A cur­tain call for the Vir­ginia Min­strels

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN

Vir­ginia has al­ways had a weak­ness for min­strelsy, but the cur­rent epi­demic of low of­fi­cials in high places au­di­tion­ing as lovers and black­face min­strels is some­thing al­most new. So far, the play­ers are all Democrats. But the month is young, and ev­ery day is fresh with new al­le­ga­tions. It’s too soon for Repub­li­cans to give them­selves airs. Doesn’t the Bi­ble teach that we’re all sin­ners?

Kirk Cox, the speaker of the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates and the third in the state con­sti­tu­tional line of suc­ces­sion, per­haps with a gen­uine shot at be­com­ing gov­er­nor as the Demo­cratic domi­noes con­tinue to top­ple, is try­ing to re­main high-minded. But he is no doubt an avid reader of the Vir­ginia con­sti­tu­tion. The con­tro­ver­sies of mod­ern min­strelsy that have hu­mil­i­ated Vir­ginia, Mr. Kirk says, “are dis­turb­ing, but will be re­solved in due course.” In the mean­time, he says, the del­e­gates should fo­cus on bud­get de­lib­er­a­tions and “the hun­dreds of bills re­main­ing be­fore us.”

That’s ex­pect­ing a lot. Surely Vir­gini­ans are en­ti­tled to re­lax, sit back and en­joy the show. Laughs are good for you, and so, once, were the min­strels. Black­face min­strels, which en­ter­tained Amer­i­cans for nearly a cen­tury, were once pop­u­lar ev­ery­where and the troupe called the Vir­ginia Min­strels was the hottest ticket in town. Vir­ginia’s new min­strels are nei­ther ex­clu­sively black nor white, but of­fer some­thing scan­dalous to laugh or cry about in nearly ev­ery hue.

Ralph Northam, the gov­er­nor, started it with the dis­cov­ery of a photograph of him­self in black­face, or maybe it was him as a Ku Klux Klans­man, posted in the year­book at his med­i­cal school. He first said it was him­self, and even got up to do Michael Jack­son’s moon­walk un­til his wife stopped him. Then he said no, it wasn’t re­ally him, af­ter all. So we’re en­ti­tled to be­lieve ei­ther ver­sion.

We un­der­stand the politi­cian’s panic. You know you’re in trou­ble when you have to de­cide whether to ad­mit that’s you in black­face or the Klans­man. It’s prob­a­bly not a gig that’s go­ing to end well.

Then the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, Justin Fair­fax, was forced to ad­mit that he forced amours on a young woman in an episode she says ended in forced oral sex. He says it stopped with a con­sen­sual kiss. That usu­ally in­vites the death penalty, with rope sup­plied by the ladies of #MeToo.

Next up was Mark Her­ring, the at­tor­ney gen­eral, who now ad­mits not to black­face but to some­thing he calls “brown­face,” which sounds like a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence. He ad­mits to “poor judg­ment” when he corked his face and put on a wig to dress as a rap­per with a group of sim­i­larly dec­o­rated friends. “I had a callous and in­ex­cus­able lack of aware­ness and in­sen­si­tiv­ity to the pain my be­hav­ior could in­flict on oth­ers.”

When the orig­i­nal Vir­ginia Min­strels were sell­ing out mu­sic halls, opera houses and show­boats in the decades be­fore the Cruel War of North­ern Ag­gres­sion, every­body wanted a ticket, and gov­er­nors and other of­fi­cials were usu­ally con­tent to watch with­out en­ter­tain­ing fantasies about join­ing the cast. Some­times slaves found places in the au­di­ence, and some­times the min­strels on stage were not whites but free blacks. The min­strels, who orig­i­nated in New York City, played across the north­ern states be­fore they were pop­u­lar in the South. The last min­strel troupe, Si­las Green from New Or­leans, played the small towns of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta as late as the early 1960s.

One early fa­vorite min­strel was T.D. “Daddy” Rice, a white man who dressed in rags and black­face, danced a lit­tle, sang slave songs and af­fected a char­ac­ter called Jumpin’ Jim Crow, a folk trick­ster pop­u­lar with slaves for the sub­tle mock­ery of their plan­ta­tion mas­ters.

Mark Twain was fa­mously a fan. “If I could have the n------- show back again in its pris­tine pu­rity,” he ob­served at the end of his cen­tury, “I should have lit­tle use for opera.” But the min­strels, bor­rowed song, stolen dance and all, an­gered most blacks from the be­gin­ning. Black­face per­form­ers, said Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, “are the filthy scum of white so­ci­ety, who have stolen from us a com­plex­ion de­nied them by na­ture, in which to make money, and pan­der to the cor­rupt taste of their fel­low white cit­i­zens.”

And now the black and white gentle­men from Vir­ginia have re­vived the tra­di­tion if not the par­tic­u­lars of min­strelsy, re­vised in form but faith­ful to the tra­di­tion. The Democrats were full of rec­ti­tude and righ­teous in­dig­na­tion last week, with unan­i­mous de­mands that the guilty must step down.

But that was then, and this is now, and maybe zero tol­er­ance isn’t al­ways such a good idea. Maybe 5 per­cent of in­tol­er­ance can be tol­er­ated. That’s both Jumpin’ Jim Crow and Mr. Bones, the star of the min­strel show, ap­plaud­ing. Wes­ley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.

T.D. “Daddy” Rice

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