Associate Professor of American Studies and Sociology
9:30 a.m. Sunday, May 20, 2007
Reading the Wizard of Oz in the 21st Century
Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.
There's a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby
In 1987, exactly twenty years ago, I was asked to be a Baccalaureate speaker and I spoke about some of the cultural and political underpinnings from L. Frank Baum's book, The Wizard of Oz for seniors who would be approaching life "somewhere over that rainbow" beyond Grinnell College.
1987 was quite a year:
- President Ronald Reagan made his famous "Tear Down This Wall Speech"
- Toni Morrison won acclaim for her book Beloved
- Richard Rhodes won acclaim for his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb
- And William Julius Wilson stirred controversy with his book The Truly Disadvantaged
- Robert Mugabe was installed Zimbabwe's first President
- World's population reached 5 billion
- Public Enemy released their debut album
- Bill Withers won a Grammy for "Lean on Me"
- Bruce Willis married Demi Moore
- Condom commercials began on prime time TV
- Academy Awards best picture was The Last Emperor
- Mike Tyson became the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion
- And, the "Black Monday" stock market dropâ¦scared the crap out of usâ¦.
- And, many important events that did not make it to the press at home and abroad.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.And the dreams that you dare dreamâ¦really do come true.
That was twenty years ago. How might we read The Wizard of Oz in the 21st century?
What cultural and political underpinnings might we bring to the text in 2007?
First, do you know anything about the author?
Born in Syracuse, NY in 1856, brought up in a wealthy home, and interested in theatre. He later journeyed to Aberdeen, South Dakota in 1887 - a small prairie town - and worked as a newspaper editor to a local weekly. He was a sometimes actor, playwright, chicken breeder, axle-grease manufacturer and small-time cinematic pioneer.
Some say his Wizard of Oz, written in 1900, is an ironic portrait of our country's twists and turns as we entered the 20th century: farm revolts, wrenching rural poverty, the decline of the American frontier, the death of romantic idealism, the formation of the Populist movement, the urban reforms and struggles for power through the ballot, the 1896 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan, the U.S. war with Spain, and U.S. policies in Cuba and Philippinesâ¦and on and onâ¦.
Baum created a children's story with its symbolic allegory implicit with its political story line as we see Dorothy living on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. No one has much time for the young girl, who dreams of life "where the grass might be greener," beyond the farm. A big twister comes up, and she is knocked unconscious by a window frame blown into her bedroom. She dreams the house is lifted from its foundation by the wind and lands in Oz.
This act of nature accomplished three things: Dorothy accidentally kills the wicked witch of the east, she frees the Munchkins (liberates them from their oppressors) and realizes that maybe "there is no place like home," because she comes to appreciate (like many of us do through study and reflection) the complexity of American life.
Hopefully, the rest of the tale you know. She goes to the Emerald City to get help returning back to Kansas and she meets three misfits on the way who want too see if the Wizard can give them what they lack: the Scarecrow, brains; Tin man, a heart; and the Lion-courage, only to see that the Wizard is a fraud and getting "over the rainbow" - or at least the energy to do it - has to come from within you and frankly you have it all along.
Mr. Baum sold his story in 1934 to Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood for $40,000 and was made into a movie in 1939. Baum wrote 14 other OZ books up until is death in 1919. The Wizard of Oz ran as one of the most successful Broadway musical comedies from 1902 for ten years - and was as popular as the Harry Potter books are today!
By the way, Mr. Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a prominent feminist of that time and is said to have encouraged him to write the strongest Oz characters as females - Dorothy, Glinda, Ozma and General Jinjur - as she help draft the Women's Bill of Rights and the first three volumes of the History of Women's Suffrage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Now, who was Dorothy and what might she charge you to do beyond the "yellow brick roads or hallways" of Grinnell College?
She was an American heroine - an ordinary girl, not a princess - raised on the plains of Kansas. She is everyman (everywoman) who is coming-of-age in a time of social upheaval and must face the universal choices (your choices, now shaped by the impact of globalization) faced by every individual in the world.
Like, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Chris Taylor in Platoon, Dorothy (You) must journey to discover which side of the force (the use of one's privileges, education and knowledge) she (You) will align herself. You must learn about and maintain your best attributes beyond Grinnell as you discover additional attributes along the way to whatever Emerald Cities and cultural highways you find yourselves in.
And eventually, you, like Dorothy will and must confront the Darth Vador side of yourself - one's shadows or the intersections of all "isms," your ethnocentrism, our sometimes narrow western and U.S. nationalism, and the global contradiction of being a member of their society which is 6% of the world's population that consumes 45% of the world resources.
Like Dorothy, each of you have had to, and will continue to after you leave the "rainbow of Grinnell," walk the journey of the hero (like Forrest Gump)â¦and go homeâ¦ like ET to the socio-political world shaped by a "local world" and act as activists, professionals and citizens.
The reading of The Wizard of Oz in the 21st century might be a "telling" of an end of an era of seeking Wizards in "high places," but a time of becoming a dreamer of a world where "we begin with our own personal power" to change the things we can with what we have: A $100,000 or so Grinnell Education. What an investment in you!
- After all, like the Scarecrow, who wanted a brainâ¦he got a diploma and so did you.
- After all, like the Tin man, who wanted a heartâ¦he was able to make a testimony and so did you in these four yearsâ¦you can say without a doubt that you are the best young visionaries beginning this century as Grinnell graduates.
- And like the Lion, who wanted courageâ¦he was given a medalâ¦and each of you nowâ¦after four years and "have a pair of red slippers"â¦now go ahead, "click you heels three times" and know thatâ¦
Someday, I'll (You'll) wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me (you). Where troubles melt like lemon drops, Away above the chimney topsThat's where you'll (we'll) find me (you).
So what is your challenge as graduates in this dawn of a 21st century?
You will be forced to make lemonade out of the sour limes of 21st century living and global life, for the individual is no longer alone in a vacuum or hidden safely behind national identities and national ties since 9/11. Our personal interests and deeds are inextricably linked with those who live or die in Western or Southern Sudan, those displaced in New Orleans, or those homeless or without health insurance in Des Moines, Iowa.
Responsibility, in the 21st century means to respect what is in common with others in the world.
We love freedom in America, in the Land of Oz. Other societies also love freedom.
We love dignity in America, in the Land of Oz. Other societies also love dignityâ¦ no matter how poor or when they do not choose to be like us American Oz-ettes!
Let us take our $100,000 dollar or more education, paid by the commitment and sweat of family, communities, and cathedrals of higher education and make pledges like the Tin Man:
"A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others." Or let the actionsâ¦ of this love â¦meanâ¦we do not do thingsâ¦ that hurt others, squander limited natural and human resources, and be foul in mind or spirit.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, blue birds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow.Why thenâ¦oh, why can't I?
As we cross the "rainbow" leaving Grinnell, we leave as bluebirdsâ¦with the three Z's: resilient, zealous and in zenith preparedness. You are prepared to leave the safe and protected environment of Grinnell College to see the shades of the "rainbow" from other political angles, geo-spaces and in their multitudes of cultural diversity.
For you will be agents of keeping the "rainbow" alive because you now know â¦that the best way to change the world â¦it to understand it better.
Leave the nest and remember the lessons of "Grin City": (reversing the Seven Deadly Sins- Mahatma Gandhi)
Wealth must come with work.
Pleasure must come with conscience.
Knowledge must come with character.
Commerce must come with morality.
Science must come with humanity.
Worship must come with sacrifice.
Politics must come with principles.
So be prepared to be use you brain, heart and courage and become a Wizard of Oz (of America) and be willing to sit down with people who are less privileged.. than youâ¦.sing:
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, (stop) thenâ¦why, oh whyâ¦can't I.
Portions of this address may be used with Dr. Kesho Y. Scott's written permission.