Gone With The Wind
Credit: Selznick/MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterst

I threw away my copy of Gone with the Wind.

It wasn’t easy. The book spent a couple of weeks sitting recycling-adjacent before I came up with the will to toss it into the bin. I held it in my hands one last time, and I kissed the title page where my father had inscribed: “To Beth. Christmas 1975.” And then I dropped it into the garbage.

I don’t think I’d ever thrown away a book before—at least, not one that was still intact. But this book was different. I didn’t want to be responsible for one more young girl reading Gone with the Wind. It is a pernicious book. It is an evil book. It weaves a spell that has perverted our national vision of slavery and warped our understanding of the Civil War and its long, vicious aftermath. Its sugarcoated white supremacy has inflicted grievous, lasting harm on our country for generations. Gone with the Wind is poison. And it is more toxic because the poison is concealed within a powerful—even feminist— story told in deathlessly lyrical prose.

Today, as our nation is galvanized by the murder of George Floyd and the national protest movement it catalyzed, some white people are taking grudging steps toward acknowledging the reality that Scarlett O’Hara’s saga is really Birth of a Nation in crinolines. HBO Max recently announced that it is temporarily removing the movie from its streaming catalog. But that tepid move immediately sent the movie to the top of Amazon’s bestseller chart, where it is described as “a classic epic of the American South.”

That’s disgusting. It’s wrong. And it’s a disgrace to our nation.

If this seems like an over-the-top response to a romance novel, it’s not. Gone with the Wind holds a central position in this nation’s cultural iconography. The book has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide—and is still proudly in print almost 85 years after it was first published. The American Film Institute ranks Gone with the Wind as the fourth best American movie of all time, after Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather, and it remains the biggest theatrical movie release of all time, with more than 202 million paid admissions. (Adjusted for inflation, it brought in more than $1.8 billion in ticket sales.) In 1976, a network television showing captured 47.5 percent of all U.S. households. And those whopping numbers don’t include $100 million in DVD and Blu-ray sales, or the unpublished—but massive—VHS sales and Netflix viewings.

Black director, screenwriter and novelist John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, led the call for HBO Max to take the film off its roster. In an opinion piece for the L.A. Times, he called Gone with the Wind “its own unique problem…It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was—a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings. The movie had the very best talents in Hollywood at that time working together to sentimentalize a history that never was. And it continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’” Ridley carefully noted that he is not calling for censorship; rather, he thinks that GWTW should be reintroduced in a context that underscores its viciously skewed vision of history.

I disagree. I think the novel deserves the same treatment as Mein Kampf, and the movie should be considered the American cousin of Triumph of the Will. Anybody who champions either book or movie is standing up for the cause of white supremacy and should be judged accordingly.

I first encountered Gone with the Wind when I was 11 years old. I was spending the summer with my grandmother in Hartford, Kentucky, while my mother was in school. It was breathlessly hot, and the town movie theater was one of the few public spaces that was air-conditioned. So when GWTW came to town for a week-long run, I wound up seeing the movie—all four hours of it—six times. (That included the special Thursday matinee, when you could get in for six RC Cola caps.)

I was spellbound. I was enraptured with the vision of a world filled with brave, courtly men and lovely ladies with tiny waists and spines of steel. I longed to share in the romantic, elegant heritage of the Deep South – even though I was a Yankee girl from Illinois, the proud Land of Lincoln. (I remember being initially confused when Scarlett O’Hara made a joke about being so happy that she wouldn’t mind dancing with Abe Lincoln himself.)

After gulping the movie down like a supersized RC Cola, I ran to the library, found the book and read it cover-to-cover in a few heated days. Then I read it again. And again. And again.

It’s hard to explain the allure of Gone with the Wind to the unconverted. Much of the book’s enduring emotional punch has to do with Scarlett’s complicated character – a mix of adolescent swooniness and granite determination. Scarlett is an avatar of resilience. She singlehandedly saves her family by working in the cotton fields, and then goes on to run a thriving lumber business. She is driven, practical, energetic, and fierce.

Oh, and she and her family and her friends own human beings in chattel slavery.

This is what makes Gone with the Wind so pernicious: The book dutifully acknowledges that Slavery Was Wrong. In fact, Scarlett’s beloved Ashley Wilkes engages in some pious virtue-signaling by telling Scarlett that he had actually planned to free his slaves, had the war not done it for him. But the evil of slavery in the abstract is far overshadowed by the book’s sepia-toned depictions of slavery in the book’s internal reality; Scarlett’s slaves are tied to her by the bonds of affection, and they all continue in her devoted service after the war.

Again and again, the book glides over the fundamental importance of slavery in the economic lives of its central characters. In one particularly lovely passage, Scarlett and Ashley reminisce about life on the plantation before the war:

As he spoke, his light grip tightened on her hand and in his voice was the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs. She could hear the gay jingle of bridle bits as they rode under the dogwood trees to the Tarletons’ picnic, hear her own careless laughter, see the sun glinting on his silver-gilt hair and note the proud easy grace with which he sat his horse. There was music in his voice, the music of fiddles and banjos to which they had danced in the white house that was no more … Over it all rested a sense of security, a knowledge that tomorrow could only bring the same happiness today had brought.

The full passage beautifully evokes the “slow-paced glamour” of an idealized antebellum South – and it draws an opaque, green velvet curtain across the bitter forced labor required to bestow endless leisure on a small class of favored white people.

It would be enlightening to hear Gone with the Wind’s defenders explain their willingness to overlook the scene in which Scarlett is violently attacked and threatened with rape by two men—one of them a black man “with shoulders and chest like a gorilla,” in Mitchell’s words. Scarlett is saved in the nick of time by one of her former slaves, Big Sam, who later refers to her attacker as “dat black baboon.” Later that night, the local Ku Klux Klan—led by Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett’s husband, Frank Kennedy – head out on a lynching party to kill the men who attacked Scarlett. In the novel, when Scarlett is shocked to learn that her husband is a Klan member, her exasperated sister-in-law lashes out: “Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know… They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners.  You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful and—”

This is a pivotal scene, in both the book and the movie (although the movie does not mention the Klan by name). It unequivocally justifies vigilantism and murder in defense of white southern womanhood. Yet when the movie is criticized, its champions somehow fail to mention its central veneration of white supremacist violence.

So what? It’s hardly news that a book written by a southern white woman almost a century ago portrays white supremacy and slavery—and the economy built upon them – in ways that deny reality and promote a “genteel” myth of a world that never existed.

But here’s the thing: In one vestigial corner of my heart, I still yearn to be like Scarlett O’Hara. Oh, I don’t mean the willfully oblivious “belle” whose personal fortune was extracted from the theft of labor and the threat of violent death; that Scarlett does not exist, because the vile reality of slavery never intrudes into GWTW’s fictional South. The Scarlett that I want to be is indomitable and loyal and utterly captivating. As viewed solely within the elegantly deceptive frame created by her author, Scarlett is a great woman. And so is gentle Melanie Wilkes, and so is lovely Ellen O’Hara. Even today, Margaret Mitchell’s tributes to the enduring strength and beauty of southern womanhood continue to echo, unbidden, in my head.

Let me stress that I fully understand the absurdity of this confession, because my reading did not stop with Margaret Mitchell. I have read Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I also have read unexpurgated histories that make it unambiguously clear that the confederate states seceded over the issue of slavery. So I know that the reality of the antebellum South was bloody and violent and horrific, and the Confederate flag is an ugly symbol of treason and white supremacy. Full stop.

But I did not fully understand these things when I was seduced by GWTW, and I know that there are millions and millions of white Americans who are still blinded to the ugly realities of our nation’s history because of GWTW’s pretty lies. For too many, the face of slavery is still Hattie McDaniel, a formidable matriarchal figure in a rustling red silk petticoat – and her broad onscreen smile makes it possible for us to forget that McDaniel accepted her Oscar in a segregated hotel that forced her to sit at a side table far from her A-list costars.

As humans, we are wired for myth. And this myth still matters, tremendously. When Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the need for reparations, his arguments are undermined by Margaret Mitchell’s anodyne depiction of soft voices singing in the slave quarters. When activists denounce the confederate flag as a symbol of racism and oppression, their passion is undermined by the movie’s iconic shot of the tattered Stars and Bars waving sadly over a vast field of dead and dying southern soldiers. Even the sight of angry, contorted faces lit by tiki torches is slightly softened by our memory of Ashley Wilkes as a noble, wounded Klansman—played by Leslie Howard, a Jewish actor who was killed in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe.

This myth shows no signs of losing its power over the white American imagination. A few years back, a reporter visited the Gone with the Wind Museum in Marietta, Georgia, and spotted a 7-year-old girl raptly watching the movie on a TV screen. The museum’s director looked on approvingly: “There are all these new fans, the younger ones, and it’s important to them, too…They see it, and they don’t see the history; they just see a good movie that has all the elements.” That little girl is not alone; a recent traveling exhibit of GWTW memorabilia drew hundreds of thousands of fans, and the movie currently has a 4.5-star rating on iTunes.

So what are we supposed to do? How can we persuade millions and millions of Americans that an ugly and painful truth is better than a beautiful and seductive lie?

The first step must be to take it seriously. If you roll your eyes at the thought of 21st century adults viewing our nation’s painful history of slavery through Scarlett-colored glasses, you are part of the problem. To dismiss GWTW as “just a novel” or “just a movie” is to close your eyes to the immense power of media—and of propaganda. One of the movie’s title cards reads: “There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of master and of slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A civilization gone with the wind.” How can any scholarly rendition of cold and bitter historical facts compete with such pretty prevarication—especially when the falsified view has been honored and certified with a Pulitzer Prize for literature and 10 Academy Awards? It also should be noted that the New York Times’ 1937 review informed readers that “The historical background is the chief virtue of the book” and that “no reader can come away without a sense of the tragedy that overcame the planting families in 1865…” We must not trivialize this invidious myth just because it was presented in Technicolor.

We also must realize that white people need to lead this fight. I’m not saying this as a white savior wannabe; it’s just that black people have been protesting the book and the movie it spawned for the better part of a century. The book was denounced by black leaders at the time of its publication. “We consider this work to be a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching,” members of a Pittsburgh group wrote in a letter to producer David O. Selznick after he announced his plans to film the book. When the movie debuted (at a whites-only movie theater in Atlanta), African Americans picketed from coast to coast. The Chicago Defender called the movie “propaganda, pure propaganda, crude propaganda. It is anti-Negro propaganda of the most vicious character. It is un-American propaganda. It is subversive.”

Yet the black community’s decades of consistent protest and denunciation have gone largely unheard. Consider the response when a Memphis theater canceled its annual screening of GWTW after white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Fox News host Todd Starnes lamented that “our beloved film is gone with the wind — done in by a bunch of meddling, no-account thespian carpetbaggers.” But French writer/philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy also felt called to weigh in, saying he was “appalled” by the theater’s “alarming suppression of artistic expression.” USA Today’s coverage of the controversy stressed the fury of “the film’s fans, free-expression supporters and Dixie sympathizers” in response to “the ‘whiny’ and PC-obsessed liberals they blame for the decision.”

Enough already.

White America’s veneration of GWTW has to end, now. I know that the teenaged girls in polyester hoop skirts who serve as docents at southern house tours don’t realize that they’re taking a page from the white supremacist playbook. But they are, and their GWTW cosplay shapes the way they think, and the way they vote, for the rest of their lives.

It is time to send Gone with the Wind to the ash heaps of cultural history, where Scarlett can rub (her shamelessly uncovered) shoulders with Little Black Sambo and Song of the South. It is time for us to rip the gauze off the lens and start looking at the history of the South in the cold and unforgiving light of historic reality. Scholars can still read and view GWTW, but as a problematic text within the context of its racism and cultural influence. At this extraordinary moment in American history, it is time for all of us to admit that Gone with the Wind has played a central role in creating our enduring culture of white supremacy. That must end, starting right now.

Some will call this censorship. Some will chortle at the notion that a novel or a movie abounding in flounces and hoop skirts could actually influence the body politic. Proud southerners will take high-handed offense at the notion that their beloved Gone with the Wind is actually a powerful racist tract. And conservatives will continue to carp at the politically correct snowflakes who refuse to view a prettified story of chattel slavery, lynching, and undiluted white supremacy as an “American classic.”

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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Elizabeth Austin

Elizabeth Austin is a writer and strategic communications consultant in Oak Park, Illinois.