Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Roger Ebert on the Arizona Mural and Race..... but...

On his blog, Roger Ebert posted a long, thoughtful essay that starts out with him imagining he's a brown-skinned child in Arizona who learns that a mural that reflects his skin will have to be be changed so that the skin of the children in the mural is not so dark.

Ebert grew up in Urbana, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is located (it actually straddles Urbana and Champaign). In his essay, he talks about African American children in his school and in his childhood.

He understands racism where African Americans are concerned, but he seems to be conflicted over stereotyping of American Indians. In a 2009 essay at his blog, he said that "Chief Illiniwek" is "the world's greatest sports symbol". Following his essay is a video of the mascot's "last dance".

In the comments section (he got LOT of comments), he says:
The Chief. *Sigh* I understand intellectually why Chief Illiniwek was retired. I agree with the decision ideologically. But my heart cries out, as in my memory he stands proudly on the 50 yard yard line and the Marching Illini conclude the school Song, Illinois! Illinois! Illinois! He was so much more dignified than a buckeye, a wolverine, a badger, a boilermaker, a spartan. He was greatness. I'm glad I was there.

His emotions and his intellect are at odds.  He can't condemn "Chief Illiniwek". Based on my understanding of all he says in the post itself about African Americans and race, I don't think he'd say that his heart cries out for the old black and white minstrel shows. I wish he had that same insight for American Indians and our objections to stereotypical depictions like "Chief Illiniwek".

Update: I'm adding another comment from Ebert that pre-dates the others above. The comment below is from  "Noble Spirit, More than Just a Mascot" dated 2001 the Chicago Sun Times.
"Chief Illiniwek, for nearly a century the symbol of the University of Illinois, was until recently seen as a positive image of American Indians. The Chief never was a 'mascot,' and indeed goes back so far that he pre-dates the use of "mascots" for most sports teams. ... In recent years, however, Illiniwek has been under attack from a small, self-righteous coalition that wants to wipe him from the university's history."


MissAttitude said...

I think he means what the Chief symbolizes. I'm not sure if people are offended by the Chicago Blackhawks name/mascot, but if they are, I echo the sentiments of Ebert in that you condemn it but seeing the face of the Blackhawks Chief (or the Illiniwek chief) will forever symbolize vicotry in hockey (or whichever sport).

but I don't agree that Chief Illiniwek is the greatest sports symbol. Hardly

Salix said...

"The Chief. *Sigh* I understand intellectually...I'm glad I was there." (Ebert)

Does this strike anyone else as just a fancier way of saying "I'm not a racist, but..."?

I get that he has an emotional attachment to the mascot, but imagine if he had reversed it somehow (not saying this would be perfect): "As I was growing up the Chief symbolized greatness to me, and dignity. I feel cheated realizing that all that time he was really standing for indignity."

I agree--disappointing.

Bill Kruse said...

Ebert my hero!

Anonymous said...


I think what Ebert is saying is that he understands now what message the mascot sends to some people and agrees that it should go, but he hopes people can be open-minded enough to realize that the image meant something very different to him.

Can we believe that something can "mean" one thing to one person and something different to another? Or must we all agree that there is only one meaning and anyone who doesn't agree is in denial? In which case, who gets to define the meaning of anything? What happens when two people disagree? Do they take out their academic credentials and one-up each other? I do not see the objective observation point.

Montana said...

2009, WOW, so he can not grow from an essay back then to now? I guess no one better cross you because you will never forget. maybe you need to grow a little

Debbie Reese said...

Montana and Anonymous,

I added the earlier remarks because they do show a different viewpoint at two different points in time.

The mascot/symbol DID mean something different to him than it does to me and American Indians who have worked, individually and as part of organizations, coalitions, and associations, to rid educational institutions of these stereotypical images.

It still carries emotional meaning for him, and while he understands it needed to come to an end, he can't let go of his emotional attachment. That attachment is clear across time.

What do you want me to do? Ignore what he said then, and more recently? Why?

Anonymous said...


I only wish everyone was as interested as you are in a true exchange of information, and learning, instead of cheap shots.

You suggest that his inability to give up his emotional attachment to something that was meaningful to him diminishes him in your eyes. It doesn't diminish him in mine.

I have no problem with him holding on to what that symbol means to him, so long as he understands why it needs to disappear, which he says he does.

But then I *do* believe that one thing can carry different meanings to different people. I believe that everyone is entitled to his own interpretation. People who like their Chief Illiniweck images can keep all their warm fuzzy feelings, for all I care. They don't have to see it as debasement, they only have to understand that *I* see it as debasement and that their yummy feelings should not come at the expense of someone else's discomfort.

Anon 12:16

Salix said...

@ Anonymous,

I in general agree with you, particularly in your second post, but I didn't think that's quite what Ebert was saying. (I could be wrong.) Instead of what you said--"my yummy feelings should not come at your expense"--to me it reads like, "I treasure those yummy feelings, even though they are at your expense."

I think the OP's comparison to blackface/minstrel shows is a useful one. Would it really be okay to say, "I understand intellectually why they needed to end. But they were so much more fun than rock concerts, and the makeup was so much better than KISS. I'm glad I was able to see a few."?

(Mostly, I have to admit, once I become aware something is debasing to someone else it retroactively colors all my memories of it. I guess I was hoping for something like this in Ebert's comment, and of course it's not there.)

Anonymous said...


Agreed. Some favorite books have been spoiled for me forever. But some haven't. I see their flaws, but they don't spoil the whole. This seems to be true for other reader as well, but what bits you can "skip over" and what bits "spoil the whole book" seem to vary person to person and not in a way that makes me think-- "well Sally is less of a person than Betty, or she wouldn't like that book."

For minstrel shows-- you're so far outside my cultural experience with those, that I can't really answer. I have only the vaguest idea what a minstrel show is.

As for Ebert. I don't know him except through his prose, but that's enough for me to stick with my interpretation. YMMV of course.

Anon 12:16