Thursday, February 21, 2019

When Minstrelsy was a Central Part of Civic Culture

Blackface and minstrelsy have been in the news this month. Following up on the Governor Northam story in Virginia, today USA Today published a large piece on college yearbooks from the 70s and 80s.

April 22nd, 1918
They found scads of images, evidence for a widespread racism that was casual and comfortable.

Front page of USA Today
(the photos are cropped out)
The Editor in Chief, even, found herself involved in images from a late 80s Arizona yearbook, and she had to recuse herself from the project and examine herself in a very public way.

The Editor found herself part of the story
The 70s and 80s are not the period of interest here. But early 20th century history is, and there's plenty of evidence for the same kinds of things, even more intensely expressed.

One of the striking things about minstrelsy here in Salem is how strongly it is implicated, often outright centered, in establishment and official forms of civic culture. Even more, there is a nexus of talk about "freedom" and instances of minstrelsy, as if in order to talk about "freedom" we had to invoke the paradigmatic instance of unfreedom in America. This patterning in what we might have considered mere "play" extends across the decades and shows how deeply rooted it is, even here. It's too deep to consider play, and instead is something serious about the way we have envisioned "freedom." (Want some Hegel with that? You got it.)

This mainstream popularity is not exceptional, in fact, and it is very unlikely that Salem is at all unusual in aligning minstrelsy with civic affairs and popular culture.

Now at the NYT, Jamelle Bouie via Twitter

via Twitter
Back on 4th of July in 1896, an important architect in the mid-Valley could perform in blackface. Here we see ways that patriotism and minstrelsy were linked, and a clear expression of mockery as a form of pleasure.

Favorite architect Charles Burggraf performed
in blackface in 1896 on the 4th of July (July 6th)
The next year two separate minstrelsy groups appeared in the news and show how mainstream it all was.

Two troupes, with Burggraf again
Also note the Hinges,
probably the in-laws of Hallie Parish Hinges
(January 23rd, 1897)
A decade later in 1908 the Elks' minstrelsy show got lots of press. The names of performers are some of the leading citizens of Salem. In a notice on the day of the show, you can see some especially repugnant caricatures of people with names we still recognize today.

March 7th, 1908
A review described some numbers as raising "the patriotic ardor of the crowd to a high pitch....The entertainment is clean and up-to-date...and yields buckets of fun."

And then in the 19-teens, the Cherrians, maybe the most Establishment of all the fraternal organizations, one closely identified with the city of Salem and its political and commercial elite, also participated in minstrelsy.

The Cherrians were at the center of  the Salem Establishment
3 July 1916 and see this on the 4th of July celebrations

Cherrians in the 1916 Cherry Fair, escorting the Queen
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
In April of 1918 they advertised the Cherrian Minstrels (at top), and it enjoyed positive reviews as a "phenomenal success." Even in well away from the 4th of July, it had a "great tableau of Uncle Sam" and closely associated minstrelsy and patriotism.

April 24th, 1918
The show was in demand elsewhere. When the show traveled to Portland, the first floor of the theater was given to soldiers, and it ended in "the grand patriotic review."

May 16th, 1918
For a later example of widespread acceptance, even banality, here's a photo of a band of Loyal order of the Moose for a parade in Vancouver, and the trombonist is in blackface. Note also the prosthetic feet to drive home the stereotype.

Nearly two generations later, here's a smaller notice from 1950. It also aligned minstrelsy with civic culture and explicit talk about "freedom."

Statesman, September 26th, 1950
A detailed and nuanced history of this is not possible here, but these examples should make it clear that minstrelsy was far from peripheral in our civic and cultural life. It's not just that the minstrelsy is mocking or taken as humorous, it's that the minstrelsy is so closely aligned with, perhaps even constitutive of, popular expressions of patriotism and what it means to be an American.

This alignment of patriotism and minstrelsy should unsettle us to the bones.

Even now, in a few days we will have a screening of Gone with the Wind and the press for it is still largely uncritical, erasing the system and portrayals of race at the heart of the "family's plantation."
In honor of its 80th anniversary, the 1939 epic will be shown at select theaters for two days only at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. both Thursday, Feb. 28, and Sunday, March 3, presented by Warner Bros. and Fathom Events.

The film, which received 10 Academy Awards and has an inflation-adjusted domestic gross of $1.8 billion, is considered one of the most popular movies of all time.

Set in the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, the story follows Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a southern belle who is set on preserving her family's plantation and winning the man she loves, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). But complications occur with the arrival of another man, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
The time for enjoying the film uncritically as entertainment should be past, and we should want to see it also as historical text, a problematic thing full of tension, erasure, and idealization. It is time for a more ambivalent appreciation of the film.

On the 25th, OPB will broadcast an episode of the Oregon Experience on "Oregon's Black Pioneers." This will better center the experience and agency of Black Pioneers and other early African-Americans in their own words and deeds.

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The NY Times has this year published some relevant notes:
"Why White People Need Blackface" (March 2019), "How Blackface Feeds White Supremacy" (March 2019), and last month's huge "1619 Project" on slavery in America.