Don's relationship to blacks

 Posted by on October 4, 2008 at 11:35 pm  Characters
Oct 042008

Throughout season 1, from the very beginning, we saw Don treating African-Americans with a dignity that we might not suspect. In Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, the opening scene has him listening attentively to a black busboy, who is then treated like dirt by his white boss. He addresses Hollis by name in a building where I’m sure some people don’t even know he has a name. (And if Roger calls Hollis by name, it’s only his sense of entitlement talking; he can know, or pretend not to know, the people he owns who work for him.)

Contrast Don’s behavior to Peggy and Pete in The Hobo Code, having visible sex without even considering the black janitor they came in with. They came in with him. They know he’s around. But they don’t consider. Because he’s hiding in plain sight. Don wouldn’t make that mistake.

Black people in the world of Sterling Cooper are treated like trash, but Don grew up treated as trash. Not just the generic “white trash,” but the very specific trash of his town; the “whoreson.” He can look eye-to-eye with anyone, of any circumstance, because he’s been there. Oppression is his bread-and-butter (oppression of males that is, Don’s understanding of women is more complex).

The only white janitor we’ve ever seen is Adam, Don’s brother. These farmboys understand themselves to be the bottom of the social ladder. Don is respectful to blacks because he knows they are as human as the Whitman boys. But also, because he is insecure. He knows he could fall back among them, and he is terrified of that fall.

All of the above was written between seasons. I had notes about it sparked by a conversation between Roberta and me, but I never got around to making it a post. Then in Six Month Leave, it all came full circle:

Roger Sterling: You know, BBDO hired a colored kid. What do you think of that?
Don Draper: I think I’m glad I’m not that kid.

Don still thinks he’s the black guy, the low man on the totem pole, the one oppressed and in danger. He’s still scared.

Now here’s a thing. I saved this essay for six months already. We’ve had a busy week at the Basket, so I could save it for another few days, but previews for Episode 10 suggest race will be addressed in it, and I wanted my thoughts up before the next episode proves them right or wrong. So here you are.


  30 Responses to “Don's relationship to blacks”

  1. New York back in the 1960s was a very segregated city. Old hands in my office told me that black folks lived and stayed in Harlem (although they must have also lived in Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc., but that was a white point of view.) The newspapers didn't cover black-on-black crime, and the only place you probably saw a black person was in a service position, unless it was an athlete or an entertainer or someone in politics. Sure, there were black doctors and teachers, and other professionals, but they served the black community. Surely Peggy and Pete each grew up in all-white environments.

    However, Don went through two experiences that might have given him a different point of view: growing up in a rural environment, and the Army. Both allowed him to see black people doing the same work he did.

  2. Interesting point about the Army, Brenda. I hadn't thought of that. The rural thing is very much what I'm talking about; rural people are an underclass in a New Yorker's mind; Don knows he's secretly in an underclass, and even in his rural environment, he's the whoreson.

  3. Great article, as usual, Deb.

    Change comes slow. I lived in NY for about 8 years, and my boyfriend's parents lived in Greenwich, CT. I always thought of Stamford as the place Greenwich kept its (black) help. Segregation still exists in every city I've been to; people stay to their "own" neighborhoods based solely on race. We have a long way to go. Still, the frontrunner in the presidential election is half-black, so we are changing.

    Looking forward to tonight's show.

  4. Hi, Deborah and Roberta,

    This is my first posting on the site. I've been a lurker on your wonderful site for several weeks now; it's given me lots of food for thought during my downtime hours at work :). I'm on the West Coast, so as a result, we see "Mad Men" later than a lot of the posters here; that, and given the complexity of each issue makes one a little slower to generate a response. However, I'm really glad Deborah posted this topic because it's something I've thought about for a long time regarding the show (and by extension life in America in general) .

    I think that Hollis's throwaway line in Episode 9, "Some people hide in plain sight," was probably one of the most prophetic on the entire series thus far. That it was uttered by a "nonentity"–an African-American elevator operator–and not registered by his white passengers– makes it all the more poignant. That sentiment forms the basis of one of America's greatest novels ever written, IMO, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." In that novel, Ellison was exploring not just how African Americans are "invisible" to whites; but really how everyone–regardless of race–is invisible to each other. What makes Ellison's novel so compelling is that it is not just a treatise against racism and the casual, humiliating slights endured by minorities on a daily basis, but that this "not seeing" takes place irrespective of skin color; in fact, some of the most ruthless, and at the same time hilarious incidents in "Invisible Man" take are visited upon its not-so-coincidentally nameless black protagonist by other African Americans, who refuse to acknowledge his right to just BE, regardless of skin color. So by extension, Ellison's novel takes on a universality about how our true selves are "invisible"–and this, of course, is a theme we've seen echoed countless times in countless ways on "Mad Men".

    Of course, it is much easier to see this when there is a visual cue like skin color, and I am really glad that Matthew Weiner has slowly but surely been silently but pointedly showing us this. I haven't read all the posts, but I'm sure it's been pointed out that not only is Hollis hiding in plain sight, but so is Carla. If Betty were not blinded by her profound depression or prejudices at this moment, she would be able to see that this lovely, dignified housekeeper is also hiding in plain sight as a source of emotional salvation. I hope she will realize that, although I'm not sure she will. As you pointed out, Deborah, the relationships between white and black people as exemplified by Don, are incredibly multi-faceted and complex. I hope that as Matthew continues to amplify the role of black people on "Mad Men", that he won't make the miscue of showing them as all-knowing and saintly (which I'm sure he won't) but, as Ellison did in his book, as the complex, multi-faceted individuals we ALL are, all hiding in plain sight.

    Before I close this rather lengthy first post, I just wanted to throw out something else along these lines and see what others think. As Deborah mentioned, Peggy and Pete indulge in their before-hours office fornication without considering the black janitor who's there in the office with them. However, later, it is Peggy who is in tears because by "following the rules" and reporting the theft of her "mad money" from her locker during the raucous Election Night Party" a black janitor (maybe the same one who was in the office prior?)ends up getting fired. That she didn't realize this might be a possibility, speaks volumes about her socio-political naivite. Ironically, in Episode 9, by NOT telling Don about Peegate, she inadvertently played a role in Freddie's dismissal. Poor Peggy–by trying to do the right thing, in each case "people who are innocent" to paraphrase her words, end up getting hurt, one black the other white.

  5. Oops, I meant "people who are good."

  6. Welcome, SFCaramia. I'm on the West Coast, too, so I feel your pain. It sucks to be the last to know.

    Great post. I need to read Invisible Man again.

  7. Thanks for a wonderful article on race. My dad was raised on a farm and in a small town during the depression, and he is very racist. I think it is kind of a power thing. You know–I'm poor and the lowest in the community, but at least I'm not black. But I think you are right about Don, that he is a "whorechild" and can relate to black people because he knows about being less than in society. I also wonder if he is just a good study of people since he has to sell (products and himself) to everyone and that is what makes him so good as a creative and con man?

  8. SF, welcome, and thanks for the thoughtful post. I don't know The Invisible Man, but you sound right on. And so true about Peggy's naivete and best intentions.

    Although, and with all the back and forth we've had on this topic I don't know if this ever got said–I don't think Don could have saved Freddy, even if Peggy had properly armed him. Duck and Pete would have still won that fight, and rightly. It just would have been a fair fight.

  9. I agree that Don does not show racist tendancy's. But I think it crosses other lines too. Don has an affinity for the underdog. Peggy was the underdog. The blacks in the company are the underdog. He also believes in treating others with dignity. take in the case of Freddy Rumsen, and how he scolded the "Boys" for their jokes.

    There are times when I am so proud of how Don tries to do the right thing by Peggy, Freddy, Hollis, etc. Don has a very clear sense of fairness that is more forward thinking.

    But just when you think he is a very ethical and just man, he does something like cheat on Betty. He looks at people like Pete, and I even have to say Jimmy (Comic) as disrespectful and he has no problem doing wrong to them.

    I do believe that he has no idea of Pete being the Baby daddy of Peggy. Cause I think he would find a way to make Pete pay. Just like he did Roger for hitting on his wife. It would go against his code of fairness.

    I do believe that Don see's himself as one of the lower caste, or at least knows where he came from, so knows humitly that people like Pete, Roger and Ken never really knew.

    Now, this is gonna be a very strange comparison. But I watch "Dexter" too and I know many would say, "Hey how can you compare a 60's Advertising, man and a 2000 Serial Killer?"

    But they are both men with 2 sides. One a obvious cover and one a dark, twisted one (Come on Don's dark side is a little twisted at times). They are very into keeping up their appearances. But don't feel like they are like others around them. They also try and go about righting wrongs in their won ways. Any thoughts?

  10. Roberta–Yeah, agreed about Freddie. They probably should have canned him when he made the zipper a musical instrument.

  11. HAH!

  12. If it is any significance, "Black like Me" was published in 1961, and made into a movie in 1964 with James Whitmore. Maybe Don will see someone reading it. Very significant movie in the south at the time. It would be cool if they reference in the show.

    The guy that wrote it was from my mom's hometown of Mansfield, Texas. They actually burned effegies of author John Howard Griffin in the town after the book came out.

  13. Great article, Deborah. I have never looked at it that way but I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s also rather interesting the very first scene we ever see of Don Draper is that of him having a conversation with a black man—not at him, but interested in what he has to say. Dick Whitman certainly knows what it’s like to be treated as less important.

  14. To me, Don scolding the others after the incident with Freddy was as much self-preservation as any. He was wondering how the others would react if they ever found out about his secret(s).

  15. I didn't get that. Interesting angle though. I just thought he felt that they owed Freddy some loyalty. Remember, Pete knows his secrets. He cannot be sure that some of them don't know it.

  16. It is an interesting angle. I found it also interesting that Don said You're talking about a man's name (I paraphrase). Meaning reputation of character, but for that to come out of the former Mr. Whitman's mouth is a little twisty.

  17. Deborah, great post. I have actually been thinking of the Betty/Carla angle and think that could be very interesting – it reminds me of the relationship in the 1950's film Imitation of Life directed by the great Douglas Sirk (any fans of MM should check out his films of the period) as well as the original 1934 movie – both of which deal with a relationship between a white woman and her black maid. It is interesting to watch both movies as they each reflect biases of their respective period but also show a respectful relationship between these two women . .hell, maybe Weiner already has this in mind!

  18. @Ellique: that's an interesting point about Don believing they should have shown Freddie some loyalty. Remember that Don also didn't think Mohawk Airlines deserved to be pushed under a bus (no pun intended) so that the firm could pitch to Sterling Cooper.

    Don has a sense of loyalty, but only up to a point. He didn't make an issue out of trying to save Freddie, nor did he make an issue out of keeping Mohawk. But in each case, he faced up to what needed to be done: he tried to ease the way for Freddy and he went to see the Mohawk guy to deliver the bad news himself rather than do it over the phone. He won't fight the inevitable but that doesn't mean he agrees with it.

  19. Just as a quick comment: in "Hobo Code", the black janitor gets into the elevator with Pete, Peggy, and Hollis because the service elevator is not functioning but there is no indication, to my recollection, that he gets out on the same floor with them. He could have gotten out on any other floor before he wheeled in just in time to see the show. They, for their part, have no idea that he is there the moment they are having sex on Pete's couch. Nor do they realize that the sun is shining through Pete's office windows at an angle that creates a shadow-puppet play effect on the 60's opaque glass office walls that usually hide whatever is going on in those offices. (Remember an earlier episode, when Paul attempts to seduce Peggy with a proposal to push the couch in front of the door?–That's during the afternoon. Same office design, same opaque glass walls.) So, it's not like they are knowingly, flagrantly flaunting their sexual behavior in front of the janitor–something that would certainly mortify Peggy if she knew the janitor was there (as for Pete, who knows). They can't see the janitor, though he can see their shadows–how's that for symbolism?!

  20. Sorry, had to add more.

    Remember that Don has had sex in his office this season with Bobbie, something we never saw him do last season with any of his affairs. And he did it in the afternoon with a full staff just outside his office door. Maybe that deadbolt lock on his door has emboldened him.

  21. I don't think Peggy would have knowingly had visble sex in front of anyone; I do think that it's easier for Peggy and Pete to forget a black person is there than a white one.

  22. This thread is making me think about a wonderful scene in a great movie, Chaplin. The scene is the one where Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Kevin Kline) are having a conversation, of all places, behind the letters of the HOLLYWOOD sign.

    Anyway, Chaplin, who'd faced plenty of discrimination in America, tells Fairbanks (paraphrasing), "America's a good country deep down."

    And Fairbanks responds, "No. We're a good country on top. It's below the surface that you see our insecurity and how scared we are."

    Such a great observation. Chaplin, the outsider, sees the uglyness that confronts him every day, but believes it masks greatness. Fairbanks, the American legend, sees the surface as a mirage and feels the foundation isn't so strong.

    I've always been amazed by this scene, because it beautifully highlights the fact that America, as much as anything, is an idea. It's an idea that holds tremendous sway over the rest of the world because we're the only place in the world where that idea is really put into action. From the outside, this is the source of our strength and it is formidable. What this scene shows is that, as Americans, we really don't understand that. Not only do we take our freedoms for granted, but we don't really see how important those freedoms are to others who observe our society.

    So what does this have to do with Hollis and Carla? Well, I've always found it interesting that African-Americans, despite all the inequalities, continue to believe in the idea of America. Isn't that what the Civil Rights Movement was about – demanding that we live up to what we put down on paper? African-Americans have an outsider's love of America, with an insider's view of our insecurities and fears.

  23. @ SFCaramia #5
    Great connection of the "hide in plain sight" line with Invisible Man*. I also thought of the book while watching this morning's repeat at the same point, though I didn't make the connection to Don and Peggy's situation as well. Nice work.

    I also realized the significance of Hollis's last line,"I keep thinking about Joe DiMaggio." DiMaggio is the survivor of the suicide, the person who loved, then rejected, the one who killed themself. In short, it was an inadvertent shot to the heart for Don, the survivor of the rejected suicide Adam.

    [*Not apropos of anything, but I have to add here that Invisible Man is the book I always cite when arguments are made about librarians, especially school librarians, taking books off the shelves. I discovered it at age 16, in my school library. Not assigned reading, I was just interested in reading it. If it hadn't been there, I might never have discovered it.]

  24. @ carocat (#17): Ooh, I'd forgotten about Imitation of Life. We watched both versions in my college Women's Studies class. Good comparison. In light of this week's episode, I think a lot of Betty's relationship with Carla has been influenced by her childhood relationship with Viola. She seems to see both of the black housemaids as useful friends who stay behind the scenes.

    As for Don, I do think he feels a connection to the disenfranchised (in this case, blacks) because of his background. As much as he tries to escape his roots, deep down he still feels like the illegitimate, unwanted country bumpkin that his father and stepmother told him he was. He's not being magnanimous to the less fortunate like, say, Paul is trying to be. Don has a lingering conviction that he is one of the less fortunate and is reaching out to people he perceives to be similar to himself.

  25. Max,

    Not to be nitpicky, but if you watch The Hobo Code episode again you'll see that there is actually a shot of that same janitor (the one who was in the elevator) going about his business of cleaning the Sterling Cooper offices while Pete and Peggy are "occupied". He looks over at the silhouette of Pete and Pegs going at it, and then shakes his head softly. It's one of my favorite scenes in that episode because it says so much without really saying anything.

  26. Krys, what Max is saying is that the janitor, though he was on the same elevator with them, didn't necessarily get off on the same floor. Yes, he ended up on the same floor, but the fact he didn't start there, in their (Pete and Peggy's) sight, contributes to their sense of being alone, and of ignoring his presence.

  27. Well, not "the fact" that he didn't start there, but the possibility.

  28. sorry. right.

  29. Ahah!

    He did in FACT get off the floor below theirs. "We really took the local."

  30. My God, what an amazing thread.

    You lot are proper clever!

    Much of what I think has already been said. I find Mad Men fascinating, especially as a woman of colour.

    I do see what you mean about Don feeling like he can relate to African-Americans.

    I would love to see what Weiner does with the next series vis-a-vis civil rights.

    The period of Mad Men in series 2 is also about the time when first generation West Indians and Africans started settling here in England. The same kind of feelings of being ignored and invisible are mirrored by many of the characters of Mad Men.

    I am glad time has moved on. But it is still a very bitter pill for me to swallow watching it nonetheless.

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