Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Some of you may have seen old movie clips of Al Jolson performing in blackface. This is a vestige of what was, for a hundred years or so, the classic American popular entertainment. It was what America had instead of opera: the minstrel show.

Nowadays, of course, it is understood to have been unspeakably racist. White performers blackened their faces with burnt cork and pretended to be black. They they would sing and dance and tell jokes, most of them nonsensical. What could be more insulting or offensive?

Or was it? Consider these facts:

  1. minstrel shows were often banned in Southern cities before the Civil War. They were considered implicitly abolitionist
  2. minstrel shows were at least as popular with black as with white audiences.
  3. clowns always paint their faces. Far more often, they paint their faces white. Is this insulting to whites?

We seem always too eager to believe the worst of our ancestors.

No comments: