tranemonk

Racist lyrics in Mercer set?

133 posts in this topic

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs

Officially surpressed, but wouldn't you know it's on YouTube! Here's "Coal Black" for anyone interested. Great cartoon, but maybe offensive to modern viewers. Be warned!

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Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs

Officially surpressed, but wouldn't you know it's on YouTube! Here's "Coal Black" for anyone interested. Great cartoon, but maybe offensive to modern viewers. Be warned!

The "Rosebud" line is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a classic cartoon. It amazes me that Citizen Kane would be referenced by Bob Clampett around the same time that it came out! I typically associate Citizen Kane references/parodies much more with later decades.

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http://youtube.com/watch?v=Bi6hoSCHfw0

I consider this the high point of American animation -- particularly the "St. James Infirmary Blues" sequence -- but wonder if it would be considered racist today.

EDIT two hours later to make link work.

Edited by freeform83

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All due respect indeed to individual mileage, other views, etc., and I KNOW this is a subject that puts many of us on edge. I bought the Mercer set & I like his vocals & his songwriting, as I've said in the thread devoted to this & the Cohn set. The "Ugly Chile" song, when I heard it several days ago for the first time, did bug me--but not to the point of wanting to return the set or anything like that, because yeah, this crap does come with the territory. Easy for us white folk to shrug it off, though. Besides, as I & others have pointed out, Mosaic's included tracks like this before--but almost always with some sort of allusion in the liner notes to the racist content of said tracks. Because this ISN'T some Archeophone collection of "coon songs" (exactly, Alexander, I was going to bring those up even before reading your post tonight), where the whole point is to put across the history of blatantly racist music. It's a set of popular music with tinges of jazz from the 1940s--and being historical music as such, it should have some framing. Some good, g.d. framing of all sorts... you leave out mention of the commonality of black caricatures in the music of the time, you pass over something in silence and you risk condoning it. Historical context seems to me to be a BIG part of Mosaic's mission, so why drop the ball here?

Re: the bigger injustices out there, we’re talking about the Johnny Mercer Select, not the Roberts court’s decision that nearly overturns Brown vs. Board of Education or some such, because this isn’t the Politics forum. This isn’t copping out on other, more important issues, it’s simply addressing how any sort of historical reissue label should deal with racist content. And to say that the onus is not on them to frame it, but on all listeners & consumers to come fully equipped to deal with ANY such thing that springs out at them—caricatures of blacks, anti-semitism, etc.—is in my mind the immature, willfully-naïve attitude to take. Talk about growing up! We live in a society and culture all too often dominated by undercurrents of racial hostility. The whole topic is a volatile third-rail issue (as I think this thread proves). People riot & kill over this crap. To just act like people need to “get over it” (Eagles fans check your coats) is irresponsible, on all sorts of levels—morally, socially, and from a dirty old bottom-line business point of view. I think Mosaic’s clued into this across the board and just let this one slip through the cracks. To put something into context is NOT censorship. …that Mosaic acknowledge the problematic racial nature of the performance and then say, “But by golly, Johnny Mercer sings his a** off and therefore we decided to include it!” is a damn far cry from anything even close to censorship. (OTOH I still haven’t heard one compelling musical argument for why this track should’ve been included, when other Mercer sides from the same era were not--it’s not a “complete” set to begin with). And FWIW I don't see Tranemonk calling for a boycott here or a picket outside the offices in Stamford.

Not that it ultimately matters, but since it does seem to matter to some folks, if Harold Z‘s post is accurate, then a white songwriter added the provocative part of the lyrics in the 1940s.

The Chan films were pulled because Fox got all sorts of complaints from Asian-Americans. Do they need to "grow up" or "get over it" too?? Do the descendents of the racist, oppressive generations before them get to tell the descendents of those who were oppressed what they will and will not find offensive and intolerable?? WTF indeed!

Not much more to say, but the pattern here fits the pattern I see a LOT in this culture—something of a dubious nature is said or done, blacks/Asian-Americans/gays/Muslims/Jews/women object, white guys tell them they’re too sensitive & need to get over it. A pattern that happens over & over, actually. (And the spectre of numerous white posters telling a black poster to “get over it” because what he perceived as racism is, well, just him being oversensitive, or immature, or just somehow not as hip to history as the rest of us … uh, sets off all kinds of alarm bells with me. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it happen on a jazz discussion board, either—similar incidents at AAJ and Jazzcorner. Hey, this is OUR music now!) Sorry, but I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near to paying off the bad-karma bill that we ran up over the past several hundred years, to the point that we can say, “Uh, no need for integration plans, no need to take offense at racist content past or present…we’re all groovy now.” I know nobody here is saying that directly, or even thinks they’re saying it, but that’s what the underlying message ends up being. No, not every complaint of racism is necessarily valid, but I'd rather err on the side of caution, given the unholy things that have gone down in this country since Plymouth Rock landed on Malcolm X's ancestors. So if a poster in this community, a person of color, says, "You know, this really bothered me, I wish they would've framed this somehow," then I'm inclined to think he might be in the right. Love & respect to all who've posted in this thread--and I truly mean that--and I doubt I'll post in it again, though I'll almost surely read any responses. I'm never, EVER for shutting down a discussion... especially on a topic like this.

EDIT: I'm going to feature the Mercer Select later on this autumn--will post for anyone who's interested in hearing some more of the music. Won't be playing 'Ugly Chile" primarily because I don't hear anything of musical value or interest in it--unlike Sonny Berman & "Uncle Remus," which I will be playing on another program--and yeah, with some "introductory context."

Edited by ghost of miles

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I'm not saying that African-Americans (or any other group, for that matter) should "get over it." I'm saying that history is history and we ignore it at our peril. When I did my student teaching, I taught the novel "To Kill A Mockingbird." You'd be surprised how many students were ignorant of just how hair-raisingly ugly American race-relations were. They'd all heard about separate bathrooms and all that, but they had no idea just how dangerous it could be to be black in the American south during the early to mid-20th century. So in addition to Harper Lee's novel, we also studied the murder of Emmett Till. We listened to Billie Holiday performing "Strange Fruit" while we looked at real photographs of lynchings. Many of the students were disgusted. Some of them complained to their parents. When the parents called me up, their main complaints were twofold: 1) Their children (completely innocent, as they were, of the atrocities of the past) should not have to look at such disturbing things, and 2) that this is SUPPOSED to be an English class, not a History class. My response was, 1) that this is a part of our nation's history and that no one has the right to ignore it, and 2) that it is really impossible to understand Harper Lee's novel without understanding the stakes involved. It is necessary to understand how easily and casually many Southern whites beat and lynched blacks to understand the very real peril Tom Robinson faced. It had nothing to do with his trial (after all, Tom is innocent and he has the best lawyer in town representing him), but rather with the racisim ingrained in the social structure of Maycomb.

By all means, be offended by the casual racisim of America's past. But don't hide it. If you hide it, how are we to learn from it?

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I don't disagree with much of what is being said, but much of it seems irrelevant to the case in hand. Tranemonk paid $45 or so for an entertainment product. I can understand him being a little peeved about it including a white dude singing some arguably racist stuff about the ethnic group he (tranemonk) belongs to. I really doubt tranemonk needs to learn about our country's racist history from a Johnny Mercer song.

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I'd missed Harold Z's point earlier, and would like to retract my first statement on this thread. I hope I didn't offend tranemonk.

This song should not have been included on the set, as far as I'm concerned.

I appreciate the historical perspective presented here, my apologies for not reading more closely the first time.

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The Chan films were pulled because Fox got all sorts of complaints from Asian-Americans. Do they need to "grow up" or "get over it" too??

They need to make a compelling argument as to how Charlie Chan is a negative stereotype, and what entitles the National Asian-American Telecommunications Association to determine what classic movie fans may or may not watch.

For the most part, I put a lot more stock into complaints from people of color than from white people who are offended on their behalf (but not small organizations speaking for millions of people who are never polled, i.e. NAATA).

I consider myself an open-minded person. For what its worth, about 90% of the music I listen to is black music, and black American culture is one of my primary interests in life. I will refrain from attempting to list my "credentials" of racial sensitivity in some ridiculous effort to deflect further accusations of moral and social irresponsibility...

But I still believe there are times when fear of racial offensiveness bleeds over into close-mindedness, and this is one of those times.

All due respect, of course.

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Once again, I must reiterate that ignoring the past just so we can feel more "comfortable" in the present is a horrible fucking idea.

When I was a child my favorite stories were the Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus stories. These are widely considered to be "racist" these days and are often hard to find in stores unless you special order them. Hell, Disney still hasn't re-issued Song Of The South because of this. I must say that reading these stories as a 4 year old didn't give me any racist views whatsoever. As an adult wanting to re-visit these stories I was shocked when a lady at Tower Books told me they were only available by special order. She seemed offended by the fact that I even WANTED to own these works. I bet you $500 she never read one of them...she's just assuming they are bad because someone told her. That's what happens when you don't investigate shit for yourself, you end up ignorant and you increase the problem with every person you mention your false beliefs to.

When I was in my early twenties I became a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, got hooked on his stuff. There's ALOT of racist sentiment in his stories (not all, but it's a recurring theme). Being a sensible adult I realized this was due to the time it was written and I filed that information away appropriately. Did I stop reading his stories because of this? No. Because I was into them for their sci-fi/horror elements...not for the social commentary of a pathetic Anglophile with limited social skills.

If we don't have the perspective of the past...the TRUE past...not the "safe for general fucking consumption" version of the past...how are we supposed to really understand our place in society and how we came to where we are today.

And by the way...I don't consider myself a member of the "white" race. I'm a member of the human race. Period.

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All due respect indeed to individual mileage

Good post, David.

Edited by umum_cypher

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Not much more to say, but the pattern here fits the pattern I see a LOT in this culture—something of a dubious nature is said or done, blacks/Asian-Americans/gays/Muslims/Jews/women object, white guys tell them they’re too sensitive & need to get over it. A pattern that happens over & over, actually. (And the spectre of numerous white posters telling a black poster to “get over it” because what he perceived as racism is, well, just him being oversensitive, or immature, or just somehow not as hip to history as the rest of us … uh, sets off all kinds of alarm bells with me. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it happen on a jazz discussion board, either—similar incidents at AAJ and Jazzcorner. Hey, this is OUR music now!) Sorry, but I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near to paying off the bad-karma bill that we ran up over the past several hundred years, to the point that we can say, “Uh, no need for integration plans, no need to take offense at racist content past or present…we’re all groovy now.” I know nobody here is saying that directly, or even thinks they’re saying it, but that’s what the underlying message ends up being. No, not every complaint of racism is necessarily valid, but I'd rather err on the side of caution, given the unholy things that have gone down in this country since Plymouth Rock landed on Malcolm X's ancestors. So if a poster in this community, a person of color, says, "You know, this really bothered me, I wish they would've framed this somehow," then I'm inclined to think he might be in the right.
Excellent post, ghost.

FWIW, this type of of chatisement of people of color who dare to present their feelings about insensitivity is the main reason I rarely post on this board these days. I find it arrogant in the extreme to tell someone who has suffered racism how they should respond to it.

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Could anybody please check and clarify once and for all if Clarence Williams actually wrote the ENTIRE lyrics (as shown above) or only part of it and some of it was a later add-on by another (white?) author?

BTW. re- Ghost of Miles et al:

Taking Charlie Chan movies off the screens for the reasons indicated above is one of those things where you wonder where this is ever going to end. What's the next step going ot be, then? The 70s (80s?) Charlie Chan remake feat. Peter Ustinov being considered off-limits too for the very same reasons? Not that I would insist on seeing them that often (I remember seeing the late 30s Charlie Chan movies a couple of years ago and found the first ones mildly amusing and innocent fare of the day but the sequels were sort of cheap cash-ins on the same basic formula) but you can really carry things too far.

So what's gonna happen next? Take the "Thin Man" movies off the screen too because the only black actor(s) are found in servants' roles? Or is "Hellzapoppin" about to be blacklisted too because that FANTASTIC scene showing Slim & Slam, Zutty Singleton, Rex Steward (I think), etc. plus the entire Whitey's Lindy Hoppers troupe doing their sensational dance act are shown in servants' dresses and therefore highly stereotyped in a subservient role??

Sorry, but I find this kind of p.c. really silly and hope to God this never spreads to Europe to THAT extent. Real equality is obtained elsewhere but not through such symbolic acts dictated by overzealous p.c.

This is not to condone anything that went wrong in the past at all but how can you learn the lessons of the past if you refuse to be confronted with it and if you refuse to see things within the context of their times?

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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Could anybody please check and clarify once and for all if Clarence Williams actually wrote the ENTIRE lyrics (as shown above) or only part of it and some of it was a later add-on by another (white?) author?

BTW. re- Ghost of Miles et al:

Taking Charlie Chan movies off the screens for the reasons indicated above is one of those things where you wonder where this is ever going to end. What's the next step going ot be, then? The 70s (80s?) Charlie Chan remake feat. Peter Ustinov being considered off-limits too for the very same reasons? Not that I would insist on seeing them that often (I remember seeing the late 30s Charlie Chan movies a couple of years ago and found the first ones mildly amusing and innocent fare of the day but the sequels were sort of cheap cash-ins on the same basic formula) but you can really carry things too far.

So what's gonna happen next? Take the "Thin Man" movies off the screen too because the only black actor(s) are found in servants' roles? Or is "Hellzapoppin" about to be blacklisted too because that FANTASTIC scene showing Slim & Slam, Zutty Singleton, Rex Steward (I think), etc. plus the entire Whitey's Lindy Hoppers troupe doing their sensational dance act are shown in servants' dresses and therefore highly stereotyped in a subservient role??

Sorry, but I find this kind of p.c. really silly and hope to God this never spreads to Europe to THAT extent. Real equality is obtained elsewhere but not through such symbolic acts dictated by overzealous p.c.

This is not to condone anything that went wrong in the past at all but how can you learn the lessons of the past if you refuse to be confronted with it and if you refuse to see things within the context of their times?

George Brunis wrote the parody lyric (Ugly Chile) and recorded it for Commodore in 1943.

edit to add: In the "This Is Jazz" series on Jazzology (a jazz radio show from 1947) Brunis sings the tune and host Rudi Blesh announces the tune with a rundown on how Brunis parodied the original tune.

Edited by Harold_Z

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Indeed one more reason to add a sentence or two in the liner notes to provide some background info on this but certainly no reason to blacklist it forever.

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it's actually difficult to fully understand this stuff without some knowledge of the history of African American minstrelsy - for anyone, by the way, who needs to understand this WHOLE subject, the new book by Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott, Ragged But Right, is required reading - and I agree that, as Ghost indicates, one needs to be aware of the pitfalls of white arrogance -and sometimes PC is not a bad thing - considering that, unlike when I was a kid, we actually cringe these days at racist and anti-women jokes and misogynist expression and rape jokes etc etc. At the very least, this indicates a sensitivity that was sorely lacking in earlier parts of American history -

on the other hand...

black minstrelsy was a complicated and liberating force for African American performers, whose acceptance of its conventions (like those lyrics,) was not necessarily a surrender to white hegemony, but a complicated adjustment to a white-originated form that was created as both observation and imaginative adaptation of/to black culture. As we've learned, there was a lot in early white minstrelsy that was taken quite directly from black folklore, and certain kinds of musical ideas - like vocal with background instrumental comment - likely comes directly from minstrel shows. And minstrelsy itself had a complicated relationship to the travelling tent shows that exposed so much of America (particularly in the South) to African American music and culture in the beginning of this century and so had a revolutionary impact on the USA - in terms of format, musical approaches, stage business, exposure and dissemination, etc etc.

Lyrics like these, for better or for worse, come from this whole idea of show business and performance - so they need to be understood, yes, in context; that context, however, as Ghost indicates, is more than just performance but the whole Southern Jim Crow world of black/white relationships, which were both symbiotic and parasitic in both an artistic and economic sense -

but, as I said, you guys should all read Ragged But Right - a brilliant and illuminating (and expensive - $75) book - absolutely essential to discussing any of this -

Edited by AllenLowe

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Another voice heard on Charlie Chan:

By DAVE KEHR

Published: June 20, 2006

Charlie Chan, Volume I

In a medium founded on action, Charlie Chan remains one of the few heroic figures in American film to function proudly as an intellectual. Chan's adventures in ratiocination were first recounted by Earl Derr Biggers in a series of six successful novels and eventually in 47 films made from 1926 to 1949 (as well as in a few parodies and semi-parodies that came after).

This courtly detective -- an employee of the Honolulu Police Department on seemingly permanent leave -- stands as one of the best-loved characters in American movies, a tribute above all to the warmth and gentle humor that the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland brought to the role during his 1931-to-1938 tenure as Chan. (Sidney Toler, who stepped into the role after Mr. Oland's early death, continued very much in the Oland tradition.)

Twentieth Century Fox Home Video has released four of the first Oland films on DVD in the first volume of what you hope will be a complete set of that studio's Chan films. (After World War II, the franchise moved with much-reduced budgets to the poverty-row studio Monogram; MGM released six of those films last year.) The decision represents a reversal for Fox, which had once removed the films from Fox Movie Channel, apparently embarrassed by the European Oland's ''yellowface'' portrayal of an Asian character.

Are the Chan films racist? Not, I think, by the standards of their time. Mr. Biggers is said to have created Chan (based on a real detective, Chang Apana, who worked for the Honolulu police) to counter the negative images of Asians being fueled by the Hearst papers' ''yellow peril'' campaigns and embodied most repellently by Sax Rohmer's sadistic ''Oriental'' villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. Mr. Oland, a popular heavy of the silent era who played practically every ethnicity available (including, on occasion, a Swede), was the screen's first Fu Manchu, in the 1929 ''Mysterious Doctor Fu Manchu'' and three subsequent films for Paramount.

Recruited by Fox in 1931 for ''Charlie Chan Carries On,'' a film that is now lost, Mr. Oland seemed to spend the balance of his life and career making up for the excesses of the Fu Manchu character. In the Fox set, both ''Charlie Chan in London'' (1934) and ''Charlie Chan in Paris'' (1935) contain scenes in which Chan coolly and wittily dispatches other characters' racist remarks. Chan, whose huge intellect mysteriously did not extend to an ability to master English articles (''Joy in heart more desirable than bullet''), might have been a stereotype, but he was a stereotype on the side of the angels.

In addition to ''Paris'' (long believed lost) and ''London,'' the Fox box contains ''Charlie Chan in Egypt'' and ''Charlie Chan in Shanghai'' (both 1935), as well as ''Eran Trece'' (''They Were Thirteen,'' 1931), the Spanish-language version of the lost ''Charlie Chan Carries On,'' with the Spanish actor Manuel Arbó doing a careful Oland imitation in the Chan role. It's a reminder of the sad state of film preservation that three other early Chan films remain lost, though I'm at a loss to understand why Fox has not included ''The Black Camel,'' a 1931 film with Mr. Oland as Chan and featuring Bela Lugosi in a major role, which does exist.

The films have been restored from their once-familiar television syndication versions, and sound and picture quality is excellent, given the rarity and fragility of the original materials. The box set lists for $59.98; none of the films are rated.

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Here are some letters sent to Fox Movie Channel during the summer 2003 debacle:

I consider your cancellation of the Charlie Chan film series biggoted

and racist. By bowing to NAATA on "behalf" of all Asian Americans,

you are sending the message that FMC believes all Asian Americans are

therefore stereotypically identifiable with, and subscribe to the

extreme paranoia of, the hypersensitive race-baiters who inhabit that

organization. I find that astonishingly insulting.

If you believe all races can be stereotyped with the minorities of

race-mongering crybabies among them, then why not additionally bow to

the Ku Klux Klan and cancel all films featuring African Americans on

"behalf" of all caucasian Americans?

My response to you on this issue will be to cancel my subscription to

FMC until such time as it can comprehend that not all Asian Americans

are high-strung, hot-headed race-neurotics incapable of seeing past

obsolete, old-world stereotypical representations of their culture and

bodily characteristics.

In short, fuck you and the dehumanizing political correctness zombies

who've made you their salavating lapdog.

Well, once again the squeaky voice of Political Correctness rears its

ugly head. How many complaints did you get? Two? Three? How does that

measure against the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands,

of us who are enjoying the Chan, Moto and Rogers pictures immensely?

Coming from the same corporation that gives us Joe Millionaire,

Temptation Island, Bill O'Reilly and the New York Post, this is a

hypocrisy of jaw-dropping proportions. I hope you will reconsider this

foolish decision.

I tuned in to FMC tonight in expectation of enjoying another in this

summer's series of the restored Charlie Chan films, and after thinking

I must have somehow misread the schedule, I went to this web site to

discover that the series has been cancelled, apparently because of the

offended sensitivities of a vocal minority. As a film historian, one who

(coincidentally and perhaps ironically) specializes in the history of

Chinese films, I wish to express my strong disapproval of your decision to

cancel the series. This is not the place to discuss the

reasons behind this, or any minority advocacy group's protest of the

exhibition of anything it perceives as somehow demeaning,

but the fact remains, the Chan films are a part of our cinematic history (as

well as entertaining mysteries), and suppression of the

historical record -- of any field -- is a hallmark of a totalitarian

society, not a free one. In other words, these are the facts of how things

once were, deal with them and move on. I am very disappointed in Fox, which

I was starting to view as a complement to TCM, till

now the only television resource for the classic film buff.

Your cancellation of the Chan pictures is an outrage. I grew up on these films, and there is nothing patently

offensive in them that cannot be modulated by a little historical perspective. Chan was a brilliant character,

and despite Warner Oland NOT being Asian, the films gave outstanding work to many other Asian actors. To think

that Keye Luke will be unknown to a whole generation of Asian-Americans because they MIGHT be offended by Warner

Oland is a travesty. I submit to you that any average evening of Fox Network programming is ten times as

offensive to ten times as many people as the entire Chan cannon of films. I will not be watching your gutless

channel any time soon.

It is with dismay that I see you have relented to a small number of complaints and removed the

classic Charlie Chan movie series from your schedule. It is a shame when one cannot show

harmless old movies without quaking in fear about the possibility of offending someone. Many

movies show anachronistic themes like weak women, hostile indians and warlike solutions to

problems. The charm of some of these films is the appreciation of the distance between the

viewpoints suggested in them and those of our own supposedly enlightened times. To attempt an

Orwellian removal of our cinematic history does not work toward an informed audience but

promotes ignorance of our cultural progress. I will tell others of this sorry example and

suggest they tune elsewhere.

I was both disappointed and disgusted to see that your company had knuckled

under to the forces of political correctness in pulling the plug on the

"Charlie Chan" films.

Whether they are offensive to Asians or not is not for me to say. What I *can*

say as an American is that I'm not at all crazy about self-proclaimed special

interest groups telling me what I can see or not see.

If specific people find those films offensive, so be it. I find Bill O'Reilly

offensive, but I don't try to have him taken off the air. I simply exercise my

right to watch something else.

I know that there are a lot of fans of 1930s mystery films who will be bitterly

disappointed that Fox Movie Channel has caved in to pressure from a tiny

minority of activists who presume to speak for the entire Asian-American

community.

Please reconsider your decision. Or if not, you might want to think about

canceling your upcoming showing of "Zorro the Gay Blade," because I'm sure a

lot of my gay friends might take offense at such a bigoted portrayal of their

sexual preference.

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(And the spectre of numerous white posters telling a black poster to “get over it” because what he perceived as racism is, well, just him being oversensitive, or immature, or just somehow not as hip to history as the rest of us … uh, sets off all kinds of alarm bells with me.

David, in general I agree with the sentiment, but...

I don't think there have been "numerous white posters telling a black poster to 'get over it' " in this thread -- maybe two or three. (edit: I looked over the thread and found two.)

Most of the discussion in this topic fits into two categories: whether Mosaic should have censored the track or put a disclaimer, and whether the lyrics to this song really are racist once put into historical context.

Guy

Edited by Guy

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I think there's more room for agreement here than some of us might think. BigBeat Steve, re: your "blacklisted" comment, again I'd say that in the case of this Mercer recording, I think Mosaic should've provided some sort of critical justification within the body of the liner notes for its inclusion--as they have done with other tracks such as Woody Herman's "Uncle Remus Said." I'm guessing that the compacted size of the Select booklet may have been a factor (don't remember off the top of my head who wrote the notes, but many of the individual tracks do not receive commentary... as opposed to a regular Mosaic booklet, where every single one usually does). I want discussion, context, and history--not a "whitewash." What troubles me is the notion of throwing out historical artistic content that contains racism, underlying or overt, without any sort of framing or aesthetic rationale. Allen Lowe is spot-on in what he says above... and points like that, or Jim Sangrey's remark about Johnny Mercer's forays into faux-negritude, all give listeners some sort of sense of where Mercer was coming from in that performance. (Not to mention Harold Z.'s info re: what George Brunis did with the tune?) As the Mosaic booklet stands now, though, there's nothing at all there that I can see which alludes to any of this background. (I went through the booklet twice... possible I missed a reference to it, & if I did please let me know.) Myself, if I'd been the set producer, I would've been tempted to leave it out, since the set wasn't a "complete" one anyway, and since the track doesn't strike me as particularly compelling. But I'm not, I'm just a slightly surprised buyer who's sympathetic to tranemonk's reaction; I'll still be placing the Mosaic order I was planning to place next week, and I'm still going to feature the Mercer set on an upcoming program.

Re: the Chan films, I would still say I think Fox was right to accede to the wishes of Asian-American viewers... but I do not know all of the particulars (were they planning to broadcast the films with any sort of before-and-after discussion about why they had offended Asian-Americans so much, or about the general portrayal of Asians in 1920s/30s/40s cinema, and how difficult it was for Asian-Americans to find film work?). Seems like putting the films out on DVD was a very good solution--there's a similar sort of issue with the MR. MOTO films, which I've picked up on DVD in the past year. (And a similar discussion of how the central character in some ways functions as a positive image in the context of the film's era.)

This essay makes a decent case for the Chan series:

Charlie Chan: A Hero of Sorts

Posted By fletcher_chan On March 26, 2007 @ 3:37 pm In Movies, Biography, Essays | 5 Comments

Recently the Fox Movie Channel discontinued a festival of old Charlie Chan films, citing concerns about racial insensitivity. The network added that it has been made aware that the films “may contain situations or depictions (of Asians) that are sensitive to some viewers.”

However, a number of subscribers to the Fox Movie Channel, as well as others who are fans of the Chan detective mysteries deplore the “banning” as a form of censorship. The network had launched the series as their showcase, restoring and remastering the vintage films.

Asian-American activists have longed decried the Charlie Chan films for perpetuating racial stereotypes of Asians, especially Chinese-Americans, labeling the films “a painful reminder” of Hollywood’s racial attitude during the early decades of the 20th century. The Asian Law Alliance said the films were racists then and that they are still racist today.

On the other hand, there appears to be popular demand for the films as cult classics. Viewers strongly counter that Inspector Chan is always portrayed as a brilliant detective and a strong family man, in spite of the stereotypical image attached to the character.

The issue regarding the re-broadcasting of the Chan films will not go away. Somewhere there is a Charlie Chan festival being contemplated which will provoke a new round of protests. The Chan character is easy to parody and lends itself to caricature. Although fans of the old films have great affection for the Inspector, the stereotypic traits are easily observed.

Another element is the double-standard applied to Asian-Americans in relation to other ethnic groups. Derogatory terms like “Chinaman” and the exaggerated pidgin-English were used recently against Houston Rocket basketball star Yao Ming by other NBA players – white Steve Kerr and black Shaquille O’Neal. Both apologized for their remarks, saying they didn’t know it was racist. It’s not easy to separate thoughtless remarks from racism; such “gaffes,” made in jest, are not seen as anything terrible.

However, African-American syndicated columnist David Steele commented on the incident that as far as the broader community is concerned, “Asians exist in America solely to be made fun of stereotyped and caricatured.” There also is a sense that most Americans feel some cultural disconnect with Asians.

Sociologists have said that stereotyping is a kind of shorthand, the paring down of something we want to describe; all of us indulge it. When we don’t know much about something, we cling to the stereotype. As actress Diana Rigg said in her introductory remarks in a BBC Masterpiece Theatre mystery, we still have a “Chinatown of the mind” image, which conjures up something dark and foreign, not necessarily bad, but unfathomable.

Not so long ago, there was real discrimination against Asians, particularly on the West Coast. This was also reflected in the portrayal of Asians in early films. They were either Dr. Fu Man Chu’s, “Yellow Peril” villains, or at the other extreme, houseboys, cooks, and laundrymen.

Then, in 1931, a short, stocky middle-aged Chinese-American detective, created by Earl Derr Biggers, entered the movie palaces across the United States and a somewhat different view of Asians began to emerge. Inspector Chan investigated and arrested villains, mostly whites, for an overwhelmingly white American movie audience. The popular series, which ran through several Charlie Chans, including Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters, thrived for over two decades.

The image of Charlie Chan became part of the American popular culture; though now a bit tarnished, it remains so to this day. The Chan character was seen basically as friendly, self-effacing, and accommodating, an antithesis to the opium den image. The audience had fun with him, not at his expense.

An ethnic image is tricky, full of half-truths and snapshot attributes. In the Chan mysteries, there were moments where Charlie Chan had to confront and deal with the racial issue. In The Chinese Parrot, when an old Chinese caretaker at a ranch in the desert is murdered, the white ranch owner tells the sheriff: “Fortunately no one was hurt. No white man, I mean. Just my old chink, Louie Wong.” Inspector Chan turns sharply toward him and for a brief moment, his eyes blaze, illuminating the scene.

In Behind That Curtain, Chan is again confronted with his racial identity. In one scene, the San Francisco police captain Tom Flannery is dismayed to learn that he has to rely on Charlie Chan for a piece of evidence. When that evidence turns out false, he lashes out at Chan, berating himself for having listened to a “Chinaman” in the first place. He added: “You make me a monkey again and I’ll deport you as an undesirable alien.” However, in the final denunciation scene, Chan exposes the real culprit and says to Captain Flannery – “Perhaps listening to a ‘Chinaman’ is no disgrace.”

A further illustration of what it must have been like to be an Asian then occurs whenever Charlie Chan come to the mainland USA. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the law of the land and it was rigorously enforced. It was virtually impossible for an Asian to immigrate to the United States, much less to become a citizen. Chan has to establish his citizenship status all the time.

In one episode, one of Hawaii’s white aristocratic matriarchs, part of the territory’s powerful five white families who practically ruled the island in the early years commented to a compatriot: “He (Chan) always wanted to come to the mainland, so I‘ve had it all arranged – his leave of absence, his status as a citizen, everything.” Chan’s coming to the mainland depends entirely on her intercession. How does he feel about having another in higher authority vouch for him? This was never fully addressed in any of the films or books.

There are hints that author Earl Derr Biggers does feel it is an issue. In a book version Chan’s white police chief in Honolulu assures him that his passport and other immigration papers are in order to enter the mainland; he had wired ahead to spare Chan the embarrassment he might have encountered when his ship docked in San Francisco, It didn’t matter that he was a police officer; he was Chinese and that was enough. Chan acknowledged each situation stoically and went about his business. First thing first. Solve the case. This was in keeping with the Chan character at the time.

Paradoxically, during this same mid-to-late 30s period, the American audience became comfortable with Charlie Chan as he moved into the majority culture. What was it about him? Was it his ease of manner and quiet authority? Was he viewed as non-threatening? There is no doubt he appeared to soothe rather than inflame. The careful way with which Inspector Chan stepped into white society was strengthened in Charlie Chan Carries On in which he dances with the white heroine on a passenger liner.

“Pardon,” Chan announced to the couple on the promenade deck, “but this lady has next fox trotting with me.” He escorted her to a shadowy corner near the rail and told her that although he was delighted with her company, he’s there to ask a question. “Oh –and I thought I’d made a conquest,” she laughed. The scene produced no outcry, no backlash against Asians.

All those moments when Chan’s heritage was in play were handled in an understated matter-of-fact manner. Perhaps that was the only way Charlie Chan could have been presented then. The films, as well as the books, though stereotypic, were a big factor in softening the attitude of white Americans toward Asians. Inspector Chan was a hero and a goodwill ambassador of a particular period in time when Asian-Americans badly needed one. I think this is still true.

There’s also more to the Chan character that was ever revealed in any of the film versions. In the book The Black Camel, he was exhausted over the end of an emotional case that took a lot out of him. He asked an old Chinese servant at the pineapple plantation: “Tell me something, Wu. Why should one of our race concern himself with the hatred and the misdeeds of the haoles?” He continued: “I am weary. I want peace now. A very trying case, good Wu Chine, but as you know, my friend, a gem is not polished without rubbing nor a man perfected without trials.”

As a comparatively small ethnic group in America, Asian-Americans are still too fragile to discard any icon, no matter how old-fashioned or “politically incorrect” today. We’re simply not there yet; that is, not part of the mainstream. If we see Charlie Chan for what he is – a living relic from another period and a hero of sorts, perhaps in another generation or two, Inspector Chan might slay that dragon.

Original link from the California Literary Review here.

Edited by ghost of miles

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FWIW, I saw a lot of the old Charlie Chan movies on local TV in the early 1970s. At that time and place, there were virtually no Asian people, -American or otherwise, in our "real world" of teh Piney Woods of East Texas. But I was old enough and smart enough to see Hollywood stereotyping up front, and Charlie Chan got to be a hero of mine rather quickly. Why? Because I was very much an "outsider" in my environment the way that he was in his. He was always having to deal with people who thought him a "curiosity", as was I. He was always able to see through these people's bullshit a mile away, as was I. And he was always right in the end, as was I....sometimes. :g

Now, Number One (or whatever # it was) Son, that was kind of embarassing, but then again, it kinda made the point that assimilation into America at the expense of one's own Mother Wit maybe ain't such a good deal after all. Who's gonna argue with that? Not me.

So as far as I was concerned, Charlie Chan was a hip motherfucker, a "media persona" who gave me reassurance to go against my native environment and to be more than what was "expected" of me with the quiet assurance that to do less would be simply, fundamentally wrong.

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FWIW, I saw a lot of the old Charlie Chan movies on local TV in the early 1970s. At that time and place, there were virtually no Asian people, -American or otherwise, in our "real world" of teh Piney Woods of East Texas. But I was old enough and smart enough to see Hollywood stereotyping up front, and Charlie Chan got to be a hero of mine rather quickly. Why? Because I was very much an "outsider" in my environment the way that he was in his. He was always having to deal with people who thought him a "curiosity", as was I. He was always able to see through these people's bullshit a mile away, as was I. And he was always right in the end, as was I....sometimes. :g

Now, Number One (or whatever # it was) Son, that was kind of embarassing, but then again, it kinda made the point that assimilation into America at the expense of one's own Mother Wit maybe ain't such a good deal after all. Who's gonna argue with that? Not me.

So as far as I was concerned, Charlie Chan was a hip motherfucker, a "media persona" who gave me reassurance to go against my native environment and to be more than what was "expected" of me with the quiet assurance that to do less would be simply, fundamentally wrong.

AND notice how the people in the Chan films who mock him and make racist comments toward him are portrayed as the ignorant ones, as he ultimately proves by way of his own patience and intelligence. I watched Charlie Chan in Paris recently, and the guy who makes fun of his accent is clearly supposed to be a jack-ass.

As for Number One Son, I can remember at least one -- Charlie Chan in Rio -- where a white woman talks about how he is cute and wants to get with him, and this is actually shown in a positive light. This seems like a big deal to me, although it is never mentioned. All of the sons and daughters speak like first-generation Americans, and the reason they are less patient or intelligent is because they are Americanized (although there are rare occasions when one of the sons actually figures something out and helps with a clue). I think there is a lot of truth in this and have never viewed the sons or Number One Daughter as being particularly negative.

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I'll stand by my first post... As a consumer and as an African-American... I have a right not to be offended by a product... and thus... its' back at Stamford Ct....

I will note that it's interesting that some of the posts with the strongest and most intense views/beliefs/opinions... seem to come from those not offended by the lyrics....

And in the words of Stan Lee (before his not-so-subtle appearance in SpiderMan III) - 'Nuff Said!

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I'll stand by my first post... As a consumer and as an African-American... I have a right not to be offended by a product... and thus... its' back at Stamford Ct....

I will note that it's interesting that some of the posts with the strongest and most intense views/beliefs/opinions... seem to come from those not offended by the lyrics....

And in the words of Stan Lee (before his not-so-subtle appearance in SpiderMan III) - 'Nuff Said!

You have that right. But Mosaic has the right (and I would argue the obligation) to release said product. While an apology or explanation might be nice, I really don't think it's necessary...

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Sorry to say I did not take time to read more than about a third of the posts.

BUT

I think the "American goal" is a point where this shit doesn't matter.

I'm there, others aren't.

What a shame for those not there yet, but no blame.

I enjoy/appreciate LeRoi Jones poems about "knives twisting in the bellies of Jews", so why can't I accept a fine, white songwriter singing an "embarrasing" song by a black composer? AND the song was written before the "offended" person was born!

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Not sure that "not being offended" is a "right"...

Geez, if it was, I'd have sued half the motherfucking world by now! :g:g:g

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