219 Re-share, Re-view, Recycle: How Early American Themes Reappear in Modern Texts
As the means of producing and distributing literature modernize, authors’ general themes remain relatively stagnant as society is continually plagued by updated versions of the same problem. Slavery ended in 1865, but, 154 years later, current media shares many of the elements and themes present in the slave narratives of the 1800s, suggesting that America has yet to liberate itself from the past’s persistent grip. “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and the song’s so-called “”official movie,” directed by Calmatic, parallels famous texts by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Jacobs. Lil Nas X and Calmatic manipulate the slave’s journey to freedom, the idea of the white helper, and the depiction of borders to extend the conversation about race and equality in America into the present day.
In the “Old Town Road” music video, Lil Nas X embarks on a journey similar to those undertaken by characters in slave narratives. The opening scene shows a posse of black cowboys chasing Lil Nas X and country singer Billy Ray Cyrus on horseback. Lil Nas X clutches a bag of money that he presumably stole. The pair’s pursuers end their chase early, one declaring, “When you see a black man on a horse goin’ that fast, you just gotta let him fly” (0.26). The idea of escape is introduced as Lil Nas X flees with his spoils. With the implicit threat of incarceration for his crime, Lil Nas X runs to preserve his freedom, a situation startlingly alike to Eliza’s in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Eliza’s escape is similarly aided by black pursuers, as slaves Andy and Sam interfere with Haley’s recovery efforts by leading him down the wrong roads (Stowe 40). Both texts depict a comradery between black people deriving from a mutual respect or admiration for insurgents. Like Andy and Sam, the cowboys in “Old Town Road” recognize the troubled past they share with Lil Nas X and choose to “let him fly” despite his crime. Regardless of the difference in the scenarios outlined in “Old Town Road” and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both texts grasp at a similar depiction of blackness and portray a desire for escape that extends into the modern day.
White helpers are similarly implemented across multiple texts. Having outrun their pursuers, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus sit down beside a house. Cyrus, who does not carry a bag of money, directs Lil Nas X to safety and decides himself to “settle in here for the night,” even as Lil Nas X shakes his head (0.52). Cyrus establishes himself as Lil Nas X’s guide or assistant of sorts by taking responsibility for their safety. Other writers have also depicted white helpers as facilitators of safety. While many of the white characters in Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl are domineering and dangerous, a slaveholder’s wife shelters Linda despite the threat to her own safety (Jacobs 84). In “Old Town Road,” Cyrus tries to fulfill a similar role of providing sanctuary for Lil Nas X, and he briefly believes he accomplishes this task alongside that house, before the home owners chase them away.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin also employs a white helper. As Eliza crosses a river to escape Haley, Mr. Symmes, a white plantation owner, helps her up the bank and advises her as to where she can seek further assistance (Stowe 41). Cyrus serves a similar role at the end of the “Old Town Road,” when he returns the bag of money to Lil Nas X, which was lost when Lil Nas X transported into modern times (3.19). Cyrus helps Lil Nas X fulfill his original goal—securing the stolen money—thus aiding in the completion of his escape.
All three of these characters—Cyrus, Mr. Symmes, and the slaveholder’s wife—are meant to form the texts’ call to action by serving as relatable role models for a white audience. The comments beneath “Old Town Road” contain numerous examples of listeners claiming they remember Cyrus from Hannah Montana, where he played the goofy father of a much younger and more innocent Miley Cyrus. As such, Cyrus has a certain familiarity and authority. His celebrity not only stimulates viewership of the video, but puts him in a position to effectively encourage others to attend to race issues as he does. Being a white person, Cyrus connects specifically to “Old Town Road’s” white listeners. Frederick Douglass’ Mr. Listwell is another exceptional example of white role model. Exaggeratedly kind yet relatable, Mr. Listwell is designed to inspire Douglass’ white readership to join the abolition movement. All four creators utilize similar characters to recruit white followers.
“Old Town Road” implements boarders similarly to Douglass and Stowe. In these two texts, water is used as a sort of limbo to illustrate the crossing from slavery to freedom, as Madison Washington seizes his freedom on the seas in The Heroic Slave and Eliza crosses a river to escape capture in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While “Old Town Road” does not use water to depict the shift from enslaved to free, Lil Nas X crosses through an underground tunnel to escape from the Wild West, where he was pursued for his arrest, to modern times, where Lil Nas X, along with all African Americans, are free (1.13). The tunnel symbolizes the Underground Railroad, which bridges the South with the free North, similarly to how water serves as a point of liberation in other texts.
While many of the themes and elements in modern American literature are recycled from its ancestors, the mode of consumption is radically different. Watching a music video on my own time engages different thought processes than assigned reading homework. Casual consumption of literature allows viewers to absorb it without analyzing it, which could cause the nuances of the theme to get lost. Yet, casual consumption and repeated viewership—as people enjoy music videos or movies in their free time—normalizes the imagery and message. It becomes a secondary part of the experience, which people consume without realizing it. This makes the messages shared within pieces like “Old Town Road” more effective as they are imperceptibly introduced to the viewer.
Literature’s new, casually-consumed mediums and internet release increases accessibility. “Old Town Road” first became famous on TikTok, a video sharing app, and from there was able to turn into the phenomenon it currently is. The internet gave “Old Town Road” a platform to share its message. It also allowed it to connect with a more diverse audience. Literature is no longer reserved for literate intellectuals, as books previously were, but can reach anyone with an internet connection, TV, local movie theater, or connected friends. And it naturally encourages viewership and discussion, as many people consume video for fun and more freely discuss it, and video is not associated with the unpleasant, stuffy book-club talk of older literary mediums.