college in 1964.  Her grandmother and her mother were enmeshed in the continuing cycle of the culture of poverty and were mostly just trying to survive in 1964.  They didn’t vote then, and they still don’t today.  They lived on the Black side of a segregated town regardless of what city they lived in. They still do.  Life probably changed very little for them in 1964.  I came to this formerly Confederate state in 1969, and Black customers were still coming in the “colored” door of a BBQ joint I went to while the white customers were using the “white” door.  Not much had changed but the law.

“Do you see why the “N” word caused Paula Deen problems?” I asked Rochelle.  “Nigger was used by bigoted people.  People who were not happy to see integration happen.  White people who were not pleased to see Blacks get their rights and their vote.  Did you see the hate on the faces of the white people in the movie during the sit-ins?”  I asked.  “Yes,” she said.  I then told her something I had heard Oprah Winfrey say when asked why she didn’t like even Black people using the word among themselves or in rap songs.  “It was the last word many African-Americans heard when the rope was being tied around their necks,” Oprah had answered.

We drove back to Rochelle’s apartment.  “I’m going to buy it when it comes out,” she said again.  “I’m going to show it to my kids.”  I suggested they were too young now but might enjoy seeing it when they got a bit older.  “Wow, I never knew all that, but now I get it,” she said as she got out of the car.  For me, it was not a great movie.  Quite confusing at times, with too much history jammed into two hours.  Rochelle, however, loved it and now understood a lot more.  It was a very enjoyable afternoon for both of us.

Race, Nationality, and Geography

images-1Rochelle and I were talking about race, geography and nationality.  It began when she referred to some co-workers at the home for the disabled, where she had recently worked, as “those Africans.”  I asked where they were from and she said they were from Jamaica.  “Why don’t you call them Jamaicans?” I asked.   “I just call all of them Africans,” was her answer.  It was time for the interview to be over, but I brought the subject back up a week later at the next interview.  It seemed a good topic to cover on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Rochelle is 29, but she had been watching the news, and she did remember some of her history from school.  She vaguely knew what had happened 50 years ago, and why it was important.

“So, why do you call Jamaicans Africans?” I again asked.  “And what do you call your own race?” I added.  “Well, they have an accent, so I, we, just call them Africans.  I call myself Black,” said Rochelle.  I had a map of the world and we discussed where the countries were and a bit about the slave trade and colonialism.  “Why don’t you call yourself African-American?” I asked. I did explain that I was sometimes confused as to what to call what long ago was referred to as “the Negro race.”  Rochelle didn’t have an answer but did tell me how her 5-year-old son had recently discovered that some people called him black.  “I’m not black; I’m brown,” he had told his mother.  “He was thinking of the color of crayons,” she told me.  “He had just learned his colors in pre-school and now he was trying to figure out how he could possibly be black,” she laughed.  “Now he is confused.”  The map was on the table, so I asked what she called Asians.  “I call them all Chinese,” said Rochelle with a laugh.  There are a lot of Vietnamese where we live, and I asked if she even called Vietnamese people Chinese.  “I call them all Chinese because they have slanted eyes.  And I call all people who speak Spanish, Spanish, even if they can’t speak Spanish, like Bobbie.”  Bobbie had been a co-worker.  She has no accent and could be a mix of several nationalities or ethnic groups.  “She gets mad when I call her Spanish,” Rochelle told me, “but she’s Spanish.”  I asked Rochelle if maybe she didn’t like to be called “African-American” because she is an American and she doesn’t even know anybody in her family who has ever left Texas, let alone visited Africa.  “Yes,” she said, “I’m not African.  I’m American.  But I am Black.”

Rochelle has never been out of the state she was born in.  Geography is not something she knows a lot about.  When we were looking at the map of the world and talking about where different people who now live in the United States had come from, she seemed very interested.  “So if you don’t like being called African-American, the Jamaicans probably don’t like being called Africans, either, and the Vietnamese don’t like being called Chinese,” I suggested.  “Well, it is easier,” Rochelle said.  “I would like to travel somewhere else, though,” she told me.  “Maybe Louisiana.”  I remember after hurricane Katrina, Rochelle had only bad things to say about the refugees from Louisiana who came to our town.  People from Louisiana had a different accent from the ones that prevail in Texas; they did their hair differently; and they dressed differently.  The Black refugees were also often darker skinned.  “Yes, they are just different,” Rochelle had told me when we were working together back then.  I had told her she was prejudiced.  “People are often prejudiced when they don’t really know much about different cultures,” I had said.  Rochelle and I had talked about this now and again over the last eight years or so.  It was not a new topic for us, but in this interview we talked more in depth.

Our discussions on race will continue, but one thing we both were sure of when we finished the day’s interview: Rochelle’s 5 year old son was certainly correct.  He was not black.  He was brown.  The United States thinks of itself as a melting pot, and Binney and Smith, makers of Crayolas, had to discontinue the crayon color “flesh” from its mix a long time ago.  It was quite popular in the 1950’s and a real reflection of the times.  With luck, Rochelle will be following the Crayola company’s lead, and modernizing her terminology, as well.  It’s not that language creates racism, but it can certainly reinforce it and perpetuate interethnic insensitivity, even on the part of people who have suffered from both, themselves.