Post 280 (since I started doing this blog) #6/2020 Saturday 6 February . . . A bit of digging into the history of slavery unearths a telling story. That story reveals the bad side of US history, including the story behind Blackface and its popularization in the character, Jim Crow. It’s a story impossible to shake off. In 2017, a protest took place at Oklahoma State University after two incidents of students wearing blackface appeared on social media. A cardboard placard by one student said, “Blackface is never okay!” Another student held a placard that said, “Blackface, Noun, Used to imply patronization of black people by institutions or by people perceived to be insincerely nonracist.” (Source, Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 10, 2019)
Rhae Lynn Barnes is the leading expert on the history of amateur blackface minstrelsy and its role in the history and legacy of racism. She is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface.
Barnes’ book uncovers “material remnants of white supremacy’s intellectual and cultural life between the Civil War and Civil Rights. This prolific and censored archive reveals the crucial role the Untied States government played in accelerating, funding, and disseminating blackface minstrel shows in amateur form worldwide,” notes her profile in the Princeton Department of History. Barnes is working with historian Keri Leigh Merritt, author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, (just out from Cambridge University Press) on a new film on the Civil War.
Quoted in a feature by Wil Haygood in The New York Times National (February, 10, 2019), Barnes said that “minstrel shows and blackface performances both reinforced and popularized the ‘stereotype of the dimwitted slave who was happy to be in the South.”
According to Encylopaedia Britannica, “The character of Jim Crow is thought to have been first presented about 1830 by Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, an itinerant white actor. Rice was not the first performer to don rags and use burnt cork to blacken his face to present a mocking exaggerated imitation of an African American, but he was the most famous, and his success helped establish minstrelsy as a popular theatrical form. . . .”
Further, “From the late 1870s until the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, regimented racial segregation blighted America’s water fountains, restrooms, lodging, and transportation, along with ‘separate but equal’ schools. All of these were legally sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) and codified by so-called Jim Crow laws.”
To do justice to the topic, to do justice for people who have been oppressed in America, to do justice for oneself, to infuse the story with hope, is to . . . (you finish the sentence).
The forging of American democracy
At the end of July 1619, a General Assembly, the first representative governing body in British North America, met in Jamestown, Virginia. A few weeks later two privateer ships entered the Chesapeake Bay with the first African slaves to arrive in mainland English America. In the book, 1619, (Basic Books, New York, 2018), author James Horn concludes that “Across four hundred years, the contrasting legacies of 1619 are still with us.”
Horn, nevertheless, asserts that the year 1619 “gave birth to the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of slavery and racism that has afflicted America ever since.” (Flyleaf)
Sir Edwin Sandys (pronounced Sands), was one of the founders of the proprietary Virginia Company of London. Sandys was a highly regarded English parliamentarian who, with others, had a vision for the Virginia colony as a commonwealth, that is, a colony organized and governed to serve the common good of settlers, Indigenous Americans, and Black Americans–as well as the king and investors back home. “By 1619, the Virginia Company was recognized by many in high political circles as a laboratory for some of the most advanced constitutional thinking of the age,” Horn writes.
Further: “In Virginia, commonwealth theory guided the leadership’s approach to every facet of the emerging colony, including government, the rule of law, protections for private property, the organization of the local economy, and relations with the Powhatans, the Indian peoples whose territories surrounded English settlements.”
The heart of the book makes for sometimes slow, yet detail-rich reading. Horn does convincingly make the case that 1619 was the decisive year for forging American democracy, that form of representative government that would influence all Britain’s colonies and American society to the present. “Concurrently, Virginia’s early adoption of slavery and dispossession of Indian peoples reflected and reinforced racial attitudes that began the highly discriminatory processes that have stigmatized society ever since. Such were the conflicted origins of modern America.”
In the concluding paragraph, Horn writes, “Sir Edwin Sandys believed passionately that the creation of a commonwealth was the best means of establishing just laws and a fair and equitable society in America. . . . Sandys’s dream of creating a commonwealth in the interests of settlers and Indians proved short-lived. But the twin pillars of democracy–the rule of law and representative government–survived and flourished. It was his greatest legacy to America. What was lost was his steadfast conviction that serving the common good served all.” Epilogue
During February, the African diaspora is observed as Black History Month in the United States and Canada and in October by the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. May every effort to transcend racism bear fruit. When it’s safer to travel again, I want to visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan and also the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Views along the way this past week
I believe that there can be a transcendence of heart and mind as peoples, institutions and countries continue to move forward in eliminating the scourge of racism that has existed in America for 400 years, as elsewhere. May I think, pray and act that it be so.