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July 3, 2021
The legacy of Indy native James Baskett and Song of the South - encore
Even specialists in African-African history could be forgiven for drawing a blank at the mention of the name of Indianapolis native James Baskett. In spite of being the first black male actor to win an Oscar - for a role in which he sang a song that also won an Academy Award - Baskett's place in the annals of African-American history seems to be largely forgotten.
That's because the role for which Baskett won his honorary Oscar was that of Uncle Remus in the much maligned, now virtually banned film Song of the South. The Disney musical was a modest hit when it was released in 1946, but changing sensibilities about race over the past three quarters of a century have made the film toxic to the image-conscious studio.Disney chose not to release the film for home viewing during the 1980s VCR boom; nor did they cash in on a DVD release in recent decades. With the 2019 advent of the Disney+ streaming service, Song of the South once again found itself locked out of the Magic Kingdom.
And not without good cause. Film critics and historians have condemned the film's sweetly nostalgic portrayal of the social hierarchy of Reconstruction-era South. As Guardian film blogger Xan Brooks put it recently, "the film trades in a dubious form of myth-making - implying that African-Americans stuck below the Mason-Dixon line were a cheerful bunch who liked nothing better than going fishing, spinning tall tales and looking after white folks' kids."
The very title of the film and its focus on song can be viewed as perpetuating a racist myth. As 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass - who himself escaped slavery - commented, the singing of enslaved people in the Southern United States was not evidence of their contentment or happiness.
"It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake," Douglas wrote. "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy."But does the film deserve to be virtually banned, especially when a novel like Gone with the Wind and its 1939 film adaption - with all their racial stereotyping, glorification of white privilege and perpetuation of the myth of the "happy slave" - are still held up as classics?
Does Song of the South have anything to offer the modern viewer? Does the legacy of Hoosier James Baskett deserve to be reevaluated?
These are the questions explored by Hoosier History Live associate producer and guest host Mick Armbruster in this encore of a show that first aired in January of 2020. Mick is joined in studio by two guests:
The show also looks into how Baskett's portrayal of the Uncle Remus character might teach us something about the role of folklore in African-American culture, and explore how the content of his tales - with their focus on the archetypal trickster Brer Rabbit - can be traced back to folklore found among native cultures in Africa.
And while the discussion may not leave listeners whistling "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," we hope it does give them an appreciation of the legacy of Hoosier James Baskett and a more nuanced understanding of the film he starred in.
Roadtrip: Corydon in Southern Indiana
Guest Roadtripper Jeff Kamm, author and 5th Grade and Music Teacher at Plainfield Community School Corporation, invites us to travel to the southern border of the Hoosier state - and go back in time 200 years - to visit Corydon, Ind.
As Jeff explains, Corydon was founded in 1808 and served as the capital of the Indiana Territory from 1813 until the milestone year of 1816, when Indiana became a state. The town's status as state capital lasted only until 1825, however, when that designation shifted north to Indianapolis.
While visiting Corydon, Jeff suggests you explore the historic Corydon Capitol building that served as the original Statehouse from 1816-1825. You can also check out the Constitution Elm, where delegates drafted Indiana's first state constitution. The tree has long since died, but the trunk has been preserved and encased in a large sandstone monument.
Civil War buffs will want to visit the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Indiana; along with Gettysburg, it's one of only two Civil War battlefields on Northern soil. The Battle of Corydon Memorial Park is located just south of town and remains largely unchanged from when the battle was fought in July of 1863, when Morgan's Raiders crossed the Ohio River into Indiana and continued their way northeast into Ohio.
Don't miss this step back in time with Jeff!
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