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The Proof's in the 'Puddin': Plays, Prose and Connecting the Dots of Prejudice

 

I believe that absolutely nothing happens in a vacuum.

There is always a connection between why things happen and the something (or someone) that made it happen. All too frequently that connection is not easily apparent, and that creates problems.

I’m convinced there is a connection between the contemporary television shows like “Axe Men,” “Ice Road Truckers”, “Swamp People”, “Hillbilly Noodling”, "Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and a play entitled, “Puddin’ Head.”

The Department of Theater at Temple University in Philadelphia, staged that play – containing racist content – as its contribution to Black History Month this year.

“Puddin’ Head” is a stage-adapted version of a novel published in 1894 by Mark Twain originally entitled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. This work examines race, class, slavery, and rape from the perspectives of the time it was written in the 19th Century. This work uses the N-word and/or other racist stereotypes in almost every other sentence.

White singer Al Jolson in blackfaceWhite singer Al Jolson in blackface

Because Twain wrote it, it’s not unreasonable to expect something significant from the story because of his status as a writer. Such logic resembles the case made for “Birth of a Nation”, arguably one of the most racist films ever made in America.

That film introduced new camera angles, lighting, and action scenes never before attempted in cinema. Its unquestionable contribution to the art of film has been lauded for decades, while its racist message consistently gets downplayed as if it were an afterthought.

Somehow, the deeper significance of both “Puddin’ Head” and “Birth of a Nation” became the technical achievements of the film and the smart writing of the book, despite the fact that both have portrayed an entire group of people as lazy, groveling simpletons with no thoughts other than what white people gave them.

Those works and many, many others helped solidify many of the stereotypes that continue to infest American society in the second decade of the 21st Century.

Racial stereotypes are not just insidious. Stereotypes are injurious. And, in some cases, stereotypes are deadly, as evidenced in tragic incidents like the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, whose assailant suspected the black youth of ‘suspicious’ behavior.

Now, there is no direct connection between performances of the play “Puddin’ Head” ending in Philadelphia on February 19th and Martin’s killing seven days later in Sanford, Florida.

However, there are connections between the stereotypes embedded in America’s societal psyche and tragedies like the Martin killing. George Zimmerman, the man arrested for killing Martin, told authorities he had confronted Martin based on his belief that the hoodie-wearing black teen was ‘up to no good’ – a belief based upon race-tinged stereotypes about blacks.

American society constantly denies connections between stereotypes and circumstances like racial profiling.

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