Exclusive: Cambridge University college dropped ‘racist’ May Ball theme

Students at St Edmund’s College originally planned to hold a ball themed around a vision of the contemporary US South

A Cambridge University college has abandoned plans to host a ball inspired by a jazz and blues vision of contemporary southern-states America.

Students on the organising committee discussed a number of possible titles for the ball, including several with a literary theme, among them Gone with the Wind, before deciding on ‘The Beautiful South’. But officials at St Edmund’s College admitted that the organising committee subsequently decided to change the theme altogether after concerns were raised.

Starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, the 1939 film Gone with the Wind is famous for the romance between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara but it has also been widely criticised for its depiction of black people.

There is a high percentage of foreign students at the 19th-century college, with around two-thirds of the students coming from 60 countries.

Mamusu Kallon, who was born in Sierra Leone and is a student at St Edmund’s, said she was dismayed. “It is a film that glamorises the romantic dreams of a slave owner and a KKK member while rendering the horrors of slavery invisible,” she said.

“The black characters fulfil every derogatory racist stereotype of the ‘slave’ and black people continue to be subject to the modern-day versions of these stereotypes. Surely Cambridge University should not be perpetuating this?”

Last month, students at the college, which counts the Duke of Edinburgh as an honorary fellow, agreed to change the theme of the May Ball entirely because of ongoing discontent. The revised theme was for a ‘Journey through the Seasons’ event.

A college spokesman said: “The college felt that it would have only been necessary for it to intervene formally if the matter had not been resolved satisfactorily. The college supports the change of theme and is proud of its record of friendliness and cordiality.”

Students at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, will now attend a ‘Journey through the Seasons’ ball (Alamy) Students at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, will now attend a ‘Journey through the Seasons’ ball (Alamy) The row comes only a week after members of Cambridge’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) committee launched a campaign asking students to speak out about instances of discrimination. Yasmin Lawal, the president of the BME committee, stressed that the aim of the campaign was to raise awareness of the issues facing ethnic-minority students in Cambridge.

Ms Kallon, a third-year human, social and political science student, said that there were issues to be addressed.

“I think there is a serious gap between policy and practice, and a refusal to understand that racism is not just the N-word or explicit in nature.”

After the name change, organisers of the ball, for which tickets cost as much as £129, promised partygoers that they would “experience all four seasons in one memorable night”.

“Our college grounds will evoke fruitful autumn gardens, long midwinter nights, the early hours of spring and the fierce passion of midsummer,” they said.

  • After publication of this report, The Independent received documentation which confirmed that, although ‘Gone With The Wind’ had been discussed as a possible title for a ball themed around the contemporary American South, it was never adopted by the organising committee, which had appeared to feel that literary themes were potentially problematic. At a meeting during which various titles (including several novels) were discussed, the committee eventually settled on ‘The Beautiful South’, as fitting with the planned “bourbon & burgers” and “jazz/blues” elements of the evening. However, after concerns were raised the theme became ‘Journey through the seasons’. At the time our report above was first published we had been told by a spokesman for the university that Gone with the Wind had been chosen as the ball’s theme. Since we now understand that not to be the case, we have amended the article above to reflect the new information. 25/11/14

Gone With the Wind: Tara’s dark shadow

Despite its huge success, Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and the subsequent film adaptation, has never fully shaken off charges of racism.

While the book is littered with racial epithets and ethnic slurs, it is the portrayal of the African-American characters – rather than the language which can also be found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – that has drawn most ire.

The book about a Southern plantation and written from the view of a slave owner has long been criticised for ignoring racial oppression and romanticising the Ku Klux Klan. The black characters are seen as simple and having little interest in freedom. Even the strong, single-minded Mammy was unable to function without the guiding hand of the white characters.

In adapting the book, David O Selznick was acutely aware of the racial tensions in making the film and said to the screenwriters they “have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger”.

Dramatist Carlton Moss called it a “rear attack” on “American history and the Negro people”. Yet others believed it undercut racial stereotypes, with Hattie McDaniel becoming the first black actress to win an Oscar.

Nick Clark

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