- American Moor
The following review continues our recurring series of "Second Looks," in which reviewers who enjoy an especially intimate relationship to a play or company—for example, those who have edited its text, directed a production of it, or have published elsewhere on the company and its productions—revisit productions we have previously reviewed from their own area of expertise or academic interest. Here, Kevin Ewert, who has a longstanding relationship with Keith Hamilton Cobb'sAmerican Moor, revisits a play previously reviewed inShakespeare Bulletin 34.3 by Kim F. Hall.
I teach an online Black cinema course, and one of our films is a 1960s neo-realist piece about life in the Jim Crow south. The main character, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), trades his carefree-ish itinerant existence on a railroad section gang for the stability of married life, but finds "stability" is dependent upon not standing up for himself in the face of White bosses and/or tormentors. Late in the film, Duff is working at a gas station when he is called out on a tow job. He arrives to find a sheepish White driver who has plowed his car into a tree, and the encounter does not go well. The White driver tells the Black tow truck operator how to do his job, the tow operator says he's got it, the car slips a bit as it's being raised up, and that sets in motion a string of ugly events ending in threats of violence and another lost job.
I'll often see Black students analyze this scene as a racist encounter. I'll sometimes see White students say things break bad because Duff is terse, even hostile, giving attitude in the face of the White driver's friendly chit chat. Here's what happens. "Sure glad to see you, boy"—those are the first words the driver says as Duff pulls up. But as students post their analyses in a running blog, I'll occasionally see them not just missing the historical implications of "boy" but rewriting the script: they misquote that first line as "Boy I'm sure glad to see you!" That's an old-fashioned phrasing they understand, but that changes where the encounter begins.
The infantilization of "boy" is strategic, and second nature. Should one mishear that first line, as Duff gets to work the driver says it again: [End Page 306]"How you doing, boy?" He offers to hold Duff's flashlight, and Duff demurs. "Just trying to be helpful," he says. "Most folks round here got no use for—" and he uses a racial slur. He then smiles and continues: "Gotta understand them, that's all." For some students, the friendly face and tone must deflect the jolt of the slur. Again he says "How you doing, boy?" The driver doesn't think Duff has hooked the car up properly, Duff thinks he has, the car slips while being raised, and the driver shouts "Trouble with you boys, don't listen when a man tells you something." To be clear: the cinematography shows the car is wrecked. The front end falling a few inches to the ground is nothing. But it's enough. Duff says it didn't make things any worse, the driver says it didn't do any good, and Duff mutters that it was driving the car into the tree that didn't do it any good. "Boys" aren't supposed to talk back to adults, and this gets the response you might imagine. So yes, after several racist provocations Duff gives some attitude, but I think it takes a lot of mishearing/seeing to believe Duff creates the problem that leads to threats of violence and to his subsequent firing. It also requires being unable to see the importance of...