Minstrel performers are “…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt tastes of their fellow white citizens.” (Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1848)
A friend recently asked what I thought of the Republican Party’s current front-runner candidate in the race to become President of the United States of America. Apparently, the answer I gave left him more perplexed than before he posed the question. I simply told him that only two thoughts came to mind, when considering the GOP’s entire stable of candidates jockeying for nomination within the upcoming 2012 presidential race: minstrels and the song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Then, with that white-tailed-deer-in-the-headlights look, he asked, “What do you mean? Aren’t there any Republicans you respect or like?”
That’s when I realized that America has nearly scrubbed away the images of minstrels– white men in “blackface” or black men in “whiteface” or even black men in “blackface”- dancing to whatever tune of the times or politic tickled the collection pail of the day, or night.
Intuitively, I replied “Yea, two people…, Jackie Robinson in baseball and Colin Powell from the military, both were Republicans, who happened to be African-American.” But, my respect for them had nothing to do with their politic. And, they certainly weren’t minstrels, as modern-day minstrelsy goes.
Frankly, after the Montgomery Bus Boycott activities, in 1955, which lit a hot fire under the behinds of segregationist politicians, I couldn’t think of any other Republican whom I admired for their politic- except for the astute and politically brave Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, Jr., during his term between 1970 and 1974, from Big Stone Gap, Virginia (as well as one Democratic Kentucky Governor, Bert T. Combs, 1959-63). I was recently out of the military and a new Virginia resident when Gov. Holton began pissing off white Republicans—and, there were many– within the Massive Resistance to integration in Virginia. He was the first Republican governor since the Reconstruction period, immediately following the Civil War. He just happened to be white.
He was a shrewd politician from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, but a true man of honor. I recall how he was personally instrumental in increasing the employment of black and female workers in state government, back then. He also came up with the first of Virginia’s funding for community mental health centers, as well as supported many environmental programs.
But, what I remember most was the day he personally escorted his young children, Anne and Linwood, III, into the bowels of the black community to enroll in an African-American elementary school. Like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, this humble man exhibited rare faith and courage under the clouds of ole Jim Crow and the stench of the Ku Klux Klan which still hovered about. It was the courage of his convictions, not someone else’s politic or flimsy loyalty oath of allegiance. Frankly, if he had returned for another term, it is likely that I could have voted for him.
Oh, yes, back to the minstrels and the song. Before the Civil War (1861-1865), there were many Republicans I admired during the period before “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” around 1852, and all the hoopla it generated when written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. They included black abolitionist like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. They also included black Reconstruction Era congressmen like John Langston (VA), Hiram Revels (MS) and Robert Smalls (VA). But, that was an era before the Republican and Democratic parties, both, flipped their agenda and lost their gumption and grit. It was an era before President Abraham Lincoln’s politically prudent and expedient “Emancipation Proclamation” abolished slavery.
It was long before the once popular minstrel shows, after the Civil War, evolved from white people in “blackface” and black people in “whiteface” to performances by black people in “blackface,” according to various historical archives. They routinely depicted black folk as lazy, stupid, superstitious and always-happy bumpkins from rural countryside’s or urban slums. The shows were trendy among whites, and even some blacks, and teetered on the edges of burlesques, comic or racially tinged satire. Somewhere toward the end of the 1800s, they were replaced by more sophisticated and so-called “polite” Vaudeville acts, until cinema or motion pictures came on the scene around the 1930s.
Ironically, historical archives reveal that many segregationists considered the old minstrel shows as “disrespectful” of Southern norms because they were sympathetic toward runaway slaves and felt that they ran counter to the aims of the institution of slavery and the so-called genteel South. That’s the South my birthplace, Kentucky, often paid homage to in various ways, when I was growing up.
That’s where the state song of my birthplace, “My Old Kentucky Home,” comes in. I recall using it to explain the different meanings behind minstrel songs to some military buddies from the North, while stationed overseas, within a humorous story about black-versus-white interpretations associated with the song. They were surprised when I said it was a minstrel song (songs depicting slaves as ignorant, lazy and happy, etc.) It was written by Stephen Foster (of Lawrenceville, PA, after his visit to Bardstown, KY), around 1852, and introduced by Christy’s Minstrel’s (formed by Edwin Pearce Christy of Buffalo, NY) about a year later. It became the official state song in 1928. They couldn’t believe that we were required to sing it, in mass assembly meetings, when I was in high school, during the turbulent years (late 1950s, early 1960s) of school desegregation in Kentucky.
But, I told them how I and other black students would go mum on the lyrics when it came to singing the part which said, “…the darkies are gay.” We felt that the term, “darkies” was a real slap in the face. In my opinion, it was offensive and conjured up images of little black watermelon-eating ‘sambos’ with big red lips dancing and prancing around as happy as happy could be. Refusing to sing those lyrics became part of many routine and surreptitious ways of our rebelling against the status quo. Some of the original lyrics are found within a couple of verses below:
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day…
The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight…
What I mostly recall was the seemingly dumfounded looks on a few of the white student’s faces, once they learned of our rebellion, specifically relating to “darkies.” Back then, the disparities between what was important to black students and white students was often problematic, and a befuddling wall of embarrassment, like the time when a majority white school organization voted- and the school administration accepted- that black students could not attend the school prom, during my senior year, 1961.
Yet, at other times, it was often comforting to find our white teammates, in football and track, strongly supporting our efforts when confronted with racial hijinks by opponents during athletic competition– including opponents to integration, a couple of years earlier, when touchdowns by black running back Kermit Williams- or, our mere presence– often sparked the pea brained Ku Klux Klan to burn crude-looking crosses on a nearby hill. The stadium itself was in a white neighborhood that tested our mettle against racial hijinks, just going to and from football practice. Yet, in the springtime, I often smiled to myself because all of our home high school track meets took place at all-black Kentucky State University. It was an interesting twist, at times.
Surely, many whites may never have given much thought to the fact that “My Old Kentucky Home” was really a story from a slave’s point of view, saddened about being sold into the more horrific system of slavery of the so-called Deep South, like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Black students simply referred to them as “foreign countries,” especially Mississippi. Kentucky and other states outside of the Deep South were thought to have a more humane, paternalistic system of slavery. But, the way I saw it, slavery was slavery, as slavery is today, in other parts of the world—a different experience and definition to those that benefit from slavery and a different meaning to those enslaved.
Not until 1986 was the modern version of the song adopted. It substituted the word “people” for “darkies” within a House of Representatives resolution (Resolution #159; plus, Senate Resolution #114). This stemmed from a bill sponsored by Mr. Carl R. Hines, Sr., the lone black member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, at that time. According to Mr. Hines, the lyrics “convey connotations of racial discrimination that are not acceptable”. Frankly, my take on it was never that euphonious. But, in addition to the changed lyrics, I was very much aware of other changes unfolding within the landscape of harsh attitudes and behavior of the old Jim Crow South.
Today, the song is still played on Kentucky’s Derby Day (1st Saturday in May). Yet, I think something happens emotionally to all Kentuckians, black or white, when hearing the music to “My Old Kentucky Home.” It’s difficult to explain the mixed feelings when the University of Louisville Marching Cardinal’s Band jerks a tear from Kentucky eyes as the music plays, as it still does for me. On the other hand, the mixed emotions Americans have on hearing the national anthem- “The Star-Spangled Banner”– when played at various ceremonies can be equally perplexing, given the complex history of our nation and the sobering experiences of its citizenry, civilian and military.
Yet, for me, on this particular Veterans’ Day 2011, it’s the disparities between the two major political parties- not the color of the candidate- that concerns me when considering the stable of candidates currently jockeying for the presidential nomination. After the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, during the Civil Rights Movement, except for the politically brave Republican Governor A. Linwood Holton, Jr., I have yet to see any prominent Republican politician that can even fake being concerned for the working- or middle-class, or even the least of those among us who happen to be hungry, sick, jobless or otherwise in need, as American politicians once seemed to be.
That’s my personal take. What’s yours? Are today’s stable of candidates, jockeying to be nominated as a candidate for the “Leader of the Free World,” and President of the United States, representative of their individual constituencies—or, their own personal agendum? Please let us know within the ‘comments’ section below. Thanks. “Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.