I learned to read at the age of five because of the tireless efforts of my grandmother who would spend hours teaching me how to sound out words and then sentences after working a full shift on a factory assembly line. There wasn’t much money to buy books and so all that we read came from the public library. Each Saturday we would get five new books. And the books that I loved the most were a series of tales about a mischievous monkey by the name of Curious George who had been “rescued” from his native Africa and taken to live in a big city by “The Man in the Yellow Hat.” I would check the same ones out over and again, never tiring of reading about George’s adventures. I was reminded of all this recently when I encountered the image above and the recent controversy it sparked in Marietta, Georgia.
By now you probably know the issue. Bar owner and ultra-conservative Mike Norman was selling the t-shirt displayed in the above photograph. When challenged that the image was offensive to African-Americans he recoiled, claiming that he was “no racist” and that he had simply “seen” a resemblance between Senator Obama and the monkey while watching a cartoon movie. In his words, “Look at him … the hairline, the ears, he looks just like Curious George.” According to Norman, the comparison to a monkey was simply coincidental. Watching Norman on CNN I initially considered the possibility that he was simply an uneducated redneck who really didn’t know how truly offensive and racist the image was. That assumption was quickly proven false when it became clear that Norman was a notorious local provocateur (one sign outside of his bar announces, “I wish Hillary had married O.J.; another reads “INS agents eat free”) and he later acknowledged that he understood the connection between the image and racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow South, averring, “this is 2008 … not 1941 in Alabama, so get over it.” But the question for me was whether someone could identify with the image of Curious George and not know that it was a racist image. Was my grandmother a racist because she had allowed me to develop a close attachment to Curious George in the 1950s? Was I?
The answer to these questions, I fear, is yes. Or at least a qualified “yes” with the acknowledgement that racism comes in many shades and that some are much easier to see (or to veil) than others. As an example that seems less obvious to the sight, consider columnist Kathleen Parker’s recent endorsement of those who “would be more comfortable with ‘someone who is a full-blooded American as president’.” Her argument is that politics is now driven by a “patriot divide” animated not by race or gender but by “blood equity, heritage, and hard-won American values.” And lest there be any confusion as to the target of her argument, she notes “Hillary has figured it out. And the truth is, Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to. She understands viscerally what Obama has to study.”
It is hard to know where to begin here. But surely it is difficult to imagine an appeal to “blood equity” that isn’t fundamentally racist at its core. And that one candidate can know America’s underlying core values “viscerally” while the other can only “study” it would seem to make the point. Or maybe, like Mike Norman’s claim that his comparison of Obama to a “cute” monkey was only coincidental, so too, perhaps Parker’s contrast is simply a matter of happenstance. But I think not. Norman, after all, is a caricature of himself, a local character that we might find in an episode of The Dukes of Hazard seeking out his fifteen minutes of fame; Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist whose reasoned missives are featured nationally as part of the Washington Post’s writer’s group. Norman, it would seem, is really just trying to make a buck by selling parodic t-shirts and beer to his local constituency, and so perhaps he has an excuse (i.e., racism sells, or as he puts it, “it’s my marketing tool”), but what is Parker’s excuse? I’m really curious to know.
Photo Credit: Thinh D. Nguyen/AP