Clueless Megyn Kelly's Blackface Issue Distracts from Voter Suppression as Agatha Christie Movie Shuns Its Racist Past
UPDATED 10/25/2018: Although I originally imagined that NBC might be happy about the publicity Megyn Kelly's blackface comments generated, published reports in Variety now indicate the opposite. Kelly has reportedly lawyered up for what appears to be aggressive negotiations with the Peacock network. By Thursday evening, most major news outlets (Fox, NPR, CNN, et al) were reporting that she would not be returning to the Today Show. And only a slim chance remained that she would remain at the network in any capacity at all.
But I'm not backing away from the rest of my post. The Today Show executives had to know what she was when they hired her away from Fox. Jesus was white. Santa Claus is white. So of course blackface must be okay, right?
If we’ve learned anything from the 2016 presidential election, any publicity is good publicity. In this case, it may not be great for NBC, but it won't be bad for Kelly, even if she and NBC sever all ties. With enough free PR, you can laugh your way to the bank—or even to the White House.
Yes, Megyn has apologized. She was so humble, believable and sincere, Today’s in-studio audience rewarded her with a standing ovation.
“I want to begin with two words, I'm sorry...The country feels so divided and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense. I believe this is a time for more understanding, more love, more sensitivity and honor…Thank you for listening and for helping me listen too."—Megyn Kelly
Was this a teachable moment that became a learning moment for Megyn and the whole country? I hope so. We all step in it sometimes. And when we do, the only way out is self-reflection and the willingness to admit that we’ve offended someone else.
It’s difficult to say whether Megyn’s apology was in fact sincere. It was certainly more convincing than the one she gave in 2013 when she claimed her comments about Jesus and Santa were meant as a joke. Which Jon Stewart skewererd to pieces on the Daily Show (below).
However, those of us who were raised Catholic (like Megyn) were well-trained in the art of contrition. If you do it right in the Confessional, God forgives you. If you do it right on TV, the audience forgives you too. The nice thing about the religious sacrament is that you get to commit the same sin over and over. And each time, you’re forgiven. Even as many as seventy times seven.
Megyn has shown that she’s very good at turning things around. She did it with Jane Fonda. She did it again in-studio (at least) with blackface. Who knows what she’ll say next? And whether fickle TV will be as relentlessly forgiving as the sacrament?
Atticus Finch got it right. When it comes to other people, try walking in their shoes for a while. Consider: Megyn Kelly’s father died when she was fifteen years old. The youngest of three children, she finished high school, went to college, earned a BA and edited the law review while working on her JD. She’s the mother of three children. Has been sexually harassed by the head of Fox News, called a bimbo by the putative president of the United States, written a book, and held down a high-profile job at two television networks. Is it her fault that she was born white? No.
But like it or not, she has become a flashpoint for what ails us as a country. If a woman with her credentials requires intervention on social media and national TV to understand what’s wrong with blackface—what about all those other folks out there who are just as clueless?
As the Megyn Kelly flap hit the fan this week, I found myself—quite coincidentally—watching the 2015 avatar of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None on Acorn TV. It is frightfully well done. And horribly depressing. The adaptation by Sarah Phelps, though intellectually and psychologically satisfying, is freighted with the same nihilism as her Witness for the Prosecution, also on Acorn TV. It’s the perfect tone for our time, I suppose. So I got to wondering what earlier versions of these stories might be like.
What I learned along the way was illuminating. It seems that Megyn Kelly fell into a bucket of racism far deeper than many realize.
Ten Little Niggers was the original title of Christie’s novel about ten people killed off one at a time on a remote island. It was later revised to Ten Little Indians. Then to Ten Little Soldiers. And finally to its present title, And Then There Were None. The title changes over time reflect increased awareness and an effort to shun a racist past. Especially when the novel was published in the United States where the racially loaded N-word might distract from Christie’s plot, which survives handily on its own merits. Clearly, her original title was chosen because her British audiences in 1939 could relate to it.
Agatha Christie took the title from a children’s counting game that goes back to 1868. Lots of little white kids in the British Empire grew up reciting it. As critics have noted, the rhyme is offensive on a number of levels. Not least of which is this: it reinforces the idea that people of color remain children. Even when they’ve grown up, they fail to learn from experience.
What a very useful perspective this turns out to be. Especially when you want to invade countries where these dark-skinned people live. Steal their gold. Carry off their diamonds. Put them to work in foreign lands. Deprive them of education. And make it illegal for them to practice their own rituals.
Imagine planting such an idea in the minds of children. Great way to export it all across the globe. To the far-flung reaches of your empire. Across the Pacific and the Atlantic too. And after you’ve done all that—laugh at them in minstrel shows. Blackface. Put-down comedy routines where their degradation is put on display for the entertainment of white folks.
Naturally, the little white kids grow up clueless about the horror in this. Generations later, a blonde appears on national TV in defense of blackface.
Here’s the thing. Big racist commotions that mobilize social media are a distraction. Everyone is paying attention to Megyn Kelly when they should be looking at voter suppression in states like Georgia. Where the incumbent Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, is also a candidate for Governor. He is running against the state’s first female African-American candidate, Stacey Abrams. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to gut the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removes federal oversight from Southern states with a history of voter suppression, Kemp’s office has been able to close polling places in African-American communities. And more egregiously, purge 53 thousand voters from the state’s list of eligible voters. Nor is Georgia the only state where this type of voter suppression has occurred prior to the November 2018 election. The purged voters can still vote, but they must present ID and file a provisional ballot, which may or may not be counted, depending upon who’s doing the counting.
It is not Megyn Kelly’s fault that she was born white. But it is voter suppression and not this clueless blonde who deserves our attention right now.
Afterwards, it might be useful to ask her a few questions that were not answered in her on-air apology. How do you get to be 47 years old without understanding that blackface is about as offensive as you can be to African-Americans? Even if you only do it for one day on Halloween. How do you go through law school and edit a law review without becoming more conscious of history? Where do you buy the blinders that prevent you from seeing your neighbor and your country more clearly?
Or could it be that you don't have to buy them at all? Because maybe you inherited them.
HERE IS THE FULL HOUR-LONG DEBATE FOR GEORGIA GOVERNOR VIA C-SPAN (NO COMMERCIAL INTERRUPTIONS OR COMMENTARY. (NOTE: As the New Yorker observed, this important race deserved a longer debate that allowed for in-depth discussion of the serious differences between the two candidates. An hour was certainly not enough to achieve that. But here's the debate case you're interested.
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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