Van Beuren Studios was a short lived cartoon house during the 30s who did their best to capture some of the gleeful insanity of rival Fleischer Studios output. You can be the judge of whether or not they succeeded. What they did manage, unfortunately, was to propagate the broad stereotypical images of blacks that the was so prevalent in mainstream productions during Hollywood’s “golden age” of cinema. The pickaninny imagery alone is cringe inducing enough in these more racially sensitive times, but Van Beuren took things a bit further. Like other cartoons in Van Beuren Studio’s Aesop Fables series, Down In Dixie has become infamous for its bizarre take on the characters from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Christopher P. Lehman explains in his book The Colored Cartoon, what makes these Van Beuren shorts so insidious is that they “significantly altered the abolitionist sentiment of the book to present the message that slaves accepted, even liked, the ‘peculiar institution’, just not their cruel owners.” Now Black History Month wasn’t promoted as much when I was a kid as it is these days, but even so, I’m willing to bet that’s not exactly how the slaves really felt. “Also” Lehman goes on to note, “the novel’s religious references, which had served to enhance the author’s abolitionist views, disappear on film.”
Which is kind of an odd statement really, because even today, you can still find the occasional critic who believes that Christianity has always approved or turned a blind eye to slavery. (Of course, such a stance only works if you ignore the facts of history and the dictates of common sense, but what the hey, that philosophy has paid off big time for Dan Brown, so why not go with a winning formula.) The problem seems to be, at least for the aforementioned critic, verses from the Bible like the one in Ephesians 6:5 where it states, “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.” But as Mark Brumley points out, “while Paul told slaves to obey their masters, he made no general defense of slavery, anymore than he made a general defense of the pagan government of Rome, which Christians were also instructed to obey despite its injustices (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). He seems simply to have regarded slavery as an intractable part of the social order, an order that he may well have thought would pass away shortly (1 Cor. 7:29-31).”
Which is not to say that Paul, or any true Christian since, has believed that the systemic injustice of slavery is to be ignored. As Mark Brumley’s article from Catholic Culture and Rodney Stark’s from Christianity Today detail, the Church has had a long history of fighting slavery and has always taught, as the Catechism states, that “the seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason—selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian—lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit.” It’s simply that if such injustices are to be combated, then the best way to start is to convert the hearts of individuals so they will recognize them as objectively wrong. Christianity’s first order of business has always been, and must always be, the salvation of souls, and it will instruct individuals how to move towards that goal no matter what position they find themselves in, be it as master or slave.
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