March 11, 2014

GUEST ROOM | The Power of a Haunted Past

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Cornell hosts a wide variety of cultural events throughout the academic years. It took me my entire freshman year to discover Cornell’s events calendar and to realize I could basically fill up my entire week by attending one-time events, even without my regular course load. Having spent seven semesters on the Ithaca campus, I thought I had mastered the general patterns of Cornell’s calendar — including weekly department colloquiums and the guest speaker series on West — but recently, I managed to discover yet another cool event: free movie night at Carol Tatkon Center.

The film chosen for this past Friday was The Butler, a historical drama film that follows the personal journey of an black butler at the White House. The film — based on the life story of Eugene Allen — began by portraying the protagonist’s childhood on a sugar plantation in Georgia. As a young boy, Cecil witnesses the murder of his father and rape of his mother. He later moves to D.C. for better opportunities and finds employment in the hospitality sector. His diligence and positive attitude lands him a butler position at the White House, where he  serves seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan during his 34-year tenure.

The movie provided a holistic narrative of the past century by incorporating cultural contexts, along with the character development. Watching the evolving trends from music and fashion to technological advancement, we were given a rare chance to reevaluate racial history in light of changing social norms of the past century. Movements and groups that are lesser known, such as the Freedom Riders, and the much misunderstood Black Panther Party, with leaders as Malcolm X resurfaced.

Following the two-hour runtime and scrumptious Mexican meal, Prof. Cheryl Finley, art history, led an engaging discussion, evoking questions over our previous understanding of the racial history in the United States. In reflecting on the tumultuous history of racial oppression and the Civil Right Movement in this country, many attendees shared a similar sentiment that we at large are oblivious to a number of crucial events — even after years of formal education.

Considering the mind-boggling amount of new information from the movie, I was a tad dismayed by the low attendance at the event. In the previous session — when the sci-fi film Ender’s Game was shown — the room was at its full capacity, about 60 people, whereas no more than 15 students showed up for The Butler. I suppose a blockbuster film attracts bigger crow, especially when it’s accompanied by a former NASA Chief of Technology. As relevant as space science is, students’ preference for technology over culture reiterates the shrinking interest in the humanities.

For the current undergraduates who welcomed a black president while still in high school, winding back the clock to this time in the country’s history is an uneasy task. Although we grew up witnessing still-to-be resolved racial disparity in education and  employment, it’s quite difficult for us to fully digest the pure horror of Ku Klux Klan and nationally-engrained segregationism. We may have read about these tribulations in our U.S. history textbooks, but it’s too easy to dismiss these as yet another series of “horrible” events of the past.

For our generation, the story of this butler is further from our sense of reality than a futuristic battle with aliens in space. Racial tension in this country from merely a few decades ago seems more “sci-fi” to us than actual contemporary science fiction. In this allegedly post-racial, post-gender society, it seems more realistic and more accurate to visualize space wars against some extraterrestrial force as a united human species regardless of race and gender. No matter how accustomed we are to the egalitarian ideal of “Any person, any study,” we must remind ourselves that we reside in a progressive college campus bubble and the rest of the country may not treat everyone on equal basis.

We must not overlook the fact that social injustice over race, gender and sexuality still exists and endangers the unity of our society.

We must not overlook the fact that social injustice over race, gender and sexuality still exists and endangers the unity of our society. Last week, another columnist commented on the issue of civil liberty in Arizona, a state that allows police force to check immigration status based on race and grants a right to refuse service to gay or Muslim customers. This past summer, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, which allowed Southern states to alter voting laws without federal approval, claiming “our country has changed,” and we no longer need such legal protection.

In the past few decades, we’ve seen prominent African Americans holding some of the most powerful posts in the nation: Secretary of State, Supreme Court Justice, Ambassador to the United Nations, Ivy League University President and even President of the United States. Hence, it is too tempting to prematurely conclude racism as that of the past, and instill the idea of personal meritocracy as the post-racism, post-sexism generation. With this flawed perception of the present and refusal to acknowledge the past, however, these empty words in the air will continue to deter us from continuous struggle for equality.

Don Oh is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He may be reached at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.