Skip to main content

Paula Deen's alternate universe

By Dorothy Brown
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Mon March 17, 2014
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 The good news is that slavery was repealed by the 13th Amendment and whites can no longer own blacks.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
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT