FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/20/2009

Free (Symbolically) at Last

January 19, 2009                                            Volume 2 Issue 2
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Lawrence Holcomb
On December 25th, I celebrated the season by viewing Irving Berlin's White Christmas. In the holiday classic, a popular song and dance team discover that the selfless, WWII general they served under is experiencing hard times as the proprietor of a snowless ski-lodge. Responding to his plight, the protagonists move their Broadway theater company to the Vermont lodge, sell out, and save the general from financial ruin. My wonderful teaching assistant, mindful that I was forsaking the holidays with family in upstate New York to attend the presidential inauguration in January, had recommended White Christmas as a balm to my isolation.
Alas, after the first few bars of the Vermont performance, I clicked off the set, frustrated, dismayed and saddened. How could a film featuring the dulcet warbling of Bing Crosby and the acrobatic hi-jinks of Danny Kaye, championing such heartwarming values as patriotism, altruism and hope, evoke such a response? It might be helpful to know something about the obsolescent American art form known as the minstrelsy.
Berlin, in his tribute to the genre, left out its most significant feature. Minstrel performers, both Euro and Afro-American, "corked" their faces shoe-polish black to re-present negritude. They painted a large red ring around their mouths to symbolize the "grotesque" size of Afro-American lips. The over-the-top dancing, singing, and buffoonery were executed with one goal in mind: to announce, exaggerate and confirm what was widely accepted in the 19th century: the ontological distinction between "cultured" Europeans and "uncivilized" blacks.
Throughout my life--from growing up as a member of the first Afro-American family to integrate a working-poor Italian-American neighborhood to being one of only a few black faculty and staff members working at a private New England college--my experience has been haunted by the legacy of the minstrel show and its stock characters. Jumping Jim-Crow doubled over with laughter when, experimenting with my second grade classmates, they implored me not to "nigger-lip" our swiped cigarettes. Mammy grinned widely when I refused to play "spin the bottle" for fear that any classmate who kissed me would find herself labeled a "nigger-lover." Brudder Tambo slapped his knee and cackled when my best friend told me a neighborhood father informed him that I had body hair at an early age because "coloreds are related to monkeys." Brudder Bones tap-danced and shimmied when I was involved in a lunchroom tussle and the football captain, who was my idol, encouraged my teammate to "kick that nigger's ass."  Zip Coon mocked me when I arrived at an off-campus college party to find a couple of co-eds dressed in black-face and wooly wigs, as minstrels.  
As an adult, the specter of the minstrel does not loom as large but it still hovers. Like all cultural icons, it refuses to fade away easily. In 1980, for instance, I was startled by its silhouette when Ronald Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a city where civil-rights activists were killed by segregationists while promoting voter registration. And again, in 1988 when George H.W. Bush used an Afro-American criminal, Willie Horton, to scare voters into supporting his candidacy.  In 2002, Senator Trent Lott publicly claimed that the country would be a better place if segregationist Strom Thurmond were elected president. But in 2008, I was surprised and relieved when--despite the political rhetoric that pined for its return--a majority of European-Americans decided (by their votes) to give the tired, broken-down caricature a rest.
In a profound way, all Americans have suffered from the legacy of the minstrel show and its star characters. Whether we were on the receiving end of the dehumanizing projections, the perpetrators of the stereotypes, or just bystanders, we have all inherited the implications of living in a society perversely and paradoxically wed to and ignorant of our inhumanity to one another.  
My prayer is that the image of the noble and stalwart Barack Obama, placing his hand on the Lincoln bible, and taking the Oath of Office, will give all Americans the strength to re-examine our extraordinary and complex history in a spirit of openness, honesty, compassion and grace.  My hope is that the memory of an African-American man standing unbowed and determined, accompanied by his extraordinary Afro-American wife and darling Afro-American children, will serve as a symbolically potent antidote to all the diseased caricatures of 'black' people I've encountered throughout my 43 years.  Perhaps, witnessing the actual image on January 20th will allow all Americans to begin healing our deepest wound.
Lawrence Holcomb is an assistant professor of sociology in the department of social work and sociology. He lives in Lynn, MA.