The Sanford Maine Stage’s upcoming show “Oh, Susannah” seems to forget that times change, and with them our attitudes toward depicting slavery and those who suffered under it. It fits into a history of racial stereotyping that is replete with instances of benign intentions gone awry.
Songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were devised for the minstrel stage, a uniquely American popular culture form built around depictions of enslaved African-Americans as lazy, docile and ignorant creatures fit only to serve or entertain. These insulting caricatures fit into a long and shameful national practice of denigration — from 1828 when white performer T.D. Rice was the first to don blackface and “Jump Jim Crow,” to Disney films like “Song of the South” (1946), which were shown in schools well into my lifetime.
One Facebook comment defends the Sanford show by arguing that “we should never ignore our past, good or bad.” Please understand: the concern here is not that we might forget the past, it is that we should recall it accurately.
By ahistorically portraying an Old South of “moonlight and magnolias” that never was, minstrel shows trivialized a brutal, state-sanctioned crime that lasted for 250 years. Long ago, scholars rejected the romantic, sentimentalized depictions of films such as “Gone with the Wind.” Instead, they rightly came to view the plantation order as a police state of forced labor camps, in which people were reduced to tradable commodities, worked to death, disciplined through rape and torture, and denied recognition in law and science as actual human beings.
Even after slavery, the minstrel show was not harmless entertainment. It reinforced popular racism, thus upholding the legal segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans, and fueling race riots and mob violence that ended with the lynching of more than 3,000. American popular culture still wrestles with a legacy of racial stereotyping that contributes to problems ranging from wealth inequality to police killings of unarmed black people.
This is why we no longer seek entertainment in these inaccurate and demeaning depictions. It’s possible to imagine the history of minstrelsy being recalled on a modern stage, but it’s hard to conceive of a historically accurate portrayal of it making for an evening of light-hearted fun. There is no historical lesson in an uncritical reprise of the minstrel show; there is only the public derogation of African-Americans and the distortion of our troubled history.
We need not doubt the sincerity or innocent intent of those staging “Oh, Susannah” to be concerned about the consequences of their actions. It’s harder to defend those who discount the concerns that have been raised as mere hypersensitivity. This moves beyond the misinformed into the realm of willful harm, sending the message that some people’s entertainment is worth more than others’ dignity. It is an unfortunate development that only demonstrates that those who first raised concerns might have been on the right track.
The minstrel show touches legitimate and deep roots of historical anguish. Such moments remind us how easy it is to forget this. Do we really want to consume others’ pain for our own pleasure? Do we want to teach our children to do that?
We may not all share the same sensitivities, but we can all share the capacity for sensitivity. No one enjoys realizing they’ve offended others unintentionally. But we’ve become increasingly resistant to conceding that we can make mistakes — that perhaps we missed something, or failed to hold ourselves fully accountable to our entire community. That is a shame for us all.
Patrick Rael is a professor of history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. His most recent book is “Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.”
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