After weeks of plague and protest, I’ve been looking forward to catching up with loved ones over this Fourth of July holiday weekend. One relative organized a gathering at her house, and a few of us were hashing out the details this week in a group text message.
But somewhere between “what time does the party start?” and “who’s bringing the potato salad?” was a quip that one family member immediately labeled as racist.
“Well,” snapped another relative, “what isn’t these days?”
The remark that prompted debate was a reference to Buckwheat, an African American character in the “Our Gang” comic film shorts that became the popular television series “The Little Rascals.” Filmed in the 1920s amid the Jim Crow era and syndicated in the 1950s, the sketches featured a rag-tag group of black and white neighborhood kids, whose antics simultaneously reinforced and lampooned racial stereotypes on both sides of the color line.
For all its slapstick comedy (producer Hal Roach was also behind the “Laurel and Hardy” films), the show was surprisingly sophisticated, and in recent years it has been the subject of scholarly study. In her 2015 book “Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals,” academic Julia Lee wrote that in the show’s world, “black and white children played together, went to school together, and got into mischief together. … For the Gang, Jim Crow was just another foolish rule meant to be broken.”
And break it they did, even creating their own version of the Ku Klux Klan — the “Cluck Cluck Klams” — and electing one of its black members, Sunshine Sammy, as the group’s “Most High Terrible Seccaterry.”
Renowned African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the foreword to Lee’s book, hailed the show’s black actors as “comedic geniuses” who helped “galvanize the assault on Jim Crow” by demonstrating that they were, in fact, “not only in on the jokes and pranks … (but) masters over them.”
Years later, black comedian Eddie Murphy reinvented the Buckwheat character on the comedy series “Saturday Night Live.” After a three-decade absence, he donned his costume again in December 2019 for a warmly received cameo.
But Buckwheat hasn’t always garnered applause. In 2010, Republican congressional candidate Corey Poitier, himself African American, likened then-President Obama to the character while denouncing that administration’s health care policy. Eight years later, former sales executive Daryl Robinson filed a lawsuit against Marriott Vacations Worldwide, asserting that he had been reduced to tears when a colleague used Buckwheat’s image to represent him in a team-building exercise.
Now, although I’d grown up watching both “Our Gang” and, to a lesser extent, “Saturday Night Live,” I hadn’t really considered until this text messaging incident just how complex and fraught a character like Buckwheat actually is. For some, he’s an example of gaining control over repressive stereotypes; for others, he’s a way of deepening divisions.
My first reaction would be (as I did in our text exchange) to classify him solely as the latter, but perhaps in the end he, like many other characters and icons we reference almost unconsciously, is both, and we need divine discernment (along with, as Gates and Lee observe, historical context) to judge and act aright.
Our task then is, as several Black Catholic leaders have noted, to do our homework. Philadelphia pastor Father Stephen Thorne and scholar Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt have each created reading lists that challenge us to question our assumptions about race, while inviting us to deepen our compassion and respect for all those made in the image and likeness of God.
If we take the time to research and reflect on racism, and to begin the hard and humbling labor of dismantling it, we will hopefully find that we can eventually celebrate a true Independence Day not only for our nation, but for humanity itself.
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