Speaker Boehner was apparently oblivious to the origins and racial controversies surrounding the song he was singing during his resignation announcement.
(Note: The lack of postings in recent weeks has been due, in part, to illness in the family that has occupied some time. Although work is continuing on other projects, I made time to post this quick hitter due to interest expressed in this observation that was communicated to several friends).
Multiple news media reports cited that John Boehner during his resignation announcement, both upon taking the stage and while on stage, was singing the song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, even saying that he used to sing it on his way to work. Sometimes there are things that get embedded in our culture where the origins are missed – I believe that this is one of them, and one that should be a bit politically awkward for the man and his party.
The piece comes from Disney’s 1946 film “Song of the South” and won the Oscar for best song. James Baskett, who played the role of Uncle Remus (and who performed the song in the film) was awarded an “honorary” Oscar for his role as the black story teller. The story takes place on a plantation in Georgia during the 1870’s where Uncle Remus, a former slave, remains on the plantation, purportedly as a sharecropper. Although hailed as a technological success for the melding of live actors and animation, from its release and persisting to this day the film has sparked controversy regarding its portrayal of the Reconstruction south and African American stereotyping. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr (Harlem) called the film an “insult to American minorities [and] everything that America as a whole stands for.” The National Negro Congress picketed the film in major cities. And Richard B. Dier (writing in the ‘Afro-American’) was “thoroughly disgusted” and cited the film as being “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced”. However, not all in the black press agreed with those sentiments such as Herman Hill who wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier that the film would further interracial relations.
A frequently asked question at Disney shareholder meetings is when the corporation is going to release the film on home video. Bob Iger, Disney CEO, has referred to the movie in 2010, and reiterated in 2011, as a period piece that is “antiquated” and “fairly offensive” and, in agreement with other top execs, refused to release the entire film on home video (although parts of it have been published and copies, not Disney’s, are on the market).
Here is a link to Baskett performing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah from the film. You don’t have to get too far into it to understand the controversies. I’m not sure that many former slaves in 1870’s Georgia would be singing ‘plenty of sunshine headin’ my way’ when millions were fleeing the south in fear of their lives due to thousands lynchings, this well into 20th century America. The same for the portrayal of the black male kid skipping along with two white kids, the white kid being the grandson of the plantation owners, the black kid who lived on the plantation always trailing. And it is noteworthy that the film debuted in Atlanta, GA during a time when racial segregation was the norm.
Knowing some of the history of the film and Reconstruction South, I couldn’t help but find the irony, and a bit of dark humor, with Boehner’s choice of song in this era of the New Jim Crow and the strained race relations facing our nation of which his party, that exploits racial conflict, plays no small role.