Monday, June 16, 2008

How a Little Puppet Might Help America Come to Terms With its Past

Just in case you missed the uproar: A small company based in West Jordan, Utah, recently announced its newest addition: A stuffed monkey sock puppet that is supposed to be Senator Barack Obama. As the advertisement proclaimed: "TheSockObama™ is made with high quality knit materials to capture the nostalgic look of the Sock Monkey that we all know and love. Staying true to his root, he is hand stuffed with just enough filling to give him a firm, but huggable feel. The removable suit jacket offers two looks for this future President - All Business or Hands On."

The Sock Obama (pictured above), as it is called, caused such an uproar on the Internet (especially in the Blogosphere) that the company immediately halted sales of the puppet and issued an apology on its Website: "AN APOLOGY: We are very apologetic to all who were upset by our toy idea. We will not be proceeding with the manufacturing of this toy. Thank you."

The controversy over the puppet illustrated the clear dividing line between anti-racist progressive Bloggers who cried foul and conservative, anti-political correctness Bloggers who accused the former group of being intolerant and excessive.

Not surprisingly, the two sides aren't listening to each other. It's what happens in so many debates these days: Emotions run high. Opponents talk around one another instead of to each other. It's as if they know they can't win their foes over, so they preach to the choir and -- maybe in a best case scenario -- hope to reach out to a few undecideds out there.

The makers of Sock Obama -- a couple named David and Elizabeth Lawson -- seemed genuinely shocked that their toy provoked such an intense reaction. They issued an apology in which they claimed they meant for the toy to be an affectionate celebration of Obama (indeed, they seem to think he's going to be the next president of the United States). Their response to the uproar has made some observers scratch their heads and wonder if these people are really racist or just plain naive. As the apologetic couple wrote, "It is not, nor has it ever been our objective to hurt, dismay or anger anyone. We guess there is an element of naivete on our part. We simply made a casual and affectionate observation one night, and a charming association between a candidate and a toy we had when we were little. We wonder now if this might be a great opportunity to take this moment to really try and transcend still existing racial biases."

It's an eloquent apology, hardly the words of hardened racists. Part of the problem is that America finally has an African American presidential candidate for a major party, but millions of people across the country are going out of their way to avoid a meaningful dialogue about racial issues and race relations. Then something like Sock Obama appears and becomes the spark that ignites the tinderbox. You hear charges of racism and counter-charges of excessive political correctness. And all of it happens in an ahistorical void.

What gets lost is the long and bitter history of racism and the repression of African Americans. Don't think for a minute that we have somehow escaped the shadow of that tragic legacy. Depictions of African Americans as monkey-like creatures (like the one on the right) have been around as long as black people have lived on American soil. And they have served a very deliberate function: To dehumanize African Americans so that when they are subjugated, their oppressors don't feel any anguish or guilt over their actions.

I have no doubt that the Lawsons are sincere in their apology. And I think Sock Obama is the product of a lack of awareness of this tragic history. Had the Lawsons been fully aware of it, and had they been able to internalize it at a deeper level, they wouldn't have made Sock Obama in the first place.

The first step is to educate ourselves. If you get a chance, visit a Website like Without Sanctuary or The Jim Crow Museum and you'll come face to face with the tragedy of American racism in all of its shame and sadness.

Regrettably, public debates and dialogue in post-9/11 America have become too emotional, too heated. There is too much screaming, too little listening, too little genuine compassion. Instead of condemning the Lawsons, who have shown remorse for their actions and taken concrete steps to correct the problem, it is crucial to draw attention to the long history of racism in America. It is not enough that the country finally has a black presidential candidate. Building bridges between different races, ethnic groups, religions, and nations means understanding and coming to terms with history -- the noble as well as the tragic.

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

I've seen humorous birthday cards with monkeys or chimps humorously celebrating another year in a person's life. I think they're often quite amusing. But I would not send such a card to any black person I knew, who was celebrating a birthday. There would be too much room for confusion and misinterpretation. However, I, personally, don't condemn the Obama Sock Monkey people. I really don't think they meant any harm, especially if they said they actually like Obama! And I agree with you that some real dialogue about race is badly needed in this country.
Anne G