My brother in Massachusetts had converted to DVD home movies that were shot by an uncle of ours in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many families have these old movies. Many families had one person who owned perhaps a Bell & Howell 8-mm movie camera, projector and screen. A lot of these old films are sitting in shoe boxes in closets and attics across the country. Unless you have a projector you never get to see them. Converting these films to DVD makes them available to people who have never seen them, and I got quite a kick — sometimes a very emotional kick — seeing my uncle’s films of the family for the first time. But as I watched Fourth of July parades, birthdays, family gatherings at Christmas, something else suddenly appeared on the screen — a minstrel show: that is, white men from my hometown in black face, with exaggerated white lips — dancing and singing and playing tambourines on a stage. Some of them were dressed as women in what I call the Aunt Jemima style, with a kerchief and apron. Some were dressed in overalls with patches. Some in festive satin shirts and pantaloons. Some sported large, clown-size bow ties. I could not hear what they were singing, but there were duets and quartets, and routines involving tambourines rhythmically slapped at the elbows and knees.
These images did not come as a complete shock because I have a memory of sitting in a high school auditorium and seeing men perform in blackface. So I would guess these minstrel shows continued into the 1960s. Remarkably, the Catholic church in my hometown produced one of the annual shows.
According to a book from the 1970s, Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, one of the inventors of self-rising pancake flour saw a minstrel show in 1898; one of the black-faced comics was dressed in drag as Aunt Jemima, and there was a song called “Aunt Jemima” that was apparently a regular part of minstrel show repertoire. This became the inspiration for advertising his product.
According to Toll’s book, whites exploited black stereotypes to make money and they had no problem portraying blacks through “only a few stereotyped roles: as contented subordinates on the plantation, as ignorant low-comedy fools, and as ludicrous, pretentious incompetents.”
The minstrel show continued up through the 1960s in a small town less than 20 miles from Boston, and it was documented by my uncle and his movie camera. So, now on DVD, I have evidence of blatant racism under the lights, on stage for all to see and “enjoy,” back in the day.
The minstrel shows in my hometown are long gone. They represented the kind of racism that’s easy to “cancel,” or wipe away. (Someone in the town apparently had a woke moment way back when.) Wipe away the minstrel shows and you can say you’re no longer a racist, or that your community is no longer intolerant of people of color.
But all these years later — 60 years later — there are hardly any people of color in the town. The most recent census had whites at 90%. (Trump won the town in 2016 and 2020.) Is that because of discrimination? I can’t say. At this point in American life, the way we have sorted ourselves out among the like-minded and the like, it might just be because people of color are not comfortable in the town. It might be that the town has a reputation, gained long ago, of being unwelcoming to non-whites.
And you can find many communities where there is little diversity and where that’s the intent. Just yesterday I drove past another awful development of big, detached homes under construction on an old farm in southern Pennsylvania — a predominantly white community that will probably get even whiter. White people avoid thinking about race in this context; most, I assume, think the lack of diversity is a natural occurrence, or just a result of class, money or opportunity.
Many probably think lack of diversity is a good thing, and they’ll raise their kids that way.
Many whites like to think that, if they raise their kids in all-white communities but do not act or speak in a racist way — if there are no minstrel shows — they’ll still be racially woke, without prejudice, understanding of others.
That’s wishful thinking — the belief that, as time goes by and people become more educated, society naturally progresses. It explains why, for years, the Gallup organization showed a steady increase in the number of Americans who believed race relations were getting better.
But, after the shootings of so many unarmed black men by police and ensuing protests, that trend stopped. Gallup’s chart showed a downward movement, with more than a third of Americans saying they were worried “a great deal” about race relations, more than at any time over the previous 15 years.
The Pew Research Center uncovered profound differences between black and white adults in their views on race: “Blacks, far more than whites, say black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life, from dealing with the police to applying for a loan or mortgage. And, for many blacks, racial equality remains an elusive goal.”
Whites are far more optimistic about progress toward equality, and I suspect it’s due to that faith in a generational change among millennials.
But that idea does not hold up, according to research by Sean McElwee for Demos, a public policy organization focused on equality. “Age,” McElwee concluded, “has little effect on the likelihood that whites hold racially biased feelings about blacks. … Waiting for old whites to die out won’t solve the problem, as these attitudes are equally prevalent among youth.”
In a sense, Trump brought the minstrel show back. He brought racism out in the open again. In a 2019 Pew survey, most Americans (65%) agreed that it had become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president. A smaller but substantial share (45%) said being racist had become more acceptable.
So no, we are not post-anything in America, and certainly not post-Trump. The old minstrel show is long gone, but racism still lives and breathes and shapes our society — as subtle as where new houses are built, as blatant as white supremacists on the march. The good thing is, we are calling it out; we can see it and condemn it and try to reverse long-standing inequities; we can embrace diversity and join the battle to protect the civil rights of everyone — and all of that will make a better country. The question remains, however: How many Americans truly want that better country?