Today’s heated rhetoric fanning the flames of the culture war over removing Confederate statues, along with other statues perceived to project a racially divisive slant, brings to mind two of my favorite books when I was growing up.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Gone With the Wind are stories that helped enlarge my world view. Each is a classic in its own right; each a story about fabulous places, and what drives human nature.
After reading these books multiple times over, I have a sense of how my personality developed. Whether the stories had something to do with that, I’m not certain. But fiction which touches on history wrapped up in good storytelling can instill a lifelong interest in pursuing the truth.
E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a Newbery Medal winning children’s book about a sister and brother who run away from their home in Connecticut to New York City. They spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Running away from home when you’re a sixth grade girl is a trope reserved for an age of burgeoning adulthood. But it’s where Claudia and Jamie run away to that gives the story its novelty. Who hasn’t dreamt of living in a grand museum unnoticed by grownups? Not to mention sleeping in the antique beds of queens and bathing in public fountains?
There is certainly untapped potential for adventure with this plot formula. Contemporary riffs on the idea — the 2006 movie, Night at the Museum, and overnight programs where you can explore under the watchful eyes of museum docents masquerading as camp counselors — come to mind.
The Mixed-Up Files’ story focuses on a beautiful marble angel statue with an enigmatic provenance. The plot centers on whether Angel was the work of Italian sculptor, Michelangelo. The book sparked my interest in the famed artist. At 13, when my grandma invited me on a trip to Europe — a trip whose itinerary I could design — any city where I could see Michelangelo’s art was fair game. My goal was to find Michelangelo’s mysterious Angel.
In actuality, the statue was a work of fiction.
In all my museum wanderings since then, I have marveled at the David and Pieta but have never encountered a Michelangelo “Angel” statue. I have earned a crick in my neck from too much gazing upwards at the Vatican’s heavenly Sistine Chapel ceiling. While gawking at its detailed figures, I have also learned how the ceiling is a canvas Michelangelo “embedded [with] subversive messages in his spectacular frescoes — not only Jewish, Kabbalistic and pagan symbols but also insults directed at Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, and references to [Michelangelo’s] own sexuality.”
It seems, then, that Michelangelo and his art contain stories within the story. Only after some research and contemplation might they be deciphered.
I’ve similarly searched for Margaret Mitchell and her genteel Antebellum Atlanta on several trips there. I know the Civil War epic inside and out. Channeling Scarlett O’Hara as a teenager, my friend Kim and I used to sit for hours in either of our bedrooms — and if shooed outside by parents, you would find us reading lines from GWTW while perched on Kim’s trampoline. Kim took on all the characters save one: she read Mammy, Rhett Butler, Melanie Wilkes, and Ashley. I reserved Scarlett for myself. My justification was slim. I was a green-eyed brunette, Kim a curly blonde. Mostly, Kim put up with me, I think in part because I let her read the part of Little Women‘s Amy, who got to marry Laurie, after all.
From our repeated readings of the story, and backed up by the floridly technicolor movie, Kim and I, along with the rest of the world, developed a rosy impression of the Antebellum South and the war that ripped through it, leaving Confederate society and their well-cared for slaves in tatters, a cause lost.
As I grew up and read more history, I learned how the Lost Cause of the Confederacy became a mythology tangled around a premise of human enslavement.
The fact that nearly four million people were part and parcel of an economic system designed to ensure white supremacy was a subtext of GWTW that I finally understood. It was there in Ashley’s late night political meetings; it was spelled out in the childlike submissiveness of Tara’s slaves. And it was accentuated by the outrageous single minded purpose of Southern Belles who graced the porches and porticos of every Antebellum home.
The South that had been lost was glorified by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others, in songs, stories, and statues so well-meaning it was hard to not believe the intentions — no matter how violent or oppressive — were for a common good.
Margaret Mitchell, or Peggy, as she called herself, grew up a debutante in the early 1900s, wrapped in tales of this golden world, mostly through the eyes of her family and friends. Reputed to be a virtuoso flirt, she most likely was her own model for the novel’s forthright heroine.
In reality, after annulling her three-month marriage, Mitchell married John Marsh, her first husband’s best man. They turned down an offer to live in her father’s mansion, preferring instead Apartment One, 979 Crescent Avenue, with rooms totaling 650 square feet. Mitchell referred to that home as “The Dump,” a place where she hosted Prohibition era parties with bootleg liquor and dressed as a flapper. A former features writer for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, she also enjoyed reading erotica. It was there on Crescent Avenue that she wrote her venerated historical novel.
Given Mitchell’s backstory, she might have had an agenda in telling the over-the-top tale of Gone With the Wind.
Writing about Scarlett’s shenanigans, the repeated occurrences of embarrassing family and friends with unseemly actions — from dancing in public while in mourning to running a lumber mill, all while bouncing from husband to husband — it’s occurred to some that Mitchell’s goal was to present a counterpoint to the South’s glorious past. That in creating a heroine like Scarlett, she was setting women free from their society’s enslavement.
And Aunt Jemima? Subsequent to recent Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd, Quaker Foods decided to change the name and logo of its pancake mix and syrup. The true story is that of Nancy Green, a black cook recruited in 1890 to play a pancake queen born into slavery and freed to be a housekeeper and nanny. Promotional materials created the mythical character with a back story that included saving her Mississippi plantation owner’s mustache. It’s pancakes, remember? They didn’t want it to get too gory.
In a sense, an Aunt Jemima bottle of pancake syrup is an iconic statue, too. She’s made from plastic, but as with any representation of the human form, an Aunt Jemima bottle is tangible, a physical object serving to objectify a racial stereotype.
All this makes me think of the statues I’ve seen in museums over the years.
There have been many. Those from ancient Greece and Rome, and ones pillaged from other countries that are now housed at the British Museum. Statues with their heads lopped off pepper Europe, and there are statues of Catholic missionaries in Santa Fe, ones who committed mass genocide with the church’s approval.
These stories and statues represent one point of view, through the eyes of those who commissioned the works, or more likely, through the artistry of the storyteller.
Times change and with them the temperature, a barometer of society and what is relevant now. If we took down statues that are deemed racially divisive today and displayed them in a way that contextualizes the backstory, we can learn America’s mottled history.
Margaret Mitchell put it this way:
I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.
History is written by the winners. When ideologies change, the way the past is portrayed always gets a fresh take. What’s broken will always stay broken. It’s up to us to understand it in the light of history.