Monday, September 28, 2009

Our Bumbos Our Selves

Recently my kids received a Little Rascals / Our Gang DVD, which has been a delight to see. I’d loved these shorts as a kid and can recall watching them in the basement of our old Long Island home on our old black & white RCA. However, one of these shorts, The Kid from Borneo was one that I’d never seen before. Much to my kids' chagrin, I turned it off half-way.

Understandably (according to Wiki), this had been pulled from circulation in 1971. It portrays a “savage” named Bumbo, replete with spear, shield and bone-through-the-nose, played by African American actor, John Lester Johnson. The gang mistakes him for Spanky’s Uncle George, whom no one had ever met before. As the kids circle this mysterious wide eyed character, it’s Stymie (believe it or not) who’s given the line: “he looks like a gorilla ape.”

Bumbo then proceeds to chase the kids around, eating everything in sight. His only line is “Yum, yum, eat ‘em up, eat ‘em up!.”

Obviously, since this film was made in 1933, a bit of filtration needs to be considered when we discuss it. And I honestly know that my children’s laughter was derived from the slapstick action in the film and not from the negative stereotyping of a mentally ill, demeaned individual.

Later over the weekend, I sat my son down to talk to him about why I chose not to let him watch it. Granted, it’s near impossible to encapsulate race, discrimination and popular culture in a way that it can make sense to a seven year old, but I tried. I just said that at the time they made that film, African Americans were treated really badly in America and that by creating Bumbo, they weren’t just trying to be funny – they were also trying to make fun of people who were having tough enough time as it was.

I went back and forth afterwards, worrying that I’d been too knee-jerk uber-liberal, but I dunno. I’m still trying to get this parenting thing figured out. As my kids get older, explaining Planet Earth to them gets exceedingly more difficult.

Not too long ago, my dad and I were rummaging amongst some of the pictures and family artifacts he’d had passed on to him. One of these items was a flyer from the 1920’s for an evening of entertainment sponsored by an organization nebulously called “Our Selves”. Our Selves –what did this mean? A perusal of the evening’s agenda shed a little light on the connotation behind the name – Our Selves were hosting an ‘olde timey minstrel show’. Further reading of the flyer indicated that my great-grandfather emceed the event. It’s my hope that my son will be older when I have to explain this one to him.

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