Back then, it was still thought okay to blacken your face, whiten your lips, talk in exaggerated accents, play music, and tell jokes about how lazy and care-free black folks were. How their main preoccupation was avoiding work and going fishing, which was something a large number of white men I knew made a career of.
This time was not that long ago, the early sixties, and it was all part of the Jim Crow South, what I’ve heard some as recently as last week refer to as the good old days. It wasn’t all that good if you’re skin was dark, however.
I’m closing in on the sixty year mark, and I saw, if not the last “Nigger Minstrel” in the East Texas area, then one of the last. What’s most surprising about it is I saw it in the auditorium of Mt. Enterprise School where I went from first to fifth grade before moving off to Gladewater, Texas, where I was born — at that time, not exactly a bastion of racial enlightenment either.
This Minstrel Show was a sanctioned event made up of, and approved by school personnel for people of all ages, as long as they were white. It was a highly anticipated occasion, and no one saw a damn thing wrong with it. Me either, at the time. I didn’t have a clue that it was anything more than a night to listen to music and jokes at the expense of African-Americans, then called “coloreds.” It was understood by white people that coloreds were an inferior group and subject to all manner of derision, though there were some that said the whole thing presented them in a more positive light than they were usually seen, because it showed sanctimonious white folk that there was nothing funnier, or more harmless, or more entertaining, than a “good nigger”, which was a billing given to any black person who was thought to know how to comfortably play the game of life without appearing uppity in the presence of whites. It didn’t hurt if they could play the banjo, harmonica, or sing and dance a little.
Many black performers appeared in minstrel shows as well. These minstrel shows were a group of African-American performers traveling throughout the country performing before both blacks and whites, sometimes making their faces blacker and their lips white by use of the same makeup white performers used. Among these African-American entertainers the intent was primarily that of caricature; it allowed them to perform before white audiences for money, and cram stereotypes down their collective white throats without them being any the wiser.
I never saw any African-American minstrel shows, but I heard about them from those who had seen them, and I certainly saw one of the other. I saw it in a time when public places sported White and Colored water fountains and restrooms, and restaurants that served African-Americans did so through a slot at a side or back window. Theaters had balconies for coloreds, and everything was designed to make sure whites didn’t have to mix, or even see those dark faces.
I’ve heard people today who damn well know better say the races got along just fine back then. This meant, of course, as long as they stayed in their place and acknowledged whites as superior, and there was no actually mixing of the races. This was especially true if it had anything to do with romantic relations between blacks and whites, particularly white women and black men, as this was thought akin to bestiality.
This was a time when a grown African-American man was referred to as “boy”, and was expected to step off the sidewalk if a white woman walked by, and heaven help him if his eyes might stray to a white woman’s passing ass. This was just the sort of thing that could cost him a beating, and in some places throughout the South, worse – castration and burning and hanging. An event often commemorated with a photo to be copied and placed on postcards as souvenirs of good times.
I remember my father, a man who was otherwise my hero, not thinking anything of tossing “nigger” around as causally as “hey there”. He wasn’t the only one, though, and there were those who considered themselves more enlightened that used the word “nigra” as a kind of upper level form of the more common usage, but wouldn’t quite go the whole hog enough to identify African Americans as negroes, which was considered a Yankee term, and therefore suspect. It seemed the Civil War had ended only the day before with unhappy results.
When I saw this “Nigger Minstrel” show I’m telling you about, I was ten or eleven. I remember the event quite well. White men came out on the stage in what they thought of as river boat darky garb, white shirts with elbow garters, vests and bowler hats, their faces painted up, playing instruments and prancing around the stage, pausing to tell jokes to the audience about how slothful and ignorant they were and how their women were such shrews, or worse. After a few jokes they would break back into a lively tune, banjo thrumming, dancing about on the stage.
As I said before, none of this hit me in a bad way at the time. I was young. I didn’t know the basis of the entertainment and that certain views about African-Americans were stereotypical. I, sadly, as did many growing up where I grew up, thought this was merely the way things were and that the minstrel show was a realistic representation of the darker part of our population.
The show was a great success, and was soon set for another performance. The community, which was a little over a hundred people at that time, was buzzing. Considering the town was so small there was little to buzz about, this was to some degree understandable. The time neared. Tickets were sold, performers were ready. But…It was canceled.
That damn President Lyndon Johnson, the “nigger lover”, had made it wrong to do such things, to deprive upstanding Southern whites of their legacy of humiliating African-Americans for laughs and dollars.
I remember being disappointed. All I knew at that age was I liked the music and the costumes, though I was never exactly sure why it was supposed to be funnier and more entertaining with the performers wearing black face.
I do remember not long after the show was cancelled, that we were driving back to Mt. Enterprise after visiting relatives in Tyler, and a rain storm came up. It blasted our car so hard it nearly went off the road. We pulled over for awhile, to let it pass, or at least lessen. I was frightened by the whole thing, the way the rain hit the roof and windshield, the sound of it, the vibration of the car, which before this I had thought of as too large and powerful to be bothered by rain.
Finally the storm lessened. We started out again through a weaker, but still fierce, down pour. Beside the road we saw a car. It was a black man, and he had the hood up, looking inside the engine. He was being pounded by rain, and there was a woman in the car, and some children. Our car was old, and we were poor, but I looked at that man and his car and his family and thought: They are poor people.
Daddy, said, “I better stop and help those niggers.”
Actually, we passed them, as did some other cars, and Daddy had to turn around and go back. He parked behind their car, got out and spoke to the man working beneath the hood. After a moment, Daddy came back, got his tools out of the trunk – and I should add his profession was mechanic – walked back and got down on his back on the ground under the front of the car, water running over him like he was in a Colorado rapids, and began to work. I have no idea what he did under there, but it seemed to me he was beneath that car for a long time.
When he finished, Daddy asked the man to start the car. It fired up, and the man went to thinking Daddy profusely. Daddy, wetter than a fish, got back in our car, his hat washed down on the sides, his body shivering. Knowing my father’s unkind racial views, I said, “Daddy, why did you help them?
I remember that he seemed embarrassed, as if he had been caught with his pants down standing on a stool behind a female donkey.
“Them kids was in the car, and he didn’t know what he was doing. I had to do something.”
It was then that I think I knew that even most racist, somewhere deep down, recognized human misery when they saw it. It may not have been a eureka moment for me, but it was a small straw laid on an old platform, and in time there were other straws, and eventually, thank goodness, enough of them were added, so that the structure of hypocrisy and lies began to break down and fall away.
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of numerous novels and short stories. His work has received the Edgar Award, seven Bram Stoker Awards, a British Fantasy Award, and has twice been named a New York Times Notable Book, among other honors. The film adaptation of his novella “Bubba Ho-tep” was directed by Don Coscarelli and starred Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. His novel Vanilla Ride, from Knopf, has just been released in paperback by Vintage. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mulholland Books will publish EDGE OF DARK WATER in 2012.