Thursday, December 25, 2014

White (Supremacist) Christmas

The song "White Christmas" is a holiday tradition in America. It's impossible to go more than a few days without hearing it somewhere: on the radio, in a department store, at every street corner.
Because I grew up in the North East, and Christmas is a "winter" holiday I had always taken the "White" mentioned in the title to mean snow. However, after finally seeing the movie Holiday Inn, where the song originated, I began to have some doubts:

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See, Holiday Inn is a movie about a white entertainer who is tired of the fast paced life of New York City and retires to a farm so he can experience life as it used to be. Instead, he starts a club that is only open on holidays and services a mostly white clientele. Most of the club staff is also white, although they do have some help:

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Just before Bing Crosby breaks out his big number, he welcomes to his "Holiday Inn" a new talent (played by Marjorie Reynolds). She asks for a job at the Inn, and he says he can't pay her. She begs for a job anyway, they sing White Christmas. Bing is now her boss.

Skip ahead to Lincoln's Birthday, one of the holidays for which the Inn is open. That's when Bing helps Marjorie "black up" for their big number "Abraham". He sings in blackface:

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And they get Louise Beavers (who plays a character called Mamie), to sing part of the song with her children:
When black folks lived in slavery
Who was it set the darkie free?
Abraham, Abraham
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But it's not just Bing, the band and the wait staff all put on blackface to really sell the number:

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As does Marjorie:

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Marjorie is the club's real talent, and Bing spends the middle act of the movie keeping her away from Hollywood talent scouts. First, out of fear that they'll steal his best employee, but it later turns out that he also loves her. So not only was he preventing his unpaid employee from leaving because of her financial value to HIS club, he was also isolating her in the hope that she would realize how much effort he was putting in to controlling her loved her.

It only works for so long, because Marjorie eventually gets a big recording contract and finds a man of her own to marry. This puts Bing in such a funk that he barely touches the huge Thanksgiving dinner Louise prepares for only him:

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Despite Marjorie's newfound success as a movie star, Louise tells Bing to go to Hollywood and emotionally manipulate her into coming back to the Holiday Inn. He does, and they live racistly ever after:

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Snow is never mentioned in the lyrics . Sure, "tree tops glisten" but that could be from rain, and while it does mention "sleigh bells in the snow" it also says that "children listen to hear" them, it's never confirmed whether they do or not. It's also safe to assume that the sleigh bells for which the children are listening belong to Santa's sleigh, and since Santa is not real, then nary a sleigh bell is heard in all of White Christmas-dom.

"White Christmas" was written by Irving Berlin and won the Academy Award in 1943 for Best Original Song. Berlin got his start on Tin Pan Alley, writing Ragtime songs and introducing them to white audiences in the teens and twenties. Ragtime originated in the predominantly black red-light districts of southern cities like St. Louis and New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century right about the same time that white America launched a campaign of homicidal violence against prosperous Black communities in those areas. As a result, millions of Black Americans left the south and moved to Northern cities in an exodus known as The Great Migration. It was there that urban songwriters like Irving Berlin heard their music, and sold it as their own.

A lesser known aspect of Berlin's oeuvre are the composer's "Coon Songs" which were highly popular in the minstrel shows at the time Irving started composing.

With white people upset that their neighborhoods were being gentrified, the demographic shift kicked off the trend known as "white flight" in which the predominantly white northern cities were abandoned by its former residents for rural and suburban homes. By the 1950s, almost a million white people a year were fleeing the cities, looking for a return to the "old-fashioned" lives they read about in history books.

The film Holiday Inn was released in 1942, almost a decade before white flight became official government policy, but it foretold the changes that would shape America over the next half century. The ethos of which is best summed up by another song, "Lazy," that appears on the film's soundtrack, the chorus of which goes as follows:
Lazy
I want to be lazy
I want to be out in the sun
With no work to be done
Under that awning
They call the sky
Stretching and yawning
And let the world go drifting by
I want to peep
Through the deep
Tangled wildwood
Counting sheep
til I sleep
Like a child would
With a great big valise full
Of books to read where its peaceful
While im
Killing time
Being lazy
The next time you hear "White Christmas" this holiday season (or next, or the one after... it's been going strong for 70+ years) remember that it's not about snow, or Santa, or even Christmas. It's about white people being too lazy to work and thinking they shouldn't have to live next to Black people unless it's to exploit their labor.

Happy Holidays.

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