Rhythm & Blues
By Nelson George
Billboard — May 10, 1986
Tom Petty gets flagged for ‘Plantation’ mentality
A controversial but healthy outgrowth of the film version of “The Color Purple” has been increased concern with the image of black Americans in the media. The depiction of any minority in the mass media is of great concern since, as history as shown, distorted images can have far-reaching social, economic, and psychological impact on the victims of the distortion — and on its creators.
It was in that spirit that “The Color Purple” was attacked by many blacks. It was in that spirit that this column complained about the Rolling Stones’ video for “Harlem Shuffle.” Paul Simon’s witty observation that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor is worth remembering here, since the perspective one uses in receiving images is often as important as what the creator of those images intended. Which brings us to The Black Rock Coalition, a New York-based group of musicians, writers, and plain old music lovers, which recently sent a letter to several publications and to Tom Petty’s manager, Elliot Roberts, about the title of Petty’s current album. “Pack Up the Plantation,” and his use of the Confederate flag in his stage show.
Though Petty clearly sees his use of the flag as symbolic of a rebellious attitude to established authority and bureaucracy among Southern whites, the BRC’s members claim that it can’t be divorced from its history. “The meaning of the Confederate flag,” they write, “has not been changed since March 4, 1861, when the banner was first adopted. The flag not only symbolizes secession from the United States, but a desire to perpetuate a system of overt white supremacy.”
The group members further argue, “The period and sentiment which the Confederate flag glorifies and represents to the black world is not only one of exploitation but genocide … We see the album title ‘Pack Up The Plantation’ in conjunction with the use of the flag as an endorsement of the old ‘Southern way of life’ so beloved by the Ku Klux Klan membership. Civil rights advocacy certainly cannot be inferred when the two are taken together.”
The BRC’s point is not that Petty is a racist, but that he may be guilty of the kind of insensitivity to the feelings of blacks that often occurs in the American media. Some will charge the predominantly black membership of the BRC with overreacting. But it would be nice if the rock music community thought more about what their images represent to those lacking their media clout.