william steig drawing

May 13, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Meet Me in St. Louis

As you have learned in the previous post, I adore Meet Me in St. Louis.

I adore the Trolley Song and I adore many of the other musical numbers the film offers. This is one of them. Margaret O’Brien plays Tootie, the mischievous baby of the Smith family, who wishes to show off for her sister Esther’s (Judy Garland) party guests.
The song, “Under the Bamboo Tree” is fabulous and allows the audience to fawn all over O’Brien. This is her scene. Garland is simply supporting. However, if we listen closely to the lyrics of the song they sing, we may pause in our enjoyment:

(These are the full lyrics. In the film Garland and O’Brien only perform verse 1 and first chorus)

Verse 1
Down in the jungles lived a maid,
Of royal blood though dusky shade,
A marked impression once she made,
Upon a Zulu from Matabooloo;
And ev’ry morning he would be
Down underneath the bamboo tree,
Awaiting there his love to see
And then to her he’d sing:

Chorus
If you lak-a-me lak I lak-a-you
And we lak-a-both the same,
I lak-a-say,
This very day,
I lak-a change your name;
‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a you true
And if you-a love-a me.
One live as two, two live as one,
Under the bamboo tree.

Verse 2
And in this simple jungle way,
He wooed the maiden ev’ry day,
By singing what he had to say;
One day he seized her
And gently squeezed her.
And then beneath the bamboo green,
He begged her to become his queen;
The dusky maiden blushed unseen
And joined him in his song.

Chorus
If you lak-a-me lak I lak-a-you
And we lak-a-both the same,
I lak-a-say,
This very day,
I lak-a change your name;
‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a you true
And if you-a love-a me.
One live as two, two live as one,
Under the bamboo tree.

Verse 3
This little story strange but true,
Is often told in Mataboo,
Of how this Zulu tried to woo
His jungle lady
In tropics shady;
Although the scene was miles away,
Right here at home I dare to say,
You’ll hear some Zulu ev’ry day,
Gush out this soft refrain:

Chorus
If you lak-a-me lak I lak-a-you
And we lak-a-both the same,
I lak-a-say,
This very day,
I lak-a change your name;
‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a you true
And if you-a love-a me.
One live as two, two live as one,
Under the bamboo tree.

Oh my. How utterly simplistic is the happy native. How similar he is to the stereotype of the docile slave, content in his prison. How quickly does the song bring to mind all sorts of Darky iconography, Little Black Sambo being the first. Since Little Black Sambo was first published in 1899 and became a popular children’s book, Tootie would have undoubtedly been familiar with it. And speaking of happy natives, let us not forget the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (known to the less fancy as the World’s Fair) After all this is what the Smith family is most excited about. In remembering the LPE, let us also not forget the fair’s Human Zoos: exhibitions of “primitive” indigenous people (Igorots from the Philippines, Native Americans, and Congolese pygmy Ota Benga) and great breeding grounds for scientific racism and social darwinism.

Surprisingly enough, Under the Bamboo Tree was composed by an African American minstrel/vaudeville duo, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson. The team had produced several other successful musical numbers including the dubiously named “A Trip to Coontown” which was directed, produced, written, and managed by blacks and starred an all black cast:

Cole and other black musicians perceived A Trip to Coontown as an entrée into creative and political freedom. Bob Cole’s 1898 Colored Actor’s Declaration of Independence, boasted: “we are going to have our own shows. We are going to write them ourselves, we are going to have our own stage manager, our own orchestra leader and our own manager out front to count up. No divided houses—our race must be seated from the boxes back.”35

Now, I don’t know too much about Cole & Johnson, however I hesitate to consider works called “A Trip to Coontown” great achievements in the pursuit of black political freedom. If black writers and performers are restricted to creating and producing works that promote destructive stereotypes* to entertain white audiences then that’s not quite freedom.

* that make the exploitation of Ota Benga acceptable for example

Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series. Read about it here and stay tuned for more!

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One Comment

  1. During that time, you can think of black minstrelsy as a two-sided or even “two-faced” (considering the blackface) argument of attacking racism while still mired in a racist world. Blacks usually could not go on stage during that time unless they wore blackface. In the same way, their message could not be passed along (popularly among the masses; besides private shows for blacks) without a sense of artistic censorship. Hence, there was an encoded language. Terms like “coon” were used much in the same way that Richard Pryor used the word “nigger”.

    Read “Darktown Strutters” to get a fictionalized representation of what was going on back then. Great novel.

    Reply

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