Dramaturg Georgia Smith, who is a Drama & Theatre Studies and Communication Design double-major, discusses the power and danger stereotypes in her Talk on the Steps for Parade, 27 October 2016, at the McCrary Theatre. Georgia worked closely with director Catherine McNeela as they researched the historical narrative which Parade dramatizes–the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish man falsely accused of murder in 1913 Atlanta. In her Talk on the Steps Georgia explored the historical rise of antisemitism and reflected on her own identity as a Christian from Atlanta whose ancestors would have experienced intensely biased newspaper reporting on the Frank case. Read her talk below:
In my role as dramaturg, I did a lot of research into the historical background of the story of Parade. But strangely, the hardest part of all this research wasn’t actually doing it – it was knowing where to stop. Parade addresses so many issues: anti-Semitism, racism, child labor, gender roles, the power of the press, political corruption – the list goes on and on. And every one of those opens up new doors of information to study and interpret. So I had a difficult time deciding what to talk about tonight. But if there is one thing that unites almost all of these issues and drives the story of Parade – it is the power, or in this case, the danger, of stereotypes.
Parade is the story of one man whose life was ruined, and ultimately ended, by stereotypes. But the stereotypes used to slander and discredit Leo Frank were not born in 20th century Atlanta. Anti-Semitism, the prejudice against Jews, has a long and ugly past that goes all the way back to the middle ages. In this talk, I’m going to examine the historical roots of the image of Jews as scheming, dangerous, and materialistic. I’d also like to pose the question – is there such thing as a harmless stereotype?
One of the main differences between Judaism and Christianity is that Jews believe Jesus was a prophet, while Christians believe he was the incarnation of God Himself. So, during the years of early Christianity, many Christians viewed this difference in beliefs as defiance and denial of the truth by Jews. Jews were repeatedly forced out of their homelands, and had to travel and relocate. This led many Christians to begin to view Jews as immigrants, come to invade and threaten their way of life. In the 11th century, leaders of an anti-Jewish campaign spoke: “There is one people which does not obey us. Its laws and teachings are different from those of all peoples. Now let us go and obliterate them, so that the name of Israel be no longer remembered, for they are a snare before us.” Jews became a minority, and were quickly characterized as dangerous outsiders.
Around this same time, the Church forbade Christians from charging interest when exchanging money. Jews however, continued to profit off of trade. This led to the formation of the stereotype of Jews as greedy and power-hungry. Literature we still read today, such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist only serve to reinforce these ideas.
As I mentioned earlier, starting in the Middle Ages, Jews were characterized as “the Other.” Christians began to view Jews’ perceived rebellion as not only offensive, but threatening. This belief was strengthened by the myth of Jewish deicide – this is the false belief that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. This myth originates from a passage in the gospel of Matthew, where the Roman officer Pontius Pilate tells the Jewish crowd that Jesus’ death is on their hands. It reads: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’”
We often forget that even the Bible is shaped by the political landscape of its time. The gospels were written at a time when the first Christians wanted people to choose their religion over Judaism. So of course the Gospel writers wanted to portray Jews in a negative light. In reality, it is unlikely that Pontius Pilate felt any remorse about crucifying Jesus, or that he blamed the Jewish people for his death. But combined with the view of Jews as outsiders, immigrants, and dissidents, Pontius Pilate’s curse completed the Christian image of Jews as both a dangerous and doomed people.
One of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, once wrote “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” Times have changed since the middle ages, but somehow, many of these stereotypes have not. As you will see in Parade, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man, is quickly characterized as a dangerous outsider who threatens a predominately Christian culture. Because he works as a supervisor in a factory, he is viewed as greedy and capitalistic. And he had moved to Georgia from New York, allowing him to fulfill the stereotype of Jewish immigrant. In 1915, Publisher Tom Watson wrote about Leo Frank, “Here we have a typical young libertine Jew who is dreaded and detested by the city authorities of the north for the very reason that Jews of this type have an utter contempt for the law, and a ravenous appetite for the forbidden fruit.” It is no coincidence that this talk of Jews as rebellious criminals is reminiscent of the speech from the 11th century, which described Jews as “one people that does not obey us.”
It’s easy to imagine stereotypical views likes these as only held by people who are racist or bigoted. But that isn’t the case. If we haven’t said them ourselves, we’ve all heard relatives or friends say things like “Jews are smart and ambitious” or “women are more compassionate.” These stereotypes are actually more prevalent than outwardly racist statements because they fly under the radar. You could argue that these are positive generalizations that don’t have any real effects.
But you could also argue that underneath these common and seemingly harmless stereotypes are hidden messages that, whether we realize it or not, inform our prejudice against groups of people. Social psychology supports the second theory. In fact, studies have shown that exposure to a positive stereotype led to increased prejudicial beliefs.
So maybe when we hear “Jews are smart and ambitious,” we are really hearing “Jews are crafty and manipulative,” and when we hear “women are more compassionate than men,” we are really hearing “women are weaker and more vulnerable than men.” Even if these aren’t the intents behind the statements, these generalizations just can’t be entirely separated from their histories of oppression and inequality.
The study also found that when people are willing to believe big generalizations, no matter how positive or negative they are, about groups based on social or racial categories, they’re more likely to believe these differences are the result of something fundamentally and naturally different about the group. And as we all know, believing that something is fundamentally and naturally different about a group of people is what is at the heart of racism.
To the public, Leo Frank became a symbol for all things threatening and different about the north. We still see politicians and media outlets use stereotypes to reduce people down to symbols: a black man pictured on the news holding a gun, a politician trying characterize all Muslims as terrorists, a white woman chosen to be the face of all victims. In 1915 and in 2016, stereotypes are at their most dangerous when they are used as tools.
So I don’t think there is such thing as a harmless stereotype, because they keep us from viewing people as individuals. When the people of Atlanta saw Leo Frank’s name printed in the newspaper, they didn’t see a man who loved classical music or who signed letters to his wife “yours for eternal happiness.” They saw, simply because of his Jewishness, the image of a dangerous foreigner without any morals and motivated by greed. The same image that medieval Christians used to spread fear – the same image that Adolf Hitler used to enact genocide. The image that existed in people’s minds, in folklore, and in history, for centuries, but never in reality.
In our modern culture, and especially at schools like Elon, it isn’t acceptable to promote stereotypes. But does this mean they are no longer a problem? Maybe they’re just as prevalent but have gone simply from spoken to unspoken. It would be a lie to say that none of us hold any generalizations about groups of people. Generalizations have always and will always exist, and no matter how much we preach about their danger or remind ourselves of their political incorrectness, we will always be aware of them. One thing we can do is to remember that behind every generalization we make is its history. It’s not a matter of being inoffensive or politically correct. It’s a matter of not perpetuating stereotypes that have ended and continue to end lives.
For everyone in the audience who is from the south, I hope Parade doesn’t make you ashamed of your identity, but aware of your identity. I am a Christian from Atlanta myself, and my family settled in Atlanta long before Leo Frank. So Parade has made me wonder – if I had lived 100 years ago, would I have believed in the guilt of Leo Frank? I don’t think I can ever really answer this question, but what I can do is be aware of both the respectable and the shameful actions of my ancestors and their culture.
The gospel of John tells us “the truth will set you free.” I hope that Parade does that for all of you tonight. Parade tells a story that is in many ways painful and frustrating, but it is a story that is true. As people lucky enough to sit in a theatre and watch so many talented people come together to tell this story, it is our duty to find meaning in its truth. And as people living in the south, it is our duty to believe not what is comfortable or simple, but what is true.