The ferocious but welcome tide against the Confederate flag these past weeks has much of the country, and almost all of the media, in a self-congratulatory mood, but on Wednesday, shit got real. While it's easy to blast the banner of slavery and the folks who cling to defending it, there was genuine anguish over TV Land's announcement that they would be pulling reruns of beloved 80s action-comedy The Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule.
In case you live in a cave, The Dukes of Hazzard was a show about two good old boys who were never meanin' no harm, but who frequently ran afoul of the law while driving their Confederate flag-emblazoned hot rod the "General Lee." Riding a late-Seventies wave of fascination with all things country, the show was a phenomenal hit, and remains a textbook example of the innocuous cultural attitude toward the Confederate flag that many Americans are having a hard time saying goodbye to.
News of TV Land's decision hit Dukes actor John Schneider particularly hard, and his reactions have been, at turns, both poignant and stupid. On the latter count, he tweeted this message, comparing the Confederate flag to a Gold's Gym logo:
In a video message on Youtube, the roots of Schneider's agst were a little more clear, and a little more understandable:
“Do I think taking ‘Dukes’ off TV Land is silly? Yeah, of course I do. ‘Silly’ maybe is not the right word. Do I think it’s an error? Yes. I think it’s an error because ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ was one of the most beloved shows ever — ever, ever, ever — and now it’s being cast in a terrible light that it does not deserve.”
“And I’m not talking about the flag. I’m talking about ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ I know ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ I love ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ I know a lot of people out there do as well.”
There are millions of people my age and younger, black and white, who loved The Dukes of Hazzard, a show that was made at a time when a longstanding cultural agreement was still in effect. In fact, the show itself contributed greatly to the demarcation between Southern pride and the racist history that underpins it.
That's why Schneider seems to feel almost a sense of betrayal at having such an ugly stigma attached to a show that relentlessly promoted positive values. The real betrayal, of course, occurred over hundreds of years, as the United States of America founded itself on slavery, then fought to end it, then allowed its embers to roar back to life. The good news is that Schneider is wrong, remembering The Dukes of Hazzard fondly doesn't make you a racist, but the bad news is that Schneider's anguish loses badly to the anguish that symbol now causes.
What's worth noting, though, is that The Dukes of Hazzard, while not the most diverse show in television history, did, in fact, feature some black characters. The only regular black character was neighboring Chickasaw County Sheriff Little, portrayed by Don Pedro Colley, but over the course of seven seasons, the show featured at least 19 other black characters. Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Kevin Peter Hall, Al White (2 episodes), Hal Williams, Herb Jefferson Jr. (2 episodes), Steven Williams (2 episodes), Wally Taylor, John Dewey Carter, Ella Mae Brown, Ernie Hudson, James Reynolds, Woody Strode, Harrison Page, Teddy Wilson, Jesse D. Goins, William Allen Young, James Avery, Tony Brubaker, and Ken Foreeall had roles during the series' 146 episodes.
That's an average of about one every seven episodes, at a time when the traditional lack of diversity on television was a lot worse than it was in, say, the nineties. Yet The Dukes of Hazzard, set in rural Georgia, outpaced two of the biggest 90s hits on television. In its 180-episode run, Seinfeld only managed to feature 19 black characters, while Friends was so white, they made a song about it:
In case you weren't counting, that's 24 black characters in ten seasons, and 236 episodes. And both of those shows were set in New York City.
As paltry as The Dukes of Hazzard's black character count seems, it was at least the result of a concerted effort by the show's creator to include more black characters. You can see what happens when no one's making an effort. In the end, though, the best way that people who loved the show can demonstrate its warm intentions is to understand how it feels, now, to look at that flag emblazoned on that car.
I don't think The Dukes of Hazzard should be erased, but like other fraught works of art, it needs to be viewed in its more complex context. Part of that context is the degree to which most of our popular entertainment erases black people, without even noticing.
Update: For those of you with an insatiable Dukes jones, the first episode is available to stream for free on Amazon, with additional episodes to purchase at $1.99.