So here it is, Black History month again - and don't think I didn't notice it's in the shortest month of the year, motherfuckers! - and for once I have decided to do something scholarly in its honor.
Since blacks in America were brought here very much against their will and subjected to every form of degradation the human mind could conceive, slavery remains a hot button issue and one that touches very raw nerves when discussed in any format. Many pop culture analysts will tell you that the first major work to really present the myriad horrors of slavery in realistic and uncomfortable detail would be Alex Haley's multi-generational saga ROOTS, and more importantly its 1977 television dramatization; the TV miniseries hit the airwaves like a blowtorch to the stomach and forced white viewers to see the torture, mutilation, rape, forced separation of families and other such details of the human chattel system that fantasies like GONE WITH THE WIND gloss over to an alarming degree. Not only did it shake up adults across the nation, but it was also the first time that most non-black American kids really understood why slavery was an unmitigated evil that was inadequately explained in the woefully skewed history schoolbooks of the era. By the time the second episode aired, I had many of my classmates come up to me apologizing for atrocities committed by their ancestors some three hundred years past. Needless to say, that shit got old fast, but it was a strange thing to witness.
The impact of ROOTS was and is undeniable since it is still frequently discussed and referenced today, but for my money it was not the first pop culture hit to unflinchingly detail slavery for a mass audience. My vote for that distinction goes to Kyle Onstott's massive 1957 novel MANDINGO.
First edition cover for MANDINGO, perhaps the worst book cover of all time. Seriously, somebody got paid to produce this!
You have probably heard the name and associate it with lurid interracial shenanigans during the plantation era Old South thanks to the outrageous 1975 movie version, but most people don't know the film was based on a lucrative bestseller that was the literary equivalent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki when it hit in the late 1950's, an era of post-war American prosperity that reveled in the secure knowledge of white superiority in all things and a barely acknowledged awareness of any wrongs committed on the historical road to getting the US to where it was.
MANDINGO was an anti-epic, replete with scalding violence and then-shocking interracial sex - or rape, in most instances - peopled with characters that ranged from the pitiful and obsequious to the downright reprehensible. The core of the story centers on the daily goings-on at the Falconhurst plantation, an establishment for breeding and selling slaves, and the tawdry intrigues set into motion upon the young master simultaneously acquiring his cousin as his wife, a new “bed wench” slave girl who becomes the real love of his life, and an ultra-studly fighting slave of the title bloodline. None of the characters come off as admirable for a variety of reasons, and the narrative squarely points out that slave-owner, slave-breeder and slave were all victims of the foul system in no uncertain terms. So why has MANDINGO gone on to be universally hailed one of the most infamous and offensive concoctions of the twentieth century?
The blame for that falls largely on the movie, a film released nearly twenty years after the book's publication; despite its documented status as a runaway bestseller at the time, there was absolutely no way that MANDINGO could have been filmed and not seen every single person involved in its translation to the big screen arrested as twisted sadists and pornographers. Even after the advancements of the civil rights movement the book was still simply too hot to handle and though there was no screen adaptation there was a flourishing genre of potboiler paperback sequels that cheapened the literary impact of Onstott's original work until the series became sort of bodice-ripper drugstore fiction with as much sex and violence as the law would allow. By the time the feature version of MANDINGO hit screens in 1975 much of its content had become fodder for rip-off novels and porno films, and many people had not read the book in its unabridged form, so much of the character and sociological insight found therein was utterly lost. The film version simplified the complex 659-page source novel to fit within a two hour running time, dumbing it down to nothing more than an overacted, ludicrously-scripted S & M/soft-porn GONE WITH THE WIND parody filled with wall-to-wall nudity, torture, bloody violence, and an overwhelming blast of unbelievable bad taste. I personally relish the film for its balls-out insanity and tastelessness, parts of which convulse me with laughter every time I sit through it, and in my opinion it remains the single most offensive film ever released by a major motion picture studio. And there is absolutely no fucking way that film could have been made today without riots breaking out in the streets. Believe that, Jack!
Sadly, the film has tarnished the considerable merit and bravery found in the novel, a book that to the best of my knowledge is out of print today, and what stands amid the rubble is perhaps one of the most misunderstood books in all of American literature. Most people have never read it, and if they have they've only seen the abridged version - admittedly, Onstott's uncut version is a trifle unnecessarily long-winded - and read it only to glean what thrills can be had for those who get off on misery and master/slave sex fantasies.
After seeing the movie during the late-1980's I tracked down the novel in its abridged form and read it, marveling at just how raw the book was for a mass-market item of its time, and determined to find the uncut version just for the sake of comparison. Thanks to eBay I recently acquired a first edition hardcover of MANDINGO and am in the process of reading it from start to finish with the intent of analyzing it both as a book and as a statement about the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. The novel runs for fifty chapters but as previously stated the unabridged version tends to ramble, so I intend to review the book in sections since sequences that cover twenty-four hours of time can go on for as many as six chapters. So when next I write on this, I will cover chapters one through five, in which we meet the Maxwells and their supporting cast of (mostly) adoring slaves.