As our eyes get sucked into the flat vortex of Olympia’s pale skin (Olympia. Manet, 1863), we miss the black cat, visually camouflaged in the same manner as the black maid. The cat holds the threatened pose of an arched back, perhaps terrified at the prospect of being immortalized in this human game of representation. In a now timeless interview at a New York Times TimesTalks event, Paula Deen — in that weird Southern defensive and ultimately counteractive way — feels compelled to express solidarity with black folk by casually calling up a black employee, one Hollis Johnson, whose skin she warned was “as black as this board,” referring to the backdrop behind her. “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” she says, which made me, of all people, behind my laptop, feel humiliated. My sensibilities (privileged, protected) were simply shocked. The audience awkwardly laughs, knowing in their bones that just ain’t right, but this was before her public lynching (irony lives on). I’ve never liked Paula Deen; the affected Southern drawl, entitled casualness with everything around her, and earplugs politics all make for a kind of confederate hubris at war with liberal America, which is exactly the demographic (out-of-touch obese Republicans) Food Network was aiming at; and while it remains so predictable, and hypocritical, that they quickly snip her corrupted legacy from their corporate brand, it was invariably the only thing they could do. Instead of using this sad time to talk about racism (if it is even that, or merely glib provincialism), the academics and media have safely mollified discourse by shutting it down, branding her a “racist,” a conversation ending zinger whose ring feels attuned to McCarthy’s “communist,” Bush’s “terrorist,” and the Neo-Conservative “socialist,” words so bloated with ideological complexity they are rendered cacophonous.
Manet didn’t face so many problems, at first, with his black servant whose invisible skin easily dissolved in the background, as if to concede that the star of the painting should have been — and was, perhaps always will be — the white sexualized female, her availability suppressed by a symbolic palm pressed firmly against her mons pubis as she confronts the Gaze, sadly now only offered by old ladies staring at coffee mugs or calendars. It wasn’t until later that the post-structuralists got to Manet, found ammunition buried in an art history book. To be educated is to know not to condescendingly compare someone’s skin to a backdrop, in some intrinsically racist punchline about being lost in front of it. The butt of the joke, however, was not Hollis, but Paula herself. Dumb woman. This is mainly why we go to college: to learn how to act, despite our impulses, delusions, resentments, and actual feelings. My father would grimly leave the family room every time my mother and I watched The Cosby Show, saying black people just made him feel bad, which is both slightly insane and beautiful, the democracy of fear and loathing. Our Paula Deen fiasco leaves society with one redundant yet golden lesson: Do not say nigger. Don’t even say you said it. If you said it in the context of a court deposition from 1983, hope it doesn’t leak. Put quotes around it, be ironic, use the “N-word,” fold it in rap, or use it in the privacy of your own racism (be it in your mouth or mind) in the company of forgiving sympathizers. Semantics may be traced, feelings may not. As for the subconscious thug with a grill — be it in a movie or 10 o’clock news, and why those two chicken v. egg things keep happening — society will cautiously continue onward, with guns and Xanax.
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) features the titular 16-year-old girl and her talking cat (named “Salem,” in reference to the 1692 witch trials), previously a warlock turned into a cat for typical misanthropies. They reside in a fictional town in Massachusetts, one suspects auspiciously near Salem. The inadvertent surrealism of the talking cat (voice by an adult male actor) and its lifeless hypnotic puppetry made the show far more campy and creepy than ALF, Small Wonder, or other contemporaries featuring similar supernaturalism. Despite popular belief that witches were burned at the stake, the women accused of witchcraft — scapegoats for bad weather, failing crops, infant death, unexplained disease, all attributed to the work of Satan — were simply hung. (The Ku Klux Klan, sick bastards as they are, would slowly lift their victims off the ground, for sustained suffocation as they writhed for leverage, instead of snapping the neck from the gallow’s descent.) Women of foul and erratic mood became easy targets, and in hindsight one wonders if it wasn’t just a bout of postpartum depression or undiagnosed bipolar. They say the telltale sign of alcoholism is denial, but what if you accuse someone who actually isn’t an alcoholic of alcoholism? By definition, they will be deemed afflicted by their very claims of truth. Calling someone a bad thing protects us from being scrutinized for the same thing. We are all our own PR managers pensively navigating the waters of how we think and what we say, a Gordon Lish clamping our tongue in the better version of ourselves. May the branch from which Paula now hangs give in under her weight, as if energy stored for some collective eternal winter, or may her buttery neck simply slip from under the noose, which is my little placation here. Besides, you’re all fucking crazy. I am henceforth absolved.