The Show Goes On

One of the strangest things about living through a fascist turn of your country is the constant recalibration. Ideas that used to be entirely unacceptable are suddenly presented as popular points of view. Behavior that used to be embarrassing for some becomes allowable as commonplace. To take it in, you have to not only understand where you are in the world, but how that compares to where you would’ve been at other points in history. 

White people talk about this all the time. They ask themselves if they would have been abolitionists during slavery, or helped to hide Jewish people if they’d lived in Nazi-occupied countries. As a Black person, I think about this, too. Mostly it gets presented to me as, “If you could go back in time to any era, when would you go?” As the tradition of this country has been such that each passing minute is, in a sense, collectively freer than the last for us, the answer is usually a flat, “No.” 

But now the fascist turn. The banning of books, billionaire white supremacists buying social-media platforms, political and social elites blanketing media with claims of censorship and victimization. This keeps up and pretty soon I’ll be longing for the days of Jim Crow.

This is not only true nationally, but locally, as well. Outside of this column, The Bollard has covered the growing presence of white supremacist groups in Maine for years. But there was a time before this. So, come with me now to a time before cowards whined about cancel culture or even political correctness, a time when people were held responsible for their actions and accountability reigned! Join me in reading a short article from the Lewiston Daily Sun from the very unlikely, pre-Civil Rights Act date of April 11, 1963, headlined, “NAACP Protest Results in Minstrel Change”

“A statement of policy condemning the use of black faces in minstrel shows being circulated by the Central Maine Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has prompted a Danville group to change its plans for a forthcoming production. 

“Following last year’s presentation by the Danville Farm Bureau, several members of the cast received letters from the NAACP stating its opposition to minstrel shows which caricature the Negro. As plans for this year’s show began a few weeks ago, several persons proposed obtaining legal interpretation of the NAACP protest. However, since it appears that no legal point is involved, no action was taken.

“Discussion of the situation among members of the group led to the conclusion that a variety show in which the cast dressed as hoboes would be the best solution. Mrs. Pauline St. Pierre of the Old Danville Road, Auburn, one of the directors of the production, said that some members of the cast still do not approve of the decision. However, she said the show will be held, and the cast will ‘go as close as possible’ to the traditional minstrel style. 

“Other factors which led to the decision to exclude reference to Negroes from the show were the backing of the NAACP policy by the Rev. Harold I. Frost, pastor of the Danville church, and the statement by an Auburn teacher who was to have played an end man in the black-face version, that his ‘job would be jeopardized’ by the show. 

“Mrs. Peter Jonitis, a spokesman for the NAACP in this area, reported last night that the organization’s stand is primarily meant to keep children from forming false impressions about Negroes. The minstrel show, she said, does not present a true picture of the American Negro, nor does it present authentic Negro music. 

“A statement of the group’s policy, as it applies to New England, was prepared several months ago by the Rev. M. Ronald Beinema, former pastor of the Sixth Street Congregational Church in Auburn, and it is this statement which was sent to the cast of the Danville production, Mrs. Jonitis said. 

“The local policy is based on a resolution drafted by the NAACP’s 53rd annual convention in 1962, which reads, ‘We particularly deplore the continuance of the black-face minstrel and other period shows in some communities. These amateur theatricals malign the Negro and continue the harmful degrading stereotypes so detrimental to advancement.’

“The resolution continues, ‘We direct our branches to lodge protests with sponsors when announced, and, if such action fails, to make public protest through statements, demonstrations, picketing and other forms of protest.’”

Ah. The good ol’ days!

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling, from The Moth. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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