Sunday, September 22, 2019



Once upon a time, say 70 years ago, minstrel shows flourished as church and various social groups rushed to blacken their faces and sing Stephen Foster songs as they repeated the old lines and verbal gimmicks that had clustered like barnacles to the shows over the decades.
It was one of the traditional ways to make money for a club. The only question about them in the communities like Chesley or Peterborough was whether you would go this year because it was an annual event that wasn't blessed with much change...or new jokes either.
There was one giant adult Bible class that drew members from throughout the GTA to Parkdale that had an annual minstrel show that was reviewed in the newspapers.
And then the shows went away, more from indifference and changing times than hostility. And then as a young reporter I found in my rounds that Stephen Foster songs were now considered bad and the entertainment world looked back on the popular Amos 'n' Andy radio show with white men acting with contrived black accents as cringingly embarrassing.
As a young father riding shotgun as my sons solicited on Halloween I ran into the occasional tot with a blackened face and thought that the family probably couldn't afford a mask. I didn't see anything terribly wrong about that because my first costume as a kid when I had to squeeze a nickel hoping to make it into a quarter was an old sheet and a face darkened with burnt cork. I'm not sure what I was supposed to be but I won a prize.
I suspect that there are many of us with similar histories. There has been an appropriate evolution in sensitivity and discrimination so that we now know that darkening the face with brown or black makeup is hated by minorities and even when we think the country has gone far too far in politically correct language and action, the ban on such makeup is appropriate even if we grew up in a gentler time when minstrel shows were fun and not anti-Negro.
I use the language of the past because I never heard the word black even from my aunt who was a missionary in Nigeria for several decades. And we called them Indians (the legislation still does) and anyone who used the word indigenous was an anthropologist in a lecture.
Back in the days when I was in charge of the entertainment department of the newspaper - although Glen Woodcock and his critics treated me as an interloper - Mary and I went to every opening night of theatre, even the experimental theatre when you squirmed on old pews.
So you will pardon me if not all my memories are sharp. I recall a Broadway revival at the Royal Alex when in the middle of something that may have been called Sons (or Songs) Of The Desert the actors gathered around a campfire had their faces painted green.
"Wotinhell?" I asked our theatre critic the next day. He explained as if I were a backward child that it was illegal in Ontario theatre to paint your face black so this had been the Mirvish solution to an essential part of the plot. Everyone in the theatre world knew that.
He then went on to scorn my love of Stephen Foster songs and minstrel show jokes. We then engaged  in a lively debate when I said I had grown up not hearing anyone slagging blacks but there were those whispered digs at Catholics and Jews and the most pervasive dislike of minorities had been the grumbling about Indians wasting all the money they got from us.
"But they do," he said, and for a minute I was back in my first newspaper job in the Yukon when just about everyone on the muddy main street of Whitehorse grumbled about that the day after the welfare cheques came.
So I had mixed emotions when it came out that the PM was stupid enough as an adult with a theatre background not to know that it was illegal on the stage and improper on any occasion with more status than a bar brawl to paint all his visible skin with ugly brown and then to drape one coated hand above the no go area of the attractive woman that he had in a death grip.
I'm not sure exactly when it became illegal and socially unacceptable to blacken your face but it was probably before Justin was born in contrived circumstances on Christmas Day in 1971. Now I realize that he didn't exactly have normal parents when it came to sexual rompings and go screw yourself attitudes but you would have thought that he would have picked up some clues since 1971 that theatrical oratory, groping and constantly playing ethnic Mr. Dress-Up would eventually catch up to him and leave him with a very red face.
But then that's the Liberal colour!

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