Race, Class… and Zombies.
I want to talk about media. The movies we watch, the games we play, the books we read are hugely influential to our culture, and even our politics. So I want to say a few things about that culture.
One of the first American narratives was that of the potential Slave Uprising. That’s what people thought about, and told each other stories about, in wild apoplectic fits. The notion that African slaves would rise up and slaughter white people en masse was huge in American culture. When Haiti rose in rebellion and did just that, it was spoken about in hushed tones, but it was omnipresent. John Brown was vastly important because his raid, his protest, was the summation of everything that white people feared.
As Slavery was stamped out like the historical cockroach it was, this narrative took a different form. During Reconstruction, a new terror swept the White South. That was the fear of Black people voting, and Black people holding political office. YouTube the ending of Birth of a Nation. This was a pervasive fear: that black people would vote, and would be a part of civil society. But this fear was expressed as the fear of a vast, undulating, irrational horde. And in the end, this narrative dominated, and black people were systematically disenfranchised.
During the Jim Crow era, things went from bad to worse. Ever wonder why the Black community has a systemic fear of the Police? From the 1870s through the 1950s, Black people in the South would be routinely arrested on trumped up charges, and forced to work in the chain gangs in lieu of slavery. Didn’t read about that in your History textbooks, did you? And still, the narrative persisted: the fear of “uppity” blacks challenging the status quo.
Enter the Civil Rights movement. The Revolution that white Southerners feared actually transpired. So what happened to our culture?
Well, it shortly became difficult to portray this narrative anymore. From the 1930s onward, Hollywood was allergic to any sort of controversial story, let alone a race based one. How did our narratives react?
In 1968, George Romero made The Night of the Living Dead. It portrayed a shambling horde of unwashed and unreasonable masses relentlessly pursuing the a group of isolated people. Now I’m not saying that the film itself is a racist text; Romero was doggedly persistent about casting strong black men as the leads in his films. But let’s consider the horror sub-genre it spawned.
At it’s core, Zombie films express that old narrative. Through allegory, they express an age-old American fear. The fear of civil unrest. The fear of societal collapse. The fear of a shambling mass coming to get us. In essence, the fear of the poor.
So when we look at Ferguson, we need to realize something: that this story perpetuated by our media, this story of rioting and looting, is the latest in a centuries long chain of narratives designed to terrify us. So much of our culture has been designed to inculcate us with the fear that the under-classes will challenge the status quo, and challenge our privileged position within it.
When you see or hear someone making more of a fuss over a storefront window than they are over a human life (yes, even the life of a possible criminal), you are seeing someone forging the next link in this chain of fear and hate. But take solace in this fact: their unquestioning vitriol makes them a part of the bile-filled shambling horde of our time. We know that really, the Zombies in this day and age are the people who would have us fear our fellow man.