Life seems awfully confusing these days. So it’s only natural to believe that things were better “then”—when everyone (or so it seemed) liked Ike, watched “Ozzie and Harriet” and wore suits and hats (with gloves for the women) downtown. I have my doubts.
I call to witness the American Conservatory Theater’s production of the Kander and Ebb musical, “The Scottsboro Boys.” Being a lover of satire, I liked that the musical was written as a minstrel show, in which whites historically donned blackface and followed a formal pattern of presentation. Except that all the actors but Hal Linden were black and often played whites. The music was good, the cast and staging great, and the character of the Interlocutor, who runs the minstrel show (Linden), thought provoking.
A brief history lesson: In 1931, police arrested nine Negro teenagers getting off a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama on a trumped-up rape charge. The musical takes us into their initial trial and the appeals that followed. The Scottsboro Boys avoided lynching and the electric chair but were all imprisoned for varying lengths of time—years, not months—and gravely wounded by the legal process given that the charges were untrue and one of the two plaintiffs recanted.
And the Interlocutor? Representing the powers that be in the Jim Crow South (and costumed as Colonel Sanders), he is unfailingly polite and cheerful in his encounters with the “boys.” The Interlocutor makes clear that in Alabama, whites and Negroes have their places, and the natural order is benign. When confronted by one of the “boys’” desire to go north, he is stunned. “We’ve always taken care of you,” he states, “and we always will.” Proving that fact and fiction (or drama) go hand in hand, Edward Glaeser (Triumph of the City) cites the mayor of Baltimore, who after a 1910 law prevented African-Americans from buying homes in affluent white neighborhoods, “announced that the law’s supporters were ‘the best friends that the colored people have.’”
The portrait of kindly white society acting as caretaker for “its” Negroes is not new. And it couldn’t have seemed particularly valid if you were a Negro confined to “colored” neighborhoods, restaurants, drinking fountains, waiting rooms and the back of the bus. By the way, one of the show’s numbers, “Jew Money”—the Scottsboro Boys’ appeals lawyer was Jewish—also informs us of attitudes many southerners held regarding “their Jews:” know your place.
But why the Interlocutor’s constant smile, the patter, the jokes? Because the worst aspects of prejudice and injustice come in sugarcoated packages to distort reality. “We love you. We only want the best for you. Just trust us!” provides a handy cover for behavior that’s the opposite. And such remarks are so easy to make.
As we approach the presidential nominating conventions (orgies of self-congratulations during which delegates wield no influence) and the traditional Labor Day start of the campaign (which started last Labor Day, and I’m being generous), it’s worth noting that voters will be offered plenty of smiles and words of good cheer. But unless citizens demand more, the nation’s wellbeing is still likely to be shuffled off, if ever so amiably, and most Americans gently herded to the back of the bus.
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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.