A JUDGE IN THE Federal District Court in Atlanta is deciding this week whether the voice of a slave can be heard in America.
That is the crux of a dispute between lawyers for the Margaret Mitchell estate, which controls the rights to the novel ''Gone with the Wind,'' and lawyers for Houghton Mifflin, which is about to publish ''The Wind Done Gone'' by Alice Randall. This novel is narrated by Cynara, the half sister of Scarlett O'Hara: They share the same father, but Cynara's mother is Mammy, the black slave and Scarlett's maid. Cynara tells an entirely different story from the romantic Mitchell tale Americans know so well. It has to be different, of course, because it is the story of the slaves.
I have just read an advance copy of ''The Wind Done Gone.'' Randall has brought vividly to life the people who move on the margins of ''Gone with the Wind'' or who are invisible in it - yet they are the ones on whom the entire structure of the antebellum South depended.
In the American imagination, even now, slaves as individual human beings hardly exist. The American memory of slavery is still clouded by a romantic haze through which very little of the actual horror of humans-as-property is able to be perceived. In popular culture, nothing has conveyed the demeaning myths of slavery as a benign system, of slaves as contented buffoons, of the tragic nobility of the doomed cavalier ethos of the South more broadly than ''Gone with the Wind.'' The longtime effect of that novel and movie has been to perpetuate the most damning lie America has ever told itself.
''The Wind Done Gone,'' written by a young woman who is herself descended from slaves - and from slave owners - is a rebuttal to all of this, which may be why the Mitchell estate is so anxious to prevent its publication. Lawyers for the estate told the court last week, ''This book represents a blatant and wholesale theft of `Gone with the Wind.''' Anyone who reads the novel will know what a ridiculous charge that is. Cynara is an entirely original character - there is no such figure in the Mitchell book - and ''The Wind Done Gone'' is her story. ''I was born in the kitchen of a great house,'' she tells us, but as a child she was sent away to another owner. After the war she becomes a maid in a brothel, learns to read, and ultimately composes her diary, beginning in 1873. Her travels and encounters are measured against memories of what she saw and heard as a child. This work is the opposite of stealing ''Gone with the Wind;'' it is an answer to it.
The novel's publisher, Wendy Strothman of Houghton Mifflin (She is my publisher, as well), stands behind Alice Randall, affirming her creation as ''a biting satirical work that turns some well-known stereotypes on their heads.'' Indeed, as the very title indicates, ''The Wind Done Gone'' is a parody, and as such, according to the law, it does not infringe on the rights of the work being parodied.
Houghton Mifflin can make this case with integrity, pointing to its own refusal ever to attempt legal action against the long-in-print ''Bored of the Rings,'' which parodies J.R.R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings,'' which Houghton publishes. As Houghton's lawyers told the court last week, ''Fragments from the world of GWTW''' are referred to in Cynara's story, but Randall uses them with stiletto wit to accomplish the upending to which Strothman refers. Thus the childhood plantation is recalled as ''Tata''; Scarlett is named only as ''Other.'' Rhett Butler, ''Debt,'' becomes Cynara's husband. This relationship is key to what Randall is up to.
The central myth of ''Gone with the Wind,'' as of the old South, is that the races are ontologically and sexually separate, while ''The Wind Done Gone'' assumes a ubiquitous miscegenation - Scarlett, the very avatar of white womanhood, is herself racially mixed! - which reduces the racist social system to the absurd. Randall's work reduces Mitchell's to the absurd, which is the estate lawyers' real concern.
In the margin of the dictionary page on which the word ''parody'' appears, coincidentally, is a photo of Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to yield her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She said she was tired. So, presumably, is Alice Randall. So is everyone who waits to hear the story yet to be told, which is Cynara's story. It ends, ''For all those we love for whom tomorrow will not be another day, we send the sweet prayer of resting in peace.''