Skip to main content

Paula Deen's alternate universe

By Dorothy Brown
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dorothy Brown: "12 Years a Slave" offered harrowing depiction of slavery's horrors
  • She says it's troubling the manner in which some, like Paula Deen, still talk about slavery
  • The celebrity chef wants to make comeback. But listen to her words in NYT interview
  • Brown: Deen's words show bizarre misreading of slavery's damage. She should apologize

Editor's note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of Law at Emory University School of Law, and author of "Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems."

(CNN) -- On Sunday night "12 Years a Slave" took the Oscar for best picture. The film is must-watch cinema because it depicts the horrors of slavery through the eyes of a slave. Solomon Northup did all of humanity a favor when he wrote his book more than 150 years ago, and director Steve McQueen and producer Brad Pitt have earned our gratitude for turning his story into a transformative movie.

Through it, viewers confront the horror of slavery, see the tearing of raw flesh from whipping, the rapes, the complete lack of privacy that slaves experienced. We see depicted the system that was designed to destroy human beings' free will during a shameful period of our nation's history.

Dorothy Brown
Dorothy Brown

That was then, this is now. The good news is that slavery was repealed by the 13th Amendment and whites can no longer own blacks. The bad news is the troubling way that too many Americans talk about slavery in the 21st century -- or more accurately do not talk about slavery.

Which brings us to Paula Deen. The celebrity chef and TV host, whose food empire tumbled over, among other things, her use of a racial epithet, has found $75 million in backing from a private-equity company and is trying to make a comeback. She's also opening a restaurant in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

My first thought on hearing this was "Thank God it's not in my adopted city of Atlanta, Georgia." But then I got very angry -- angry that I live in a country where someone who thinks like Deen can get a $75-million vote of confidence. Seriously?!

I am not angry that in a deposition last year Deen admitted to using the N word. It is unfair to judge her based on only this, because no one is at his or her best during a deposition. No, I am angry because her views on race when she is in a more relaxed environment -- not under pressure, with plenty of time to think and choose her words -- are so wrongheaded that they require an apology. Now I fear that she has $75 million reasons to never look back.

Paula Deen was interviewed by New York Times reporter Kim Severson in the fall of 2012. The interview was before a live audience and was recorded. Severson asked: "Do you have a pride about the South that you can articulate and how do you place the racism and the slavery within that?"

Deen's response: "I do. It's funny. My great grandfather was so devastated. The war was over. He had lost his son, he had lost the war and he didn't know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. There were 30 something people on his books and the next year's Census I go to find there's like zero. Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out I'm sure into the barn and he shot himself because he couldn't deal with those kind of changes. And they were terrific changes. I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family."

Deen to open post-scandal restaurant
Paula Deen is ready to make a comeback
Paula Deen mounting her comeback

Let's acknowledge that it's sad when anyone takes his own life. But listen carefully to Deen's language. Never once does she mention slavery. Her great grandfather doesn't own slaves -- he has "workers" or "people on his books." He had no one to "help" operate his plantation. Is that what we're calling slave labor these days?

According to Deen, whites in the South treated their slaves like "family." Let's travel back in time and ask, say, a man who might have been the Solomon Northup equivalent in her grandfather's plantation. We do not know how Paula Deen's forebears treated their slaves, but do you think a slave on that plantation would say he was treated like one of the family? Let's not forget that if he did tell truth, he could be punished or even killed for doing so.

Only in Deen's altered universe could she think slaves were treated like family. She also tells us that Southerners are less prejudiced because of those very circumstances. Who knew that descendants of slave owners were less prejudiced ... because their relatives owned slaves?

What anyone who has seen "12 Years a Slave" knows (if they didn't know it before) is that slavery was brutal and cruel. Somehow Deen cannot bring herself to even use the word, all the while taking credit for having slave owning relatives because that fact makes her and the rest of the South less prejudiced.

Listen to Deen's words during the New York Times interview and you actually learn what her views on race are. For that she should apologize and lean in to the 21st century. Until she does, she is not worthy of a second chance.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dorothy A. Brown.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT