Thursday, October 16, 2014

People Don't Change

Listening to Morning Edition today, I heard a clip about the preview, at Harvard, of a new film entitled Dear White People.  Film sounds pretty good, if it gets to California I might go see it. But what blew me away started with this quote, from Shereen Marisol Meraji, of the NPR Code Switch team (emphasis mine):
The character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero? Lionel Higgins. He's a gay sci-fi nerd with an Afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. But when he gets word of a party where white students in blackface are eating watermelon and mocking hip-hop culture, he goes to the Black Student Union.
A little later in the interview, the director, Justin Simien, said that he put that party in, and then removed it from the next version of the script, thinking it was "over the top."  A few months later, there was a string of actual blackface parties, at campuses all over the country - to which Simien said, "Got it, Universe."

Why does this crack me up?  My undergraduate major at Cal was - English.  In my senior year I took an honors course in 18th century English literature.  I specialized in Jonathon Swift, but you can't study that period without dealing with Alexander Pope.  What does Alexander Pope have to do with blackface parties in a movie?  This:

In 1738, Pope published an anonymous (but everyone knew who wrote it) dialog called Epilogue to the Satires, or, Satires, Epistles, and Odes of Horace Imitated.  The full text is available at Bartleby if you're interested, but this is the quote:
Vice with such giant strides comes on amain,
Invention strives to be before in vain;
Feign what I will, and paint it e’er so strong,
Some rising genius sins up to my song.
In the 21st century we say, "You can't make this stuff up."  Satirists beware:  in the 18th century, Pope knew:  you can't make something up so stupid that someone, somewhere, won't try it.

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