'Gone With the Wind' prequel starring Mammy may be a mistake

OPINION - A handful of books or films do not constitute a renaissance, but Ruth’s Journey is not just problematic; it’s emblematic...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“Are we ready for Mammy’s story?” is a loaded question, with no easy answer.

But it’s a question that Simon & Schuster has prompted with the announcement that it will publish a Gone With the Wind prequel, Ruth’s Journey, through its Atria imprint, focusing on Mammy, the role in the 1939 film version of the book for which Hattie McDaniel became the first-ever African-American Oscar winner.

A post suggesting movie rights from the black film-focused Indiewire blog Shadow and Act garnered a few comments, including Miles Ellison’s “More black servant porn. The renaissance continues. Yay.”

In response to the theGrio post about the intended novel, Terrell Williams wrote “Jesus Lord, Mary & Joseph, Samson & Delilah!!! Did I call this or what?!? Once “12 Years a Slave” won the Academy Award for Best Picture there would be an onslaught of Slavery Themed Materials emerging via Books, Movies & TV.”

A handful of books or films do not constitute a renaissance, but Ruth’s Journey is not just problematic; it’s emblematic. Read the byline: Donald McCaig. He is the 73-year-old, white male writer authorized by the Margaret Mitchell estate to pen Ruth’s Journey, which is 416 pages long and due out in October. He penned the estate-authorized Rhett Butler’s People (2007). So, yeah, it’s a done deal for the book. And movie rights, as Obenson suggests, may not be far behind.

“Mammy, the faithful slave in Gone With the Wind, may finally get her due — and a proper name,” wrote Julie Bosman optimistically in a full story in The New York Times. McCaig’s book “begins in 1804, when Ruth is brought from her birthplace, the French colony of Saint-Domingue that is now known as Haiti, to Savannah, Ga.,” the story also reports.

Peter Borland, Atria’s editorial director, shares that “it was Donald’s idea, instead of doing another sequel, to go backwards. He felt that Mammy was such a fascinating and crucial character to the book. He wanted to flesh out a story of her own.”

Borland didn’t stop there: “What’s really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it’s a book that respects and honors its source material, but it also provides a necessary correction to what is one of the more troubling aspects of the book, which is how the black characters are portrayed.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Don’t you just love how, in the 21st century, a 73-year-old white man can say “I want to give Mammy a voice” and the powers that be all think it’s a great idea?

One troubling feature of slave narratives is the process of a white person, typically male, having to authenticate the story. Nevermind that the author lived to tell the tale. It still wasn’t real unless it was co-signed by a presumed credible source.

Even today, when many black creatives, particularly screenwriters and directors, present ideas for stories steeped in the African-American experience, which many of them know well, they are questioned. But a 73-year-old white writer is automatically deemed capable of rendering a believable story, an epic book nonetheless, about an enslaved black woman.

And, for good measure, two-thirds of the book is in third person, with the last part written in “Ruth’s own tongue.” Oh, of course, Ruth just has to give clan matriarch Ellen Robillard O’Hara a starring role in “her” story too.

Perhaps McCaig has poured himself into African-American history books, especially the Works Progress Administration’s many oral histories of former slaves. Maybe he has schooled himself on the particulars of the slave trade and examined the complex history of Saint Domingue and its connection to the African continent, as well as its one-time indigenous community prior to European domination.

In the end, the problem isn’t whether the compelling stories of the men, women and children who endured the inhumane horror of being deemed the property of other human beings in the eyes of the law and other people’s twisted sense of morality deserve to be told. Instead, the real problem is that white people are still viewed as the utmost authority on everything their imaginations can cook up. Maybe if we changed that dynamic, the general public could finally see behind the “massas” and “missus” and discover the real people beyond the stereotypes.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.