Are you ready for Cloaking Inequity’s most controversial post to date?
I recently saw Django Unchained— I realize I am behind the times, but Redbox provides my film entertainment 80% of the time and the film just arrived. At any rate, I realize that Django Unchained is a thought-provoking film. When the film was first released, the Ford Foundation Fellows had an extended discussion on our email listserve about the film— some loved, some hated.
In the film, Dr. Schultz, Django’s bounty hunter partner, was of German descent. Django’s wife also spoke German that she has learned from a prior owner. This sparked an important connection for me to my own familial past. Julian Vasquez Heilig is a peculiar name. The Vasquez is my mother’s maiden name. Heilig is my father’s ancestral name. People often asked me the origin of my paternal name— it is German, but from where?
Before we go any further… What emotions do these sunset photos of Heilig graves in a small, rural North Carolina cemetery elicit?
Here is my paternal lineage back to slavery: Julian Vasquez Heilig — Gary Lee Heilig — William B. Heilig (miss you papa) — Sidney Heilig — William Heilig — Micheaux Shadd
Why didn’t Micheaux Shadd’s son have the name Heilig? Well, Julia Heilig was owned by the Heilig family in Gold Hill, North Carolina. Apparently William Heilig, for an unknown reason, began to use the Heilig surname after the Civil War.
The graves you see above are the German slave owners and their kin.
Imagine how I felt standing there looking at the slavers’ graves— knowing this was the geographic location of my ancestors when they were slaves. My sister and I tried in vain to find the “black cemeteries” to find our ancestors’ graves, to no avail.
This brings me back to Django. Tarantino’s Django brought the extensive depravity of slavery and their time into focus (sometimes gratuitously).
In his most recent film, Tarantino transforms Django into a Black bounty hunter/liberator extraordinaire. According to Wikipedia:
Beyond Django, there were several other character typologies in the film. The two I want to focus on are the House Negro and the Field Negro. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:
House Negro is a pejorative term for a black person, used to compare someone to a house slave of a slave owner from the historic period of legal slavery in the US. The term comes from a 1963 speech, “Message to the Grass Roots“, given by African American activist Malcolm X, wherein he explains that during slavery, there were two kinds of slaves: “house Negroes”, who worked in the master’s house, and “field Negroes”, who performed manual labor outside.
He characterizes the house Negro as having an easier lifestyle than the field Negro, and thus as unwilling to leave the plantation and more likely to support existing power structures that favor whites over blacks. Malcolm X identified with the field Negro, who worked outside and faced harsher conditions and treatment. The field Negro, he said, was more likely to revolt against repressive conditions and owners.
Wikipedia states that:
Django was the Field Negro that revolted in the film.
The New York Times described Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson’s character as:
A house slave who may be the most shocking invention in “Django Unchained.” He is an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity and who represents the symbolic self Django must destroy to assert and maintain his freedom.
I posit that Django provides a typology by which we can measure education reformers of color. Do reformers of color choose Candie, the proverbial the plantation owner as an ally? Or do they go in guns blazing to upset the social order? In my mind, those that support policies that continue to stratify society such as a multitude of high-stakes tests, limits on teacher quality, sequestering equity in school finance, and espousing neoliberal market mechanisms/privatization are NOT upsetting the social order, but rather fomenting it. Amongst education “reformers”… Who is a Django?
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