Thursday, April 10, 2014

What on earth is there about Minstrel Shows these days ...

... and why are they hounding me so?

But my adventure as guest speaker at the Blackhawk Guild's monthly meeting in Danville turned out incredibly well, with enough goodwill to spare.  In fact, I'd say that some line was crossed yesterday that probably de-toxified the entire matter of Minstrel shows for all time

Maybe this is what young rappers are saying; something that I've failed to hear, about their ability to move past the "N" word by owning it and by using it deliberately thereby stripping it of its power.  We elders continue to be so traumatized by it and continue to cringe each time it gets used in our presence -- even when that use is couched in some arts or cultural context.

It happened to me yesterday at the Blackhawk Auto Museum -- a most magnificent edifice housing the collection of the most luxurious automobiles on the planet!  What a dream it was just to be there under that dramatic lighting -- with so few descriptive words to draw from that could possibly express the splendor of the Museum or the two floors of glamorous million dollar vehicles that had been once owned by Hollywood celebrities and other Titans of the World in their opulent lives of Eras past.

I'd been invited by the Museum Guild to make a presentation before their membership in a
monthly meeting.  Never having visited this wondrous place, this venture into the world of privilege  turned out to be beyond my wildest dreams.

The audience was beyond respectful, but was really warmly welcoming to both my granddaughter, Rosie, and her Ranger grandmother, and at the conclusion of my talk stood on their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation!

The highlight of the day, and the greatest triumph, however, was not that moment, but a bit earlier when I stood beside the legendary stage and screen star, Al Jolson's, grand convertible to have a photo taken (Aha!  The Minstrel!).   I found a gaggle of giggles rising in my throat that threatened to take over my entire body in a grand guffaw that would surely have embarrassed Rosie!  But the setting; the event; my role in it; the historic WWII period that my talk deals with, and that comes so alive in the present -- all combined to suddenly illustrate how hopelessly ridiculous it all is!

I am by now so far past any semblance of that negative history that it has lost its power to inflict pain.

The irony in considering how a white man (a Jew in this instance) could be catapulted into such stardom by blackening himself to parody a person of color -- a creature who at that time was barely considered human -- and to do it so successfully that he would be able to live such  a  life of luxury speaks to something I'll never hope to fully understand.  I can still hear him singing, "Mam-my, how I luvya, how I luvya, my dear old Mammy," and I now remember that the child I was at that time liked his act!" 

Like most of the public, my family, too, enjoyed Al Jolson, at a time when childhood innocence made me oblivious to any darker meanings of his performances.  But then I can remember my family gathering around the radio to listen and laugh at the antics of Amos 'n Andy, Lightnin' and 'da' Kingfish (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white men in black face), not ever considering that these characters were being seen by the nation as representing all black people, and that  life and death national policy was being made based on those images of our being sneaky, lazy, untrustworthy, and -- most of all -- hopelessly stupid.   In my world colored people were laughing and enjoying them, too, but as comic characters in a play.  In the old radio show, The Goldbergs, Molly surely was beloved by everyone without anyone assuming that she was the Jewish community personified.  In another generation and at a somewhat higher level of culture, artists like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger et al would just skip the burnt cork and continue to expropriate black culture in their successful bids for fame and fortune.

... but I really suspect that, yesterday, the ambiance, the obvious positive energy expressed by really good people who were open to my words -- expelled whatever doubts that may have existed in that grand space.

Love wins another one, as unlikely as that may seem ... .

I'm looking forward to the Guild's visit to my world, in late spring.   

No comments: