When we are introduced to Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the little black girl is described by another character as “dreadfully dirty and half-naked.” Topsy’s hair is a mess, described by Stowe as knotted in little tails “stuck out in every direction.” Rescued by a supposedly benevolent slave owner from the evil clutches of slave speculators in New Orleans, Topsy is the quintessential pickaninny, an unkempt wild thing. If humanity is a garden, Topsy is a weed.
“Do you know who made you?” asks Ophelia St. Clare, the bleeding heart who has been persuaded to see Topsy as a mission project.
“Nobody, as I knows on,” Topsy says. Then: “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”
When we are introduced to Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin’s film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the little black girl is dreadfully dirty and half-naked, clad in a sleeveless t-shirt, panties and a pair of shrimp boots. Hushpuppy is at home among the animals as we see when she picks them up to listen to their hearts beat. She lives in a down-the-bayou swamp, “The Bathtub,” which is ironic because it would appear that she’s never made use of one. We don’t know at the film’s start what this little girl would say about her provenance, but her hair—sticking out in every direction—has clearly just growed. We don’t have to be told that Hushpuppy is missing a mother. A mother would have taken a comb to that child’s head.
Why, then, do we feel distressed, outraged even, when we later see Hushpuppy scrubbed clean, clothed in a dress with her mane tamed and tucked into place? It’s because we’ve been made to love her. We’ve been persuaded by Hushpuppy’s narration that she’s not a thing separate from nature but a part of nature itself. “I’m a little part of a big, big universe,” she says.
In fact, that’s the message that all the stalwarts in The Bathtub—the black ones and the white ones—want to convey, that not only do all of us have an assigned place in the universe but that the way we were made is the way we’re supposed to be. In this cosmology, levees are unnatural. Flood protection leads to alienation. We may obtain some temporary safety when we wall ourselves off from nature’s ebb and flow, but it costs us our connection to the planet. And losing that connection is worse than any storm.
“Ain’t that ugly over there?” Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, asks her as they paddle the open water in the bed of pick-up truck that he’s converted into a raft. Wink is pointing to the land fenced in by levees and floodwalls. Such massive engineering has led to development. Not just any development, but industrialization. We can see the billows of pollution rising from the plants. Contrasting what he sees with where he lives, Wink says, “We got the prettiest place on Earth.”
The Bathtub isn’t pretty at all. It’s as grimy and dirty as the people who call it home. Its beauty derives from its location south of the levee, that is, outside the protection system. It’s not exactly untouched, but is less touched than the land on the other side of the levee.
Of course, when your characters are black and celebrate their attachment to nature, when the title of your movie contains the words “beasts” and “wild,” you leave yourself open to accusations of racism, to claims that you see black people as primitive, if not altogether savage. And when your characters ignore the evacuation order that precedes an approaching storm, you might stand accused of romanticizing people who don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.
As a rural Southerner who has never felt completely at peace in the city and as a New Orleanian who stayed during Hurricane Katrina and interviewed others who did the same, I find both criticisms problematic. Urbanization has been black Americans’ most recent trend, but it is not our historical norm. Thinking of ourselves exclusively as city dwellers helps us forget one of the greatest crimes committed against us: the systematic separation of black folks from their land.
As for the wisdom of staying put, I’m reminded of a man in Treme, the nation’s oldest black neighborhood, who was explaining to me 10 days after the storm why he was resisting the soldiers sent to flush him out. “If I leave New Orleans,” he said, “where the hell I’m gonna be after that?”
You’re missing the point if you think his physical location was his only—or even his chief—concern. “Where the hell I’m gonna be?” seemed as much an existential question as anything. He may have lacked some things staying in New Orleans—electricity, running water, food—but he was clinging still to his dignity, to the freedom he had left.
When the authorities arrive in the movie, they take Hushpuppy, Wink and all the other holdouts in the Bathtub to a shelter. A sign outside reads “Open Arms,” but the folks inside don’t embrace the evacuees from the Bathtub. They truss them. The shelter is where Hushpuppy is cleaned up and combed. That’s where she’s forced into a dress. It’s where we learn that the building isn’t so much a shelter as it is a cage.
In one of the few moments of overkill, Zeitlin cuts from the shot of the appropriately dressed Hushpuppy to show us her father: tied down on a hospital bed in a medically induced sleep. We get it. The people who would make the girl respectable are the same who have pried her daddy off his property and sedated him. At this point we wonder if Zeitlin isn’t pointing an accusatory finger at the viewers. Are we sleeping? Have we been so craven as to exchange our freedom for modern conveniences and for the appearance of respectability? Such anxiety makes us long for the reappearance of that wild-looking child and root for hers and her daddy’s escape.
For all our celebration of the Underground Railroad, it’s important to acknowledge that not every African who ran away ran North. Some merely ran into the woods. There they were free from the clutches of their oppressors and free to form communities of their own. If you think of the people of the Bathtub as having formed that kind of maroon culture, then you see that — appearances notwithstanding—Hushpuppy is nobody’s little pickaninny. She’s the heroine of the film, an itty bitty warrior girl fighting to maintain her way of life. That hair isn’t a sign of neglect, but a mighty display of her power.
Jarvis DeBerry is an editorial writer and columnist at The Times-Picayune in News Orleans. You can follow him on Twitter @jarvisdeberrytp.