Commentary: We Were Children, Performing in Blackface
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — We were 12 years old, in seventh grade, growing up in a sheltered Pittsburgh suburb, a world away from where children would march in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1963 only to be pushed back by fire hoses and angry police dogs.
It was 1962 or 1963. I don’t remember the month and “The Minstrel Show” program saved in one of my many scrapbooks did not print one.
I stood center stage, cast in the role of the “interlocutor,” the maiden of ceremonies, you could say, and wore an itchy purple dress donated by the art teacher who must have worn it at a high school prom years before.
Sitting on either side of me were six boys, the “end men” of the minstrel show we performed at our junior high school, all dressed in raggedy mismatched clothes, their faces painted black, their lips a bright white, their tambourines on the floor to the right of their chairs.
Interlocutor: Brutus, you look like the cat that’s eaten the canary. Why so self-satisfied?Brutus: “I’ve just made a great discovery. I’ve discovered that the Greeks were the first nation to play baseball.
Interlocutor: How did you figure that out?
Brutus: Look at all the fuss they made over that Homer of theirs.
(Laughter. Cue the tambourines)
The minstrel show was the school’s big theatrical production during the 1962-63 school year. I was the straight man feeding the end men set-up lines for jokes that led into song and dance numbers.
Interlocutor: With your permission I would like to test your vocabularies. … I’ll begin with you, Sassafras. Use the word “fascinate” in a sentence.
Sassafras: He had 10 buttons on his vest, but was so fat he could only fasten eight.
Interlocutor: Brutus, take the word “deceitful.”
Brutus: (After a brief mental struggle, he snaps his fingers triumphantly.) When he got back to his chair, he found de seat full of ladies.
(Laughter. Cue the tambourines.)
You get the idea. The boys in blackface, the end men, played impoverished buffoons, the jokes intended to make them look uneducated and shiftless.
The setting was supposed to resemble a riverboat, just like the minstrel shows that first became popular “in the 1820s when white entertainer Thomas Rice caused a nationwide sensation by donning burnt cork to perform the song ‘Jump Jim Crow’ on stage,” states The Encyclopedia of New York City, published in 1995 by Yale University Press.
Rice’s character came to be known as Jim Crow, which then became a stock role in minstrel shows and later “became synonymous with a complex system of racial laws and customs in the South that enabled white social, legal and political domination of blacks.”
So what were our teachers – eight are listed as sponsors on the minstrel show program – thinking as they put together the show, the script and rehearsed about 100 of my classmates who performed the musical numbers, most of them in blackface? They had to be aware of what was happening in 1962 and 1963 in the Deep South. But that was there, that was them and not us.
“At the time, I didn’t think about it one way or another. It was the early 1960s, a completely different era. Plus we normally did what the teachers told us. It was how we were raised,” observes Johna, one of the girls in the minstrel choir.
“Fifty-plus years later it’s a different world. People now understand how disrespectful [performing in blackface] is. But history is just that – something to learn from but not erase.”
Two of the end men remember the seventh-grade minstrel show as the second one they performed in, the first in fifth grade at an elementary school I did not attend, which was directed by their fifth-grade teacher who transferred to the junior high school and apparently brought with her a minstrel script.
“I had totally forgotten about it until this thing came up with the Virginia governor and attorney general,” remembers one of the end men who asked that his name not be used.
“It was a money-raising thing, at least it was when I was in fifth grade, so we could go to Gettysburg,” he recalls. “I remember some things. One song was the ‘Darktown Strutters Ball.’ ”
The Original Dixieland Band popularized that song in 1917, and although the title might suggest racial disparagement, the lyrics are innocuous.
In the seventh-grade minstrel show, this classmate also performed “The Watermelon Skit” with another end man who died 25 or so years ago. The lines they spoke are not written in the script that I saved, but let’s assume a certain slant.
“The seventh-grade show was a redo of the one we did in fifth grade,” confirms another end man, Randy. “I played the same character, 8 Ball – the Stepin Fetchit character – in both shows. The irony for me is that the show was used to fund a field trip to Gettysburg. Gettysburg!”
Randy recalls “naively asking” one of the handful of black students in our seventh-grade class, “Are you coming to the show? I was disappointed when he said, ‘No.’ I didn’t get it at all. The incidents in Virginia with the governor and attorney general wearing blackface brought back that memory.”
Of course, the Virginia officeholders were adults – the governor graduating from medical school in the mid-1980s – when they wore blackface; we were children in the early 1960s.
None of us got it then, not even our teachers.
And although I kept the show script and program, and knew exactly in which scrapbook it could be found, I never thought about – until now – the juxtaposition of our minstrel show with children in Alabama being attacked that school year by fire hoses and dogs.
What does that say about me? About the lessons learned by my classmates, who graduated from high-school in 1968, that tumultuous year of assassinations and race riots?
I like to think those of us who remember the minstrel shows are asking these questions.
Pictured at top: The riverboat image on the front cover of the seventh-grade minstrel show program.
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