Like all old saws, the old saw that the past is another country isn’t always true as the convulsions in Virginia re blackface vividly remind us. It reminds me too of my own turn in blackface, which is how I broke into show business.
A minstrel show was our first-grade play so we all corked up. This was in rural Maryland in the 50s. I don’t remember much from that year. I remember the smell of mimeograph paper, and I remember a kid in the corner. He was sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on his head like a mule in the rain. (Okay, that past is another country. I hope.) Anyway, in an environment like that it’s not amazing how the teachers chose to showcase our cuteness. We performed a full slate of minstrel sketches of which I recall two in particular. One was the Tambo and Bones routine — one squirt piping to another, I swear to God, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” — and the other one a dance routine in which I participated.
I participated in two ways. First, I was given some kind of loose-limbed, jivey dance to do. Second, I was told I wasn’t good enough so they gave it to Billy Groff and I had to stand there clapping for him instead. It was one of those moments of searing humiliation a kid never forgets.
So that’s two shots of poison in one hypo. And they stay in your blood. They dilute and diminish over the years, but CSI could still find them.
Eons later, my kids’ fourth-grade play was a parable about environmental awareness. A wood-chopper in the rainforest fell asleep and the spirits of the forest appeared and fluttered and whispered to him and he woke up a changed man who would no longer chop down (yay!) trees. It was brutally boring. It also pissed me off. Elementary-school plays should be kids having a big old silly ball. I will brook no argument on this.
Miles better than a minstrel show, absolutely. Still…
Past and present: no and no. We need another another country.