Was Tonto a Tom?

Written by admin   // February 9, 2012   // Comments Off

Breaking down the dichotomy of TV Westerns

I patterned some of my single parenting skills after ‘Lucas McCain’ of the old ‘Rifleman television series.  The Chuck Connors’ character was a single parent living on a small ranch in untamed southwest of the 1870s. The show focused on the unique bond between father and son, and of course, McCain’s skill with a modified Winchester rifle he used all too readily.

Let’s forego the fact that the rifle used in the series wasn’t invented for another 20 years, as instead my primary focus on the series was McCain’s devotion to his only child, and his son’s unwavering love and admiration for his father. 

McCain was a stern disciplinarian who provided his son with guidance, morality and a Christian ethos grounded in the harsh reality that defined the unsettled old west. 

I admired the courage and dedication to purpose the McCain character exhibited; qualities I emulated in raising my son during those half dozen years when I was a single parent.

In retrospect, Lucas McCain was also arrogant, self righteous and at times overly emotional to the point of being irrational. But I worked around those traits.  He was a dedicated father, that’s what mattered most, and always went after the bad guys, and protected the downtrodden and women, who were second-class citizens back in those days.

As an impressionable child, I also mimicked the coolness of Paladin from ‘Half Gun Will Travel,’ and Steve McQueen of the ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ series. 

Paladin was a contradiction of sorts, reciting poetry as he gunned down the bad guys.  McQueen’s character was the John Shaft of television westerns; he was just super cool.  A bounty hunter by trade, even his weapon of choice was jammin’, a cut off barreled rifle with a looped lever.

Other western series that provided me with adaptable character traits worth emulating included Bat Masterson, Maverick (James Gardner’s character was a loveable jokester with quick wit and playful spirit) and Wagon Train.  Ward Bond’s character was fatherly but demanding wagon master who contrasted against the Robert Horton character of Flint McCullough who was a progressive scout and ‘player’ who found romance under a cactus tree in the middle of the desert. 

The one trait all of the aforementioned cowboy heroes had in common (with the exception of Maverick) was that they were all Union army veterans.  In other words, they fought for the North during the civil war, and thereby didn’t carry the stigma of being Confederate bigots. 

They were also Republicans, the party of Abe Lincoln, which at the time was the progressive political party that fought against slavery, if not equality.

Why was that important?  Well, it didn’t really dawn on me during the 1960s when as a young child I watched the shows, but years later I was able to piece together how each piece of the propaganda cloth made up the flag that shaped and defined the American culture, good and bad.

In other words, little did the average person know how those shows shaped their mindset, much less that we were all victims of a propaganda machine that influenced an entire generation. 

Most of us Generation Nexters (as in after the Xers) didn’t understand the power of the media in shaping our political, cultural and even religious views.  One of the most powerful tools used in that socialization process were television westerns, a form of ‘entertainment’ that was uniquely American. 

(That process was not limited to westerns of course, but it was a lot easier to mask propaganda in westerns than any other medium.)

  Westerns made up the top television shows of my youth, and reflected an era of courageous men and strongly supportive women who overcame adversity and the harsh conditions to carve our homes and raise families. 

Westerns also focused on American expansionism, surreal adventurism and survival against the odds.

Not by coincidence, most television and movie westerns falsely portrayed history and made heroes of villains and vigilantes, while portraying African Americans as uncultured and ignorant, and Native Americans as savage, uncivilized murders.  

But at the time, most of us didn’t fully understand the meals that we were being fed. Or we added a little salt and pepper to the cuisine, ignoring the fat and carbs.

Our susceptibility to the propaganda was entrenched, thus Black children like myself frequently cast ourselves as racist White men when we played ‘cowboys and Indians.’ We didn’t know any better at the time and had we had a true sense of history, we would have sided with the Indians, for both Black and Red men were victims of the same insidious cancer that continues to plague America.

Instead, we fell prey to the propaganda machine, which cast the world in black and white.  And if we were lucky, we picked up positive traits of characters that were at least superficially ‘good people.’

Central to that process was whether the western character (most westerns were set after the civil war) had fought for the North or South.  Few of the former confederates heroes were blatantly racist in defeat (the Rebel series and Maverick come to mind), but the scripts also did little to offend its primary audience of White Americans; which means you rarely saw a Black character unless they were a lazy town clown, servants, or sharecropper who tried to be as invisible as possible.

Conversely, shows where the hero had fought for the North (union army) were generally more sympathetic to the downtrodden, occasionally defended Indians and disdained blatant acts of bigotry—directed toward Native Americans, Black people or Chinese, who during American expansionism to the west, were on the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole (no pun to the Native Americans).

Maybe one reason I liked Paladin (even though he referenced his valet as ‘Heyboy’) was that he fought for the handful of Black characters that appeared on the series. (Paladin was an ex-union officer who lived the high life in San Francisco. He was a lady’s man who spoke a dozen languages, including Chinese, if you can believe that.)

In one episode Paladin turned down a bounty for an ex-slave who had gone on a rampage after being ridiculed and victimized by institutional racism.  Paladin related to the brother who was ultimately killed by the mad mob. (Couldn’t even let a righteous brother survive, I guess.)

In another surreal episode the Richard Boone character contracted for a dollar (which was $999 below his usual fee) with a proud Black woman whose quest was to speak with and ultimately bury her estranged ‘husband’ who was scheduled to be hung by a mob.  (Make note of the dichotomy of that scenario.)

‘Have Gun Will Travel’ was ahead of its time, both in terms of bold story lines and intelligent writing, as well as it social commentary.  I later learned that Gene Roddenberry, who was the originator of the Star Trek series, which was set in a futuristic world where racism no longer existed, wrote many of those episodes. 

Roddenberry was a visionary who used television to reshape our worldview and cast racism and bigotry as the insane and inhumane concepts they really are.

Probably one of the most controversial television series of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the “Lone Ranger.”  In many respects, it served as the transitional television western for Black America, as it was accepted as an iconic series early on, but eventually became the subject of a re-education and awakening process for Black America at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

The premise of the Lone Ranger was timeless, and has evolved over the years from television westerns to the comic book superheroes of today: an avenger for justice travels the west, his face and identity hidden by a mask, his weapons two perfectly balanced .45s, loaded with silver bullets (they were later used to kill werewolves you know). 

Central to his character was his ‘faithful sidekick,’ Tonto, a Native American.

That was cool stuff when we didn’t understand the propaganda machine.  Just as we didn’t notice there were no Black cowboys around (actually, a large percentage shaped early American history), nor did we understand the subtle messages and themes being played out.

Most of all, we didn’t initially (until Black poets, comics and even civil rights organizations brought the dichotomy to light), understand the debasement of Native Americans, and how the Ranger’s quest for truth, justice and the American way was actually supporting American apartheid.

For the record, since this is the beginning of Black History Month, let me lay some true history on you that has been conveniently hidden, if not excluded from your textbooks.

Texas, the central locale for most westerns, was in the Deep South. Most ‘Texicans’ fought for the confederacy, which shouldn’t be surprising since they played a key role in the early advancement of slavery in these here United States prior to the civil war. 

The so-called war for independence from Mexico was fought in part because southern migrants to Texas wanted to bring slavery with them.  It had been outlawed by Mexico, as it had been by many ‘civilized’ countries in the early 19th century. 

Davy Crockett, the ‘hero of the fabled battle at the Alamo’ was an ardent supporter of slavery, as was Jim Bowie and ‘rebel’ leader William Travis.  The latter two ‘champions’ of justice brought slaves (i.e. African captives) with them to the historic battle. (It has been reported that among those who survived the Alamo battle was a slave, who was granted freedom by the Mexican soldiers).

Thus, for the record, the so-called victims of the Alamo were in fact mostly bigots and expansionists.  And depending on your point of reference, they were traitors as well.

With that history in mind, the Lone Ranger was a former Texas Ranger, the outfit whose claim to fame was their mandate to cleanse Texas of its native population, i.e. Indians.

A central dichotomy that was brought out in the Lone Ranger series that was crucial to both the underlying theme, as well as the propaganda machine that exploited it was that in most television westerns, the only good Indian was a dead one, with the exception of Tom-like characters who were faithful companions of the White hero and generally betrayed their own people.

Tonto fit that mold.  And it wasn’t a coincidence, but eventually a telling reality, that the Ranger would always send Tonto into hostile scenarios with bigoted townsfolk where he would routinely get his butt kicked.  Strangely (seems like Tonto should have figured it out), that processes was followed week after week, highlighting Tonto’s stupidly, as well as his undying dedication and loyalty to ‘Kemo Sabe,’ his affectionate term for the Ranger.

While we didn’t understand it at the time, the Lone Ranger was used as a tool to advance myths and prejudices against Native Americans, just as other western, often subtlety, cast Black people in negative or unflattering light.

Propaganda?  If you look closely, as the series transitioned into color (yeah, when I was growing up television shows were shown in black and white, which I guess was appropriate) wore red, white and blue.  Truly American.

The Kemo Sabe reference and steadfast loyalty of Native American actor Jay Silverheels eventually became both an oft-repeated joke in the Black community, as well as a declaration of our eventual rejection of the propaganda machinery.

Not surprisingly, it was pioneer comedian Richard Pryor who turned the phrase on its ear and led the way for the new battle cry of Black Power in the 1970s.   Pryor developed a skit referencing the Lone Ranger’s penchant for always using the plural ‘we’ when he vocalized plans to spy on the bad guys or survey a town, which almost exclusively meant Tonto going into the hostile environment alone.  In his routine, Pryor assumed the Tonto character to which he responds: ‘what do you mean ‘we,’ White man?’

It’s a question many of us began asking as we reevaluated the television and big screen westerns of the mid-1970s.  It took us awhile, but by then we started understanding the role of westerns in advancing propaganda and prejudice.

More next week.

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