Behind the Curtains

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall got me thinking about curtains, not the sort one hangs in the windows to keep out prying eyes, but the metaphorical ones. Of course the Wall was the physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain, which seems to have also been the first metaphorical curtain. A brief tour.

The Iron Curtain references began, not after WWII as I had thought, but during the nineteenth century. Dispute exists as to the first uses, but the original iron curtain was a metal wall that separated the house from the stage after disastrous fires in Europe. Iron safety curtains apparently became mandatory in late nineteenth-century Austria and Germany.

The term became a metaphor in 1920 when Ethel Snowden applied it to Russia in Through Bolshevik Russia.

Before it became widely used people called the Soviet Union and its satellites the “asbestos curtain.” Everyone at that point believed asbestos had “benevolent qualities.” Now we know better, but cancer-causing toxic mineral might not have been a bad way to describe Ol’ Joe Stalin and his henchmen.

Winston Churchill popularized  the term in a 1946 speech. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.”

The term fell into disuse after people carted away pieces of the Wall and the Velvet Revolution initiated the liberation of the countries flapping in the Soviet Union’s orbit. The usage may be coming back in a different form. I’ll leave it to the pundits to decide how different today’s Russia is from its Soviet parent. The economics have changed, and Russia is flying solo these days. But the repression seems to have returned.

Iron Curtain has another iteration. Should the Chinese “fire-wall” be called Iron Curtain 2.0? This author thinks so. because of its totalitarian implications.

A corollary to the Iron Curtain was the Bamboo Curtain. It arose when Mao’s Revolutionary Army took over and created People’s Republic of China.  Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma and North Korea joined later. Again, I’ll leave it to the pundits to decide whether the thing actually exists any more since we’re on such good terms with China and all but the last two countries have opened their borders.

The variation that I find the most fascinating, for its lack of historical reference and general lack of usage, is Cotton Curtain. I’m putting it in caps just because the other two have been written that way since Churchill’s time. But it differs from the others in a great many ways. First it sounds so much more benign. An iron curtain would be impenetrable under any circumstance. Anyone who has tried to dig up bamboo, or tried to hack through it, knows that it’s flexible but oh, so impenetrable. But cotton? It’s soft and delicate. It can be brushed aside. Even when it’s still on the plant, it’s puffy and ethereal looking. The only problem is that it defined a vast barrier that millions of black folks couldn’t cross.

It took far more digging to find out the definition, the origin, and so forth. Double Tongued.Org defines the cotton curtain (lower case) as “a political, social, and cultural divide, especially concerning race, between the American South and the rest of the country.” It gives the first reference as a Time article in 1946, which compared the head of the security police in Poland denying people the franchise with a man who was urging white people in Mississippi to “take care of” any blacks who tried to vote. That definition and history would make the Mason-Dixon line the northern boundary, but I’m not sure the Cotton Curtain should have the same rigid boundary that defined the Communist-bloc countries. That’s another topic open to debate.

I first encountered the term in Mother’s journal when she was writing about meeting William Dawson, the black conductor, composer and arranger, in 1963. She wrote: “I think in the last analysis I admired Dawson wholeheartedly – because he obviously must have had an absolute thirst for knowledge, that he taught himself the things he wanted to know, that he must have been persistent, that in the face of what he called ‘the cotton curtain’ he broke through it.”

Not long before Mother met Professor Dawson, Ebony published an article called “Behind the Cotton Curtain.” The article makes clear that the cotton curtain referred most specifically to the divide that separated slaves on the South’s plantations from everyone else, even their counterparts in cities – and their northern brethren.

I’m hoping someone will update the Ebony article and do a more comprehensive study of its meaning and history.

Quick final note: There are far more sites selling bamboo and cotton curtains than there are discussions of their history but not a one selling an iron curtain that I could find.


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