The "blackface scandal" involving the governor of Virginia and others in his state has sent me back to my childhood and to the almost all-white small town in which I grew up, Woodstock, Ill.
I want to share with you part of chapter from my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, in which I describe a situation in which I, as a child, would have been expected to wear blackface for a Boy Scout minstrel show. (The Scout troop was sponsored by my church.)
In fact, as I explain in the book, the only reason I didn't participate in the minstrel show and wear blackface myself is that my family relocated to India for two years as part of my father's agriculture work before the show was staged.
This was not, however, 1984, and I was not 25 years old, both of which numbers were true for Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia. For me it was in the mid-1950s and I was 10 or so years old.
Still, what I experienced -- and later had to unpack emotionally, racially and even theologically -- was one more example of white supremacy run amok. (The photo you see here of me was taken when I was in 5th grade, at age 10 or 11, about the time of the first minstrel show I write about.)
Here's what I wrote in the book, a story perhaps appropriate for Black History Month:
When I was a boy in Woodstock there was only one black family (with two or three branches) and only one Jewish family. Oh, we had a few immigrants from such places as Poland but that was the extent of our diversity except for the seasonal influx of Spanish-speaking migrant workers to harvest vegetables and other crops. When we’d drive into Chicago, an hour-plus away, and see African-Americans on the streets, my mother sometimes (especially early in my life) would call them “darkies” or perhaps she merely tolerated us children calling them that. I never heard her or Dad use the toxic term nigger, but I certainly heard it from others, though talk of race and black people was pretty rare.
We were, however, marinated in racist thinking. For instance, when I was in Boy Scouts in the mid-1950s, I rehearsed for a traditional minstrel show that required the boy actors and singers to put on blackface and tell “Rastus and Remus” jokes to a large audience in the high school auditorium. I have copies of the 1956, 1957 and 1958 programs from those minstrel shows. And although I am included in a group photo on the back of the 1956 program, the event itself took place a couple of months after I already had moved to India with my family. So even though I remember rehearsing for the show, I was never an on-stage participant in the real event — but of course would have been had we not left the country.
The 1957 show received several promotional news stories in the Woodstock Daily Sentinel, which noted that the boys presenting the minstrel show were part of Boy Scout Troop 124, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church, the congregation to which my family and I belonged (I became a confirmed member in 1958 after returning from India). Indeed, in the 1956 minstrel program the church’s pastor, Cecil C. Urch, is listed as “Institutional Representative,” while in the programs from the 1957 and 1958 shows he is listed simply as one of the “producers & directors” or a member of the “Committee Men.”
My point in noting all this church connection is so that it’s clear that a Mainline Protestant church in the 1950s in northern Illinois saw nothing wrong with sponsoring a show of songs and jokes in which adolescent boys wore blackface and pretended to be African-Americans. This was the racial atmosphere Woodstock and much of Middle America was breathing then. And for context, let’s remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began with Rosa Parks refusing to take a seat in the back of a bus in Alabama, started on December 1, 1955. The news about black people refusing to take it anymore apparently was slow getting from Montgomery to Woodstock.
Thanks to my childhood friend Bob Okeson, who performed in these minstrel shows, I have in my possession not just the programs but also a copy of the song lyrics sung in the 1957 performance — called, none-too-subtly, “Plantation Days.” The opening number was “There’s Nothing Like a Minstrel Show.” Other songs included “Ole Dan Tucker,” which began, “I come to town de udder night, I hear de noise an’ see de fight…” The script obviously tried to help the white boys figure out allegedly black dialect. Finally, after renditions of “Short’nin’ Bread” and “Old Black Joe,” the show ended with “Lazy Bones,” which began this way: “Lazy-bones, Sleepin’ in the sun, How you ‘spec’ to get your day’s work done…”
How, indeed? The obvious message was that these lazy-boned black people needed someone like a Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to whip (literally) them into shape. It was a message that sank deep into the marrow of many white Middle Americans.
All of this might have been more understandable had it taken place a hundred years earlier in the Chicago area. In fact, something quite like it did. As historian Richard Lawrence Miller reports in Volume Three of his excellent four-volume biography Lincoln and His World, Abraham Lincoln himself, who later would be credited with freeing America’s slaves, attended and enjoyed minstrel shows. Miller reports that one of Lincoln’s friends, Henry Whitney, recalled this about a Chicago performance of one:
“On or about the 23d day of March, 1860, only a few weeks before the sitting of the Chicago (Republican presidential nomination) convention, he (Lincoln) was attending the United States Court, being then quite a candidate for the Presidency. I had three tickets presented to me for Ramsey & Newcomb’s Minstrels, a high-toned troupe, and I asked him if he would like to go to a ‘nigger show’ that night; he assented rapturously; his words were: ‘Of all things I would rather do tonight, that suits me exactly,’ and I never saw him apparently enjoy himself more than he did at that entertainment. He applauded as often as anybody, and with greater heartiness. The nondescript song and dance of Dixie was sung and acted by this troupe, the first time I ever saw it, and probably the first time it was sung and acted in Illinois. I can remember well the spontaneity of Lincoln’s enthusiasm, and the heartiness of his applause at the music and action of this rollicking and eccentric performance. … He clapped his great brawny hands in true rustic heartiness and exclaimed, in riotous enthusiasm: ‘Let’s have it again! Let’s have it again.’”
And yet in that same era — more than a hundred years before the Woodstock Boy Scouts offered a minstrel show to parents, grandparents and friends — there was at least some public sentiment suggesting that such blackface entertainment was not just racist but profoundly immoral. On the same page on which Miller quotes Henry Whitney’s minstrel show recollection, he also quotes this editorial about minstrel shows from what is called “A Massachusetts Paper” that was reprinted in the Sangamo Journal, a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper, on August 7, 1845:
“The performers of these ‘melodies’ doubtless consider themselves superior to the colored race; and proud of their white skins, look down upon a negro with contempt. Yet they go to the Southern plantations, and catch the words of the unconnected songs of slaves degraded by a long period (of) servitude, and debarred from the slightest intellectual culture, added to these words the most ineffably nonsensical productions of their own stupid brains, then endeavor to make their countenance resemble, as nearly as possible, those of the negroes whom they affect to despise — take the instruments which these wretched beings use, or devise others of so harsh a sound that no savage would endure them, and appear before the public, offering them what they style a ‘grand, original, chaste, and delightful entertainment.’ Perhaps the thought never occurred to them they are, in reality, voluntarily sinking themselves to a far lower state of debasement than that in which the negroes are unfortunately placed.
“‘Entertainments’ of this kind are outrages upon all good taste and refinement, if they are not decidedly immoral in their tendency; and it is to be hoped, that they will be speedily supplanted by amusements of a moral, rational, and elevated character.”
But more than a century later in Woodstock it was as if no one ever had raised an objection to minstrel shows. It was as if the Civil War had never been fought, the Emancipation Proclamation never issued, the first stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement had yet to happen. And all these years later the memories of having even rehearsed for a minstrel show embarrass me and break my heart.
Not long ago the memory of these mid-1950s minstrel shows surfaced in comments on the “I Grew Up in Woodstock” Facebook page, and I was quite taken by the oft-expressed idea that racism was rampant in Woodstock then, coupled with a few comments that tried to soften that clear reality. The few people seeking to explain (not excuse; they know and acknowledge that minstrel shows are seen now as inherently racist) what happened in the 1950s insisted that all this minstrel show stuff was done in good fun and that no one — black or white — should have or would have taken offense back then. In other words, there was precious little idea at the time that “Amos and Andy” or “Stepin Fetchit” were anything but sources of innocent humor. It didn’t mean to be racist, was the argument, and thus it wasn’t.
(In this photo of my Boy Scout troop, taken in our church building just before our family left for India, I'm the one on the far left.)
But, of course, white Middle Americans never experienced this kind of derisive humor from the perspective of the people of color who were the butt of the jokes. So white Middle Americans simply have no standing to dismiss criticism that labels minstrel shows of the 1950s and before as inherently racist.
It’s not so surprising that an essentially all-white small town could put on a minstrel show in the mid-1950s and imagine that it was simply entertainment. Residents of Woodstock at the time — and, indeed, many Middle Americans then — were simply enmeshed in a culture in which bigotry was so common that it seemed normal and acceptable. For instance, on page 11 of the June 6, 1957, Woodstock Daily Sentinel you can find this headline: “File Suit to Stop Japs from Trying William Gerard.” Twelve years after the end of World War II, our local newspaper was still using the derogatory term Japs. And if you look in the classified ads of the Sentinel in that era you find help wanted ads divided into “Male” and “Female,” reflecting the common practice then that reserved certain jobs just for men and others just for women. Beyond that, if you look at the 1959-’60 list I have of “band mothers” from Woodstock Community High School you will discover that each woman is a “Mrs.” (no single mothers, apparently) and all but five of the eighty-three women are identified not by their own first name but by their husband’s first name. This kind of prejudice and cultural myopia was pervasive, and it mostly seemed like the expected ordering of the universe to most Middle Americans then.
The reality was that most of us Middle Americans grew up benefiting hugely from what sociologists now call “white privilege,” but we were so deeply entangled in it that only when those outside our system began to point it out and question it did we even recognize the sea in which we swam. Eventually, however, many Middle Americans did come to understand that they were part of a system that routinely gave advantages to one on the basis of race just as it denied rights, privileges and advantages to another on that same basis. Even today not all Middle Americans recognize that reality but many more do so than when I was a child. And today the issues of diversity go far beyond black and white. They also go to the many immigrants who have come to our shores since the 1965 immigration reform act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and they especially go to the many religions those immigrants brought with them.
When I write or give speeches about interfaith dialogue these days, I often say that if the call of the Twentieth Century to Americans was to get racial harmony right (an unfinished task), the call of the Twenty-first Century is to get religious harmony right. And that, clearly, is also unfinished business as we wrestle with what it means to have Hindu and Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques and Sikh gurdwaras in neighborhoods that traditionally have been home only to Christian churches or Jewish synagogues.
As I say, this coming to terms with racial and ethnic differences was a slow process. When I went off to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1963 I had no idea who my roommate might be in the dorm to which I was assigned. I remember Mom asking me if I would be bothered if he turned out to be a black kid. Of course not, I said, though I will now confess that I secretly hoped to ease into better race relations more slowly with, perhaps, a black kid or two down the hall, though not in my own room. As it turned out, I wound up rooming with a white Missouri farm boy for four years — two in the dorm, two in apartments — and the dorm black kids were confined (by choice or chance, I didn’t know) to rooms on the dorm’s bottom floor, called The Grotto. Choice? Maybe, but I doubt it.
In Woodstock, Illinois, in the 1950s — and in much of Middle America — most of those of us who were white simply assumed that we were the human norm, we were in charge, we were the way God intended people to be. Insulation and isolation tend to produce such malformed assumptions, and I’m pretty sure that people in remote villages in southern India or western China felt the same way then about themselves. It takes exposure to the wider world to help us understand where we fit in the breathtakingly broad human picture. It took us Middle Americans too long to recognize how pinched was the view of humanity that our cultural isolation and insulation had given us, but eventually, as I say, many of us began to see ourselves as part of a much broader context. And it helped that our children began to fall in love with people who came from ethnicities and cultures different from ours.
When we finally began to open up to this reality, the Human Genome Project came along and told us that biologically there is no such thing as race anyway. What we call race is primarily a political or cultural construct. That’s information most of us still are processing, uncertain whether it can possibly be right. But what we do know is that the white cocoon that was Woodstock in the 1950s has burst forth in a rather remarkable rainbow. And for that I’m grateful.
I saw clear evidence of this rainbow when I attended a football game in September 2013 between my alma mater and the team from the new high school in town, Woodstock North. In the stands cheering the teams on were blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. And they reflected the makeup of the students enrolled at the schools today, though that student population continues to be overwhelmingly white. But neither the Woodstock High junior varsity nor the varsity football teams I watched play was all white.
One of my classmates from the graduating class of 1963, also at the game as part of our fiftieth high school reunion, turned to me and pointed to the black kid on the sidelines wearing number 34.
“That’s my grandson,” he said, his voice full of pride. “My daughter has two adopted black children.”
When we were graduating, no one in Woodstock could have or would have uttered such a sentence. But today Middle Americans not only have witnessed this kind of change but at times have either led it or simply let it happen because their only other choice was to move to the radical fringe of a changing society. And that’s not where Middle Americans live.
Have we Americans made some racial progress since those 1950s and since the 1984 yearbook containing an entry about Virginia's governor? Of course. But racist attitudes run deep and sometimes silently. And if we quit paying attention to them they can and will reappear -- sometimes with the help of faith communities. And, yes, I believe in forgiveness and transformation. But we must understand in a deep way the sins for which we're asking to be forgiven.
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FACT-CHECKING TRUMP AGAIN
President Donald Trump told the National Prayer Breakfast a few days ago, “I will never let you down, I can say that — never.” I'm not sure whom he thought he was addressing, but he's clearly already let down lots of people of faith, including some of those who voted for him.
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P.S.: The other day here on the blog I wrote about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and her new book, Shameless, in which she argues for a new Christian sexual ethic. Here is the New Yorker's story about her and the book. Worth a read.