A tale of two minstrel shows | Bleader

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A tale of two minstrel shows

Posted By on 12.17.13 at 12:35 PM

Al Jolson singing My Mammy in The Jazz Singer in 1927
  • Warner Bros.
  • Al Jolson singing "My Mammy" in The Jazz Singer in 1927
A few weeks ago, the Reader received an e-mailed press release promoting a charity minstrel show at West Chicago Community High School. It was to be an exact re-creation of a charity minstrel show students at the school had put on back in 1930. It was going to fight racism.

"Many people are surprised to learn that overtly racist programs like the minstrel acts actually flourished and found large audiences in the north, in communities like West Chicago," the press release read. "By re­performing this program, the students hope to start a conversation about racial representation and stereotypes. They bravely perform in the uncomfortable guise of blackface."

The show would run one night and one night only, December 21. Admission was $10, and all proceeds would benefit the school's Multicultural Sensitivity Club. Maybelline New York was listed as a corporate sponsor.

Well. You don't get notices about minstrel shows every day. Especially not minstrel shows performed by high school students with the support and encouragement of their teachers and intended to promote multicultural sensitivity. This deserved more attention than a mere listing in the events calendar or even one on the Agenda page. I e-mailed the contact on the press release right away, a teacher named Harry Slater.

Cover of the playbill of the 1930 West Chicago Charity Minstrel Show.
  • West Chicago History Museum
  • Cover of the playbill of the 1930 West Chicago Charity Minstrel Show.
Slater responded within a couple of hours. Apparently he was a big fan of the Reader. "The students would be so excited to get their message out and start a conversation," he wrote.

The minstrel show, he explained, had grown out of a class discussion of what he called "some really dicey situations." A video produced by a group of frat boys at UC-Irvine in which one of them wore blackface to impersonate Jay-Z went viral last spring. About a month later, word got out about Paula Deen's desire to throw a "plantation-style" wedding party. "We questioned if these issues are present in our community and to what extent they had been in the past," Slater wrote. So the students began rummaging through the archives of the West Chicago History Museum. "That's when we found out that a previous incarnation of our glee club (in the 1930s) had put on a minstrel show as a fundraiser. . . . apparently without raising any ire or eyebrows."

Slater felt that his students, growing up in a community that was mostly white and Hispanic, lacked a basic understanding of race and racism. "For me, race and racism has been such a foundational issue of my existence," he wrote. "But for them, it's almost an historical footnote in many ways (though our Mexican-American students can sometimes be on the receiving end of lingering racial tensions, unfortunately). The students are so absorbed in the MTV world that race and blackface have become, in many ways, anachronistic signifiers that can be put out there without malice."

In addition to raising awareness, performing minstrel songs and dances would allow students to feel racism in their bodies.

It probably goes without saying that Slater is white.

After reading all this, I wasn't sure what to think. It’s good to have discussions about race and racism. It’s good to teach students to investigate their own communities before they start condemning others. It might even be good to teach students about the theatrical tradition of minstrel shows. Slater seemed very earnest in his desire to start a conversation about race and racism.

But some important bit of logic seemed to be missing, which became apparent every time I tried to explain the minstrel show and Slater's motivations to others. I would repeat his arguments about past racism and the students growing up in a postracial world and the stuff about feeling racism in the body and everyone—my editor, people from the art department, family, friends—would say, "Yeah, but they're doing a minstrel show."

bamboozled_ver1_xlg.jpg
  • New Line Cinema
I called up Greg Laski, an English professor at the United States Air Force Academy. During my research, I'd come across a paper he'd written about Bamboozled, Spike Lee's 2000 movie about a modern-day TV minstrel show. It also turned out that he'd been a PhD student at Northwestern during the school's own embarrassing blackface incident (every year, there seems to be a new one somewhere), which inspired him to teach a course on the cultural history of the minstrel show. In his paper Laski had considered many of the same questions Slater had about minstrelsy and history, and we talked about them some more on the phone.

"Blackface still registers in part because there isn't a disconnect between past and present with regard to race in the United States," he told me. "The historical break hasn't happened yet. There's a deep entrenchment in our culture." Blackface, unlike, say, the little fighting leprechaun mascot for Notre Dame, still has power. Even Spike Lee, working with activists like the Roots, couldn't figure out a way to diffuse it.

Was there a way to produce a tasteful minstrel show, like the one Slater and his students were planning?

"No," he said. "I celebrate the research. If you're teaching it, you could assign readings of analyses of blackface as a cultural artifact and about the relationship between the past and the present. It could be really great. The problem is replication. It runs the risk of collapsing the complexity of the problem."

How do you get from an investigation of minstrelsy and its presence in your own community and a discussion of the lingering effects of Jim Crow (who was a stock minstrel character, by the way) to performing an actual minstrel show? Who was performing in this show? What was the racial component of the cast, and how did they feel about having to embody the worst stereotypes about African-Americans? And what was the performance like? Were the students self-conscious, or were they embracing minstrelsy wholeheartedly?

The only way to find out would be to go to West Chicago and sit in on a rehearsal. I wrote to Slater and asked when I could come. And that's when things started to get weird.

* * * *

Thomas Daddy Rice, originator of the minstrel show, as Jim Crow
  • University of Virginia
  • Thomas "Daddy" Rice, originator of the minstrel show, as Jim Crow
While I waited for Slater to get back to me about a date, I did some research on minstrel shows.

The minstrel show has a very long, strange history, going back to the 1830s, when vaudeville performers found that it was convenient to hide behind blackface makeup and "authentic" slave dances while criticizing the great and powerful. ("Heh, heh, I'm just a dumb slave, I didn't mean it.") But minstrel shows really became popular when abolitionists started using them as documentary evidence to show northern audiences how lousy life really was on the ole plantation. (Was Slater their spiritual descendent?) After the Civil War, blacks started performing in minstrel shows too, which added another layer of humiliation and identity politics. Whites had established the conventions of minstrelsy and the rules, and blacks played along. Some of them, like Bert Williams, went on to spectacular careers. (And yet there were Slaters then, too. Al Jolson, the Jewish vaudevillian who performed in blackface throughout the 20s and 30s, most famously in The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, felt by singing minstrel songs, he was expressing the suffering of both the blacks and the Jews and bringing them together.)

Minstrelsy lasted for a very long time, well into the civil rights era. You can still see it in movies from as late as the 1940s. The first minstrel number I ever saw was from the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, where Bing Crosby puts on blackface and sings "Abraham" to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday. (I remember staring at the TV and thinking, Is this really happening?) If Mad Men is to be believed, it went on even longer; the excruciating Derby Day party scene where Roger Sterling croons "My Old Kentucky Home" in blackface takes place in 1963.

Bert Williams, the great black vaudevillian, performing in blackface

You probably also had to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" at some point in your elementary school career. Or "Oh! Susanna." Or "Camptown Races." Like everything Stephen Foster wrote, they were originally composed for minstrel shows. (And I seem to recall the lyrics for a few of those songs appearing in my piano lesson primer in dialect.) The minstrel show! It's . . . Americana?

Only one Foster song, "Old Black Joe" (about a former slave yearning for his youth in the cotton fields), was on the West Chicago program. The show itself seemed to be a combination of minstrel numbers ("Get Away From Dis Cornfiel'," "Old Aunt Jemima"—and yes, the song did inspire the pancake mix), popular songs ("Happy Days Are Here Again"), and some that had elements of both ("Old Man River"). Traditionally, minstrel shows contained some joke telling between the musical numbers, but I couldn't tell from the program if the West Chicago glee club had done that, too, and what kind of jokes they were.

Slater got back to me later the next day. Some of his enthusiasm seemed to have evaporated. "We're still working through both the routines and how to best facilitate conversations around this potentially controversial theater performance," he wrote. "So we may not be ready for outside eyes quite yet."

I would be quiet, I assured him. I'd sat in on theater rehearsals before, and knew how to behave.

Still Slater was concerned. He didn't want me pestering the students with "'devil's advocate' type badgering." He didn't even want me to talk to them on the record, or to use their names. He was concerned, he said, about the lingering effects of the Internet. This seemed a little odd since he'd quoted a student, a junior named Ted Meehan, in the original press release, but I figured it would be easier to ask about this once I met Slater and the students in person.

So I agreed to his conditions, and he agreed to let me come to rehearsal the following Tuesday. That would give me plenty of time to write the story before my deadline on Friday.

* * * *

Tuesday morning, Slater wrote to tell me he'd come down with the flu and wouldn't be able to make rehearsal that afternoon.

The flu seemed suspiciously timed. Maybe, I thought, he was starting to realize what a stupid idea this minstrel show was and didn't want to be in the paper after all.

Wednesday his health did not improve. Thursday he took a turn for the worse and made a doctor's appointment. But surely, I thought, some adult would be there running rehearsal. Couldn't I go anyway?

Slater didn't get back to me until it would have been too late for me to make the rehearsal. Things were getting very complicated and stressful for him, he wrote, and he didn't think it would be a good idea to continue. My story was dead.

* * * *

Unsurprisingly, I was not the only reporter interested in this story. Bert Stabler, a freelancer who used to write about fine arts for the Reader before moving over to New City, also pitched it to my editor. He too had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with Harry Slater, although he was more forthright than I had been about telling Slater that re-creating a minstrel show would probably piss a lot of people off. (I agreed it probably would, but I felt it wasn't my job as a reporter to tell Slater that. My job was to get him to tell me his reasons for staging a minstrel show, and to let me watch rehearsal so I could see it for myself, and then to present what he had told me and what I had seen as accurately as I could so readers could make up their own minds. And also, I was getting interested in the notion that, to paraphrase William Faulkner, that America's racist past isn't dead, it's not even past, and it was encapsulated in this minstrel show.)

Stabler was also less trusting than I had been, and he checked the West Chicago High School staff list. There was no Harry Slater. He e-mailed this finding to my editor.

"I feel kind of like I'm acting like a conspiracy theorist," my editor told me, "but what if this is a hoax?"

I checked the West Chicago High School website. No Harry Slater. No Margaret Nelson, the other teacher mentioned in the press release. No Multicultural Sensitivity Club. No Glee Club. And, if you looked more closely at the 1930 playbill than I had initially . . . the director's name was Harry Slater.

slater.JPG

The whole thing was a hoax. There never was a minstrel show. Well, not in 2013 anyway. I e-mailed Slater to let him know I was onto him. He responded with a notice that members of the community had not been very understanding about what he and the students had been trying to accomplish, and the minstrel show had been cancelled. Of course.

I was furious with myself for not catching on sooner, but I was also furious with "Harry Slater" for pulling the hoax in the first place.

But who the fuck was he?

* * * *

He wasn't a kid. I was pretty sure of that. He was dead earnest. Something about his writing, particularly the part about race being "an issue of the body," also suggested that he had been to grad school.

I called the school the next morning, as soon as I got to the office, just to be sure. Nope, said Becky Koltz, who handles PR. No minstrel show. No Harry Slater. The school had been tipped off the previous afternoon by a man in Champaign who had seen the event listed on the website Planit Life and had called to express his outrage. The administration was also not happy. The principal had launched an investigation.

"We think it came from the [West Chicago History] Museum," Koltz told me. "Someone from the museum must have decided to do a prank. But why would someone go to all that trouble? It's unbelievable!"

I'd tried to get in touch with the museum the previous week to arrange a visit before I went over to the high school to watch rehearsal, but the curator, Sara Phalen, had not responded to my e-mails. But when I called the museum after speaking with the school, Phalen answered.

"We had someone in here researching minstrel shows," she said. She wasn't allowed to tell me who it was—the museum is publicly funded—but she told me it was part of a research project for the museum's current exhibit, "Where History and Progress Meet," and she would send me the catalog.

"Where History and Progress Meet" paired up artists with various artifacts in the museum's collection, which they would incorporate in a piece of art. There on page 14 was the playbill for the 1930 minstrel show, a photograph of the West Chicago High School boys' glee club, and a printout of the same press release I'd received over e-mail.

The West Chicago High School boys glee club ca. 1930
  • West Chicago History Museum
  • The West Chicago High School boys' glee club ca. 1930

The artist had discovered the photo and the program and decided that, since the dates lined up, the boys in the picture had put on the show. "At first, I thought what vile, repugnant people they were," he wrote. "But then I realized, it really only serves as an indicator of how widespread and prevalent that sort of entertainment was, even in the north, in an otherwise progressive community. So I began thinking about that legacy and how to reanimate it." The best way, he decided, was the Charity Minstrel Show hoax, which would, he hoped, start a conversation about racial representations and stereotypes.

The artist's name was J. Thomas Pallas. He works and teaches in Chicago. I wrote to him again at his real e-mail address, and he agreed to meet with me later that afternoon. He was stressed and exhausted, he told me, from having to play the role of "Harry Slater" all week. He was also very sorry he had wasted so much of my time, but it was necessary for his project.

* * * *

J. Thomas Pallas
  • jthomaspallas.com
  • J. Thomas Pallas
According to his artistic statement, Pallas, who like "Slater" is white, believes that all art carries with it an ethical position and that art should be used to teach. He received his MFA at the University of Chicago, where he thought a lot about the convergence of art and politics and authenticity. He's done photo and collage, but a lot of his work is conceptual. The West Chicago Charity Minstrel Show was not his first hoax. In Greensboro, North Carolina, he'd done some work with the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. "It became apparent," he wrote, "that the history on view at the museum does not serve or educate the public audiences that they intend to engage." He felt the museum ignored the more controversial figures in the civil rights movement. So he created a series of posters purportedly produced by the museum that "nominated" previously neglected figures, such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Cesar Chavez for inclusion, and hung them up around Greensboro.

When he started working with the West Chicago Historical Museum, though, Pallas decided he was interested in clubs and organizations. Phelan pulled some artifacts from the collection for him to look at, including the photo and playbill. "Those were at the heart of my artistic process," he said.

Of all the people involved, he was most interested in Harry Slater, the director, who he believed had been a teacher at the high school and had used his power and influence as an educator to get his students to perform in the minstrel show. "Even in the context of the time," Pallas said, "I don't understand it on an ethical or moral level."

The 2013 fake Slater was a little easier to understand. "I was curious if you could reach the point, while adhering to liberal educational philosophy, to support the activity Harry was proposing. My knee-jerk reaction is 'no,' but what if, by interrogating it, we can support a dialogue? But as an educator, I think Harry was on the wrong side of the line. You have to assess where that line is between academic research and consequences in the real world."

Speaking of real-world consequences, Pallas wasn't sure how far he expected his hoax to go. Did he envision TV news trucks and angry citizens brandishing pitchforks outside of West Chicago High School? "I don't know," he told me. "I thought about a lot of different chess moves. I expected people to figure it out eventually."

Pallas believes that the fact that there was no Harry Slater (at least not in 2013) and no minstrel show (also at least not in 2013) doesn't override the truths about privilege and power and racism and stereotypes that he was trying to convey with his art project.

But here's the thing: Historically, he got it all wrong.

The glee club that put on the minstrel show in 1930 was not the West Chicago High School Glee Club. It's listed on the program as the "West Chicago C & N.W. RY Glee Club": The West Chicago Chicago and North Western Railway Glee Club. In other words, these weren't the high school students in the picture Pallas found in the archives. These were adults who worked for the Chicago and North Western Railway who were borrowing the high school auditorium for the evening. The railroad glee club began performing in 1926 and its activities were pretty well documented in local newspapers, including the Tribune, throughout the 30s and 40s. They performed around the city, in contests, at the North Western train station, at the 1933 World's Fair. Their repertoire was mostly light classics, bits from oratorios and operas, and carols at Christmastime. Harry Slater, the director, was also the group's founder. He was not a teacher. He was a machinist, later promoted to foreman. He'd sung most of his life, starting when he was a seven-year-old boy in Leeds, England.

(I raised the possibility to Pallas that the glee club was railroad men, not high school students, but he dismissed it. I didn't get a chance to confirm it with the newspaper archives until after I'd talked to him.)

The newspaper clippings don't directly answer any questions about Slater's attitude toward race. This particular show wasn't reported in the Tribune or in Oak Leaves, the Oak Park town paper that also chronicled events in other western suburbs, and if there were letters of protest, I didn't see them. In 1931, Oak Leaves reported that the telephone company glee club was preparing a minstrel show to be staged at the Austin Town Hall. No one protested that, either.

(Is it comforting that two people who saw the notice about the 2013 minstrel show called the school to complain?)

Does this change the fact that the minstrel show is an ugly and insidious piece of American culture? Does this mean we should be excused from, as Pallas puts it, having a conversation about it, and also racial stereotypes and racial privilege and 19th- and early-20th-century history and all the other factors that contributed to the existence of the minstrel show and still make it impossible for us to forget it?

Certainly not. But it does change the narrative of Pallas's project. The 1930 West Chicago minstrel show wasn't a case of an educator using his power to lead his students astray ethically and morally. It was a case of a group of adults who decided to perform what many people at that time considered a wholesome form of American entertainment. Why did they choose a minstrel show instead of one of their usual choral concerts? Unlike "Harry Slater," they didn't tell us.

West Chicago Community High School has posted a notice on its website to assure the world that the minstrel show was a hoax and had nothing to do with anyone at the school. The administration has decided not to contact Pallas. "They didn't feel there was any resolution to it," says Koltz. "It's free speech."

Anyway, Pallas wanted to use me—well, the Reader anyway—to start a larger public conversation. "I do believe with persistent dialogue, we can change things," he told me. "If there were a context, if people could inquire and share and converse, things would be better." I maintain that an abortive fake high school minstrel show didn't provide much of a context, and that most of the inquiring and sharing and conversing about public issues these days, at least among people who aren't in school, takes place on the Internet, and that the ease and anonymity of Internet comments makes people think they have the license to say all sorts of stupid, asshole things they would never say in person. But if you've read this far, please go ahead and prove me wrong.

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