Recoiling from the Disney Vision

Mother wouldn't let us watch Disney films. A black woman born and raised in fine New Orleans style, she thought Disney films akin to lies. If they were fantasies, they were someone else's, and that someone else was white. She would not expose her black children to them. The world of Walt Disney was one of white perfection. Mother knew better than to fantasize this world or any world -- particularly a lily-white one perfect. Walt Disney's world did have a place for people like her (and her children). Fantasia's pickaninnies (wisely cut from home video prints) and the sleazy, grinning crows of Dumbo -- animators doing blackface with feathers. Mother knew better. And so she saw to it that I grew up without the images of Mickey and Snow White and Bambi invading my personal pantheon, without apple-cheeked, honey-voiced white women singing sweetly while birds twittered accompaniment and tree leaves swayed approvingly. (She also forbade Gilligan's Island and Mister Ed. Some things, she insisted, were just too low for her children. Mother had an attitude.) The New Orleans of slaves, Creoles and octoroons, bayous and alligators, mosquitoes and sin, did not jibe with a Disney world view. One was real, the other was a white man's fantasy. Last year, on a visit to L.A., my nephew went to see The Lion King. He returned with his requisite merchandise and a burning desire to visit Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth. This frightened me. My personal experience, viewed through the lens of Afro-American culture, recoils at the very concept of a happiest place on Earth. It recoils at a vision of clearly defined evil being routinely thwarted by an equally pure good. To my mind, black Americans know better. My mother knew better. For her, the real world, at least that in which her brand of American children would grow, was not one of sharp contrasts, but of varying shades of gray: one in which good did not necessarily triumph and in which evil sometimes lived a long and prosperous life. She knew evil could work its way into the bones and sinews of the men and women around you in such a way that you never knew which they'd show you, the good in them or the evil. At Disneyland, you forget the possibility of evil coexisting with good. The two are severed once you step on its version of hallowed ground. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Disney scrapped plans for its American-history theme park. It had threatened to base a display on Americas slave past. How, I wondered, would the image of slavery be invoked without the invocation and acknowledgment of evil in ordinary men? It is dangerous, to my mind, to encourage anyone to forget the possibility of evil in himself. It is doubly dangerous to ask black chil-dren to forget that possibility in others. I did not visit Disneyland with my nephew. My one trip there years earlier had left me dizzy and swearing I would never return. I was new to California then and still unaccustomed to the relentless sunniness. And so I squinted my way through crowds, watching the Disney minions scamper frantically sweeping any paper or mess from public view. That im-age is what has stayed with me: men and women cleaning up our messes so we wouldn't have to see them. Heaven forbid we should have to see the messes we make. I walked around as if in a dream, but not the kind Walt's minions had planned for me. This was a bad dream not quite a nightmare -- but the kind that leaves you feeling poorly rested and vaguely sad. I know, I know. I've been accused of over analyzing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But when that cigar flies through a tunnel, analysis beckons. My sister returned from Disneyland pleased that my nephew had seen the Lion King parade. It was chockfull, she said, of black people. While I agreed with her that it was progressive for Disney to cast black people as Africans (I could just see some 50s-style Disneyfied blond bombshell in a rocket-titted bra and a lionskin cast as an African high priestess), I remained skeptical. Visions of Uncle Remus remain, and those crows, those icons of the Disney world's contempt for me. I therefore regard any Disney vision of me with equal and opposite disregard. With a sense of unease, I watched my nephew play with his Disney merchandise. I would have preferred that he play with an image of that morally imperfect, pert-near-human Wile E. Coyote, or the malevolently charming, pert-near-human Bugs Bunny, or the hyperactively obnoxious, pert-near-human Daffy Duck. Pert-near-human -- human like him, like those with whom he lives. The Warner shop engaged in its own racist viciousness. But never by deed nor action its own or its characters did it deny the capacity for inhumanity in all of us. It never denied its own or its audiences humbling humanity. Now that Disney has swallowed Cap Cities/ABC and seems well on its way to ruling the known universe, I sense a chill coming over me. Saturday mornings on ABC will be devoted to Disney's version of the world. My nephew may be sitting there watching. I hope not, though. I hope he's guided by the lessons my mother taught us: We are a people from slaves, from Creoles and octoroons, from bayous and sin. Fantasies of perfect good triumphing over perfect evil have no place for us. Fantasies of a world in which we need never beware of the apple-cheeked woman with the honey voice are not for us. Concerning the current flap over the director of the Disney film Powder, who served time for child molestation, the L.A. Times wrote, The Disney name is arguably the single most valuable asset in entertainment ...Disney has always moved with extraordinary caution when it smells possible threats to its name. Mother's name was among her most valuable assets. She too moved with extraordinary caution when she smelled threats to it. To her, the world of Disney was such a threat.

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