Has The Dukes of Hazzard Been Flagged Down?

Over the past few days, there's been a big elephant in the room for 1980s enthusiasts, Gen-Xers, and nostalgia lovers. It just so happens to involve my second earliest memory (my first earliest memory was Superman and Spider-Man). More than a few people have messaged me, curious about RetroBlasting's opinion on the whole matter.

Between a devoted album in our photo galleries, a video and two previous notes dedicated to the subject, many of you have surmised accurately that The Dukes of Hazzard played a big part of my early life. So it makes sense some would be curious to find out my thoughts or position in the wake of recent groundswells throughout the United States regarding the Confederate Battle Flag.

I was reticent to even discuss the matter, as RetroBlasting is not political, but sometimes different roads intersect and in this instance, 1980s nostalgia and politics have slammed into one another at 88 miles per hour.

That's right. 88 miles per hour.

We're time traveling as a nation, and actively trying to make changes in the present that affect moments in our past, reorienting them for all time. I was apprehensive to weigh in – to say anything about it, for more than a few reasons. Three to be exact: I'm white, I'm male, and I'm a Tennessean. In any normal crowd these days, they'd probably say that's three strikes, Michael. You're out of this one.

But I have faith in the RetroBlasting community that all of us know we're in a safe place here. I haven't actively or passively tried to push anyone away. So, here's to hoping I can spend some of that goodwill I hope I've built up just long enough for you to read and consider what I'm going to say. That's all I ask.

First of all, let me share some personal information.

I was born in 1978 in Nashville, Tennessee. My mother and father were both Tennesseans. Both came from politically conservative families. My mother was (and still is) a liberal politically, a woman who put herself through college in the face of great personal adversity, and believed in gender equality. My father was more conservative, largely a centrist, but upheld a personal dedication to many traditional values of the Mayberry/Andy Griffith variety. He loved the Boy Scouts of America, American history and was big on personal accountability.

As you can imagine, it caused conflict sometimes, especially with our extended family. Although my mother wasn't outspoken about her beliefs, she had them thrown in her face a lot by a number of my relatives on both sides, a number of whom were purebred, dyed in the wool racists, an area where my father clashed often with his relatives as he was not allied with their views, for which he gives my mother most of the credit.

There was a benefit to this political split in my immediate family: I grew up knowing both sides, and when I grew up, I was able to choose my positions without having any indoctrination to one side or the other.

However, because my mother was progressive in nature, she wasn't cavalier about the entertainment I was allowed to watch. She went and pre-screened Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 and wouldn't allow me to see it, despite me having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark 1,000 times. Rated “R” was out, horror films weren't allowed. I'm not saying this to imply my mom was an ogre. I'm saying she wouldn't let me watch anything she thought was inappropriate, especially if it was racist.

My mom thought The Dukes of Hazzard was a stupid show. She once told me in the mid-1980s, “You need the intelligence of a gnat to enjoy this show.” But she had no problem with me watching it as a small child.

As a small child growing up in the Southern United States, it was cool to have a major TV show with Southern heroes and awesome car chases. Every Southern kid was told Hazzard County was in their state. It was a myth right up there with Santa Claus. We believed it and we wanted to believe it.

On the flip side of my young life in early-1980s Tennessee was the other half of this equation. What about that Confederate Battle Flag? Well, I won't deny it. It was a common sight in the city of country music.

As a small child visiting the gift shop at the battlefield at Shiloh, I saw the battle flag for the first time outside of the context of The Dukes of Hazzard. Again, I won't lie and say “It was then I had a great epiphany...” You know what I walked away with? That the battle flag meant “Rebels.”

Me and my cousin, showing off our Dukes of Hazzard T-shirts.

It made sense to me at the time. Yeah! Rebels! Like the Duke Boys! Like the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars!

Time changes everything though. Nothing that's capsuled like a movie or television show can completely escape time's relentless march. The best you can hope for is a film, TV show or song you liked 30 years ago is still seen as “charming.” With the constant post-modern reevaluation of everything ever made, people at large have an increasingly hard time of separating original intention at a specific time and context from present-day mores and perspectives.

In the 1936 Fred Astaire musical, Swing Time, Astaire gives a heartfelt tribute to the brilliance of African-American dancing legend Bill Robinson in “Bojangles of Harlem.” Flash forward to present day and, understandably but unfortunately, Astaire's tribute has lost all meaning because he did the number in blackface. Many don't take the time to realize that Astaire's makeup was for its day, very understated, an attempt to replicate Bill Robinson, not mock him. It was not the racist caricature donned by the infamous Al Jolson blackface number in The Jazz Singer.

 Left and center: Astaire vs Jolson, right. 

Left and center: Astaire vs Jolson, right. 

Is blackface wrong? Yes! We've evolved. Today's standards reject the practice (unless Robert Downey Jr. does it apparently.) But should we vilify Astaire as a racist when in 1936 his intentions and attempt to *honor* Bill Robinson were based on different cultural standards? I don't think we should. Let's reject the makeup, but not simultaneously reject his meaning.

For example, there will come a time not long from now when the “whiteface” in the film White Girls will be abhorred right alongside the film in which it's utilized. Perception is very much about time and place.

More recently, shows we remember like The A-Team and Knight Rider have been accused of sexism by modern standards, even though we all know they weren't viewed that way back when they first appeared.

The Dukes of Hazzard is in a much tougher position. It's the Swing Time of our generation. Where other 1980s shows' transgressions are open to interpretation, (Was Magnum P.I. a subversive show? Is Buck Rogers chauvinist? Is MacGyver's mullet dated beyond redemption?), The Dukes of Hazzard is in the exact same position as Fred Astaire.

In 1979, as far as most of the country knew (including Hollywood, and Southern kids like myself) the Confederate Battle Flag was all about rebels, and not about racism. In fact, any time a movie about the south was made, Hollywood used the Confederate Battle Flag as window dressing. Smokey and the Bandit, anyone?

As far as most of the country knew...Clueless TV producers and kids under the age of twelve.

It's time to grow up and recognize the flag is a symbol of oppression to many people in the United States. In 1979, the battle flag wasn't given the gravity by the establishment, but that has now been recognized and the times they are a changin'.

What does that mean for The Dukes of Hazzard? It's an unfortunate situation. I had a long talk with a good friend and African-American co-worker of mine last week about this as we'd both grown up watching the Dukes, and he put it thusly:

"The heroes of the show, Luke and Bo, are not racist characters and are the exact opposite of those who would paint the flag on a car. People like Luke and Bo who fight for justice don't have cars with Confederate Flags on them. That's the show's only misstep."

The Dukes of Hazzard attempted to be a family-friendly show that saluted aspects of Southern American life. Bo and Luke were heroes who defended the innocent from corrupt men in power in their indestructible race car. That was the intent of the show, and that's what we all remember. Unfortunately, a major piece of décor atop their trademark car is now culturally obsolete and tarnishes an otherwise harmless television series that was not about race or black oppression.

As the remaining toy cars are pulled from circulation and the emotions of the nation settle, it's my personal hope that all of us of every color and creed, will eventually agree that The Dukes of Hazzard was not a racist TV series, didn't set out to push a racist agenda and will one day be appreciated for its meaning, not the car's makeup.