There was once a TV show titled Kids Say the Darndest Things and as we saw last week, celebrities can say the darndest things. such as the time Sean Connery quipped “It’s not the worst thing to slap a woman now and then.”
This week’s Say What? Wednesday features some controversial comments from Academy Award winner John Wayne. In 1971, Playboy magazine interviewed “The Duke” and he made some remarks that have haunted him long after he passed away in 1979. With cancel culture looking to reassess the past, Wayne’s comments have been brought up due to a number of places and things named after him, including the John Wayne Airport.
What did Wayne say that is causing so much consternation? Let’s see what he said about African-Americans:
“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so,” Wayne said. “But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
Was Wayne saying he felt whites were superior to blacks or saying whites should remain in positions of power (as superiors) until they reached what he felt was a “point of responsibility”? While there seems to be a difference, it’s understandable why people would take offense either way they interpret it.
Wayne’s comments extended to Native Americans also, with the film star seemingly taking the view of whites who felt Native Americans were more or less “keeping the land warm” for them:
PLAYBOY: That’s hardly the point, but let’s change the subject. For years American Indians have played an important—if subordinate—role in your Westerns. Do you feel any empathy with them?
WAYNE: I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
PLAYBOY: Weren’t the Indians—by virtue of prior possession—the rightful owners of the land?
WAYNE: Look, I’m sure there have been inequalities. If those inequalities are presently affecting any of the Indians now alive, they have a right to a court hearing. But what happened 100 years ago in our country can’t be blamed on us today.
For a full transcript of the interview, click here
I’ve been a film fan for decades and a fan of John Wayne’s work for even longer. His body of work includes some of the most important films from the Western genre (and others). However, when I learned of his comments back in the 90s, I was disturbed, not only due to my Native American heritage, but in general. The idea of one group of people ruling a society because one or more other groups aren’t “responsible” has been used to justify everything from racist and sexist behavior to activities bordering on genocide (such as reservations for Native Americans). I would argue Wayne’s comments were reflective of some people from his era, but that makes them no less distasteful when they were made and even more so by today’s standards.
As often happens with cultural figures who have produced important works, I can separate the art from the artist and I still enjoy watching films with John Wayne. However, his comments do raise the important question of whether or not a publicly funded venue should honor him. Here’s what WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump had to say:
This issue shouldn’t go away and it needs to be addressed and dealt with using the mechanics of our republic. It’s good that this conversation is going on and hopefully, it will lead to some intelligent discourse that not only addresses the past, but the present and the future.