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'In Character' Conversation

Coming to Grips with Scarlett Fever

Labor action: Mammy (Hattie McDaniel, right, with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara) may be devoted to her "lamb," but other accounts of slave life paint a less cozy picture. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, there was plenty to read on the shelves in our house. In addition to James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, there were Jane Austen, Truman Capote and Louisa May Alcott — but there was no Gone With The Wind. My mother was raised in segregated Charlotte, N.C., and she had short patience with romantic notions about a Southern glory that had been built on the backs of slave labor. Some of them had been our ancestors.

I stumbled across Scarlett on my own at almost 16 — the same age Scarlett is when the book opens. In the years since, I've encountered several black women who share my fondness for Margaret Mitchell's vain, willful and, let's face it, emotionally clueless heroine. Like me, they think Scarlett Fever is a complicated business.

"I love the little hussy," writer Terry McMillan e-mailed me as she was frantically trying to finish her about-to-be-published novel. "But you know, for u there is a whole lot of mess attached to that girl! Good luck trying to explain it!"

I don't know that anyone could explain it in the approximately 6 minutes I was allowed on-air, but I guess for me, the bottom line is this: GWTW remains an engaging piece of fiction. And fiction is supposed to allow you to see the point of view of The Other.

Margaret Mitchell did a good job describing the life of Southern gentry. But her black people are largely two-dimensional. It was the great Hattie McDaniel, in the movie, who finally brought Mammy to life.

If you're curious about what Prissy, Mammy and Pork really thought about life at Tara, find yourself a copy of Margaret Walker's Jubilee. Written in 1966, almost exactly 100 years after the Civil War ended, it's the story of Walker's great-grandmother Vyry. Jubilee is an unblinking look at plantation life from the point of view of those who did the work, and it's well worth the search.

—Karen Grigsby Bates

Editor's note: Before we told you Karen's essay was in the works, many of you nominated Scarlett as an In Character essential. We posted Sabrina Stevens' essay on the blog earlier, and there's more Scarlett conversation in the comments there.