The Minstrel Show

I would have thought that the job of a history teacher at a middle school was to actually teach history, that is the various events that happened in the past. For example, a teacher might wish to mention racist practices that were accepted in the past, such as slavery or minstrel shows, that now are unacceptable because attitudes have changed for the better. However, according to this story at Yahoo News, teaching about past racism is now considered racist.

A middle school history teacher in small-town southeastern Michigan has been placed on paid administrative leave because he informed students that white entertainers used to paint their faces black to imitate black people and showed kids a video about it.

The teacher is Alan Barron, reports the Monroe News. The 59-year-old teacher has taught in the local school district for well over three decades and is retiring in just two weeks.

The suspension occurred after an assistant principal observed Barron teaching an eighth-grade class. Barron’s topic for the day was racial segregation laws during the Jim Crow era. The lesson included a video which showed how white actors commonly used theatrical makeup known as blackface — a practice which began in the nineteenth century and lasted over 100 years.

The unidentified assistant principal concluded that Barron’s lesson about how entertainers used to be racist was itself racist, according to the local paper. The assistant principal also apparently ordered that Barron stop the video as it was being played.

Parents with kids at the school have overwhelmingly opposed the suspension.

One parent, Adrienne Aaron, who has a daughter in the class, spoke with the Monroe News.

“It had nothing to do with racism,” Aaron (whose husband is black) said. “History is history. We need to educate our kids to see how far we’ve come in America. How is that racism?”

“He’s one of the best teachers we’ve had,” Aaron added. “We can’t believe that this is happening.”

Other parents have taken to social media. In a missive on Facebook, a frustrated parent called Barron a “great” teacher who “has changed many children’s lives.”

A school district spokesman, Bobb Vergiels, refused to say that Barron was suspended. Instead, Vergiels said, Barron is “on leave.”

“Mr. Barron has been on leave for about a week while we look into a reported situation in his classroom,” a school district statement obtained by the Monroe News reads. “Because this is a personnel matter that is going through the teacher-contract required steps, we cannot comment any further.”

As a result of the suspension, Barron cannot attend any school functions including an annual banquet during which he and other retiring teachers will be honored.

I really do not understand what the problem is here. Should Mr. Barron not teach the truth about the history of race relations in the US? Should his students not learn about aspects of American culture that may not be acceptable now, nevertheless did play an important role in our cultural development? The minstrel shows were terribly racist but they were very popular in their time and influenced White perceptions of African-American culture and contributed to the development of other forms of popular entertainment.

In a way it is a shame that the minstrel shows are so toxically politically incorrect by today’s standards. The minstrel shows were a uniquely American art form and the earliest American contribution to the theater. Although White actors blackened their faces to portray Blacks at least since the early 1600’s, the minstrel shows, featuring supposed slave on plantations began around 1830-1840. While most of the actors were Whites, there were minstrel shows featuring troupes of Black entertainers, in black face,  particularly after the Civil War. These all-Black troupes claimed that that their acts were more authentic representations of Black culture. They could be popular, but Whites often resented them if they became too successful.

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shows themselves usually consisted of three acts. The first act was a song and dance number as the troupe of entertainers came on stage and introduced themselves to the audience. There was an interlocutor who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies and was the straight man for the jokes. The second act had a structure somewhat like a variety show with music or acrobatics. Often there was a stump speech or oration given in Black dialect for humorous effect. This speech could be nonsense or perhaps something like a stand up routine, or it could be about a social issue, done in the guise of an ill-educated Black man making a fool out of himself. The third act was often a skit set on a Southern plantation. Sometimes the actors played parodies of serious drama, such as Shakespeare. Just before and during the Civil War, skits based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin became popular.

The actors generally portrayed stock characters such as the Old Uncle, the head of the slave family, the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky slave, the Dandy or Black man who imitated Whites and thought himself their equal, and during the Civil War, the Black soldier, more accustomed to retreat than fight. Female characters, usually portrayed by men or boys in drag included the Mammy and the Wench. Blacks were, of course, always shown as being dim-witted, lazy, and generally content to be slaves. They always spoke in Black dialect, and the Dandy trying to speak in standard English was a source of humor.

These shows were undoubtedly racist and offensive to African-Americans but they could also be subversive. The fool making the stump speech could make social criticism that might have ended with him being run off the stage if he had played it straight. The black face enabled audiences to accept such criticism since it was only an ignorant Black who was speaking. The minstrel shows introduced Whites to Black culture, though an introduction filtered by prejudice. It is not certain to what extent the song and dance numbers were authentically Black in origin, but the minstrel shows had a powerful influence on the development of American popular music, even among Blacks.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the minstrel shows were eclipsed in popularity by the development of vaudeville. Even so, new trends in theater and the emerging film industry often incorporated themes from the minstrel shows, especially with Black actors who often found themselves restricted to minstrel show type roles in the early years of the movies.

As I said, it is a shame that such a uniquely American and influential form of entertainment should also be so racist and politically incorrect. Perhaps the fact that these shows were so popular in their day doesn’t say much that is good about the history of race relations in America. Then again, perhaps these shows made Whites somewhat more sympathetic to Blacks than they otherwise might have been. In any case, it is surely a sign of progress that such blatantly racist entertainment is not tolerated today.

 

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One Response to “The Minstrel Show”

  1. “Blackface” and the Minstrel Show | Impressions Says:

    […] The Minstrel Show (davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com) […]

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