By Gerald Peary
Did I try to fit in at my segregated school, betraying my father and his values to be a popular white boy?
Like the governor and attorney general of Virginia, I have a shameful blackface story to reveal from my growing up in the South, something I’ve felt guilty about forever.
It’s what I did one day at age 11 in South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. I was a white boy in 7th grade at Hand Junior High, a segregated school in the year 1955.
This dreadful memory had been closeted forever, until I was “outed” at the 50th reunion of the 1960 graduating class of Columbia’s Dreher High School. I ventured there from my “People’s Republic of Cambridge” bubble (I moved north for college, and stayed north) into a sea of white-haired Republicans, most of whom still lived in Columbia. But one more liberal classmate, who now owns a farm in the Midwest, came up to me and said, “Do you remember wearing blackface in junior high?”
Gulp. Do I ever.
I confessed to my wife what I’d done only fifteen years into our relationship. Amy was properly shocked as I recalled for her the day that I appeared on stage in a school talent show with burnt cork on my face. It was a two-hander, an old-time minstrel routine performed by me and a classmate named Ray, he half-a-foot taller and also in blackface. We strolled on stage in suspenders and baggy pants portraying, I guess, hideous stereotypes of ostensibly lazy, ignorant black folks; and we spoke in an exaggerated white man’s version of “Negro” dialect, like Joel Chandler Harris doing Uncle Remus.
I can quote our exact words. They’ve stuck in my head, the three unconscionable lines of dialogue, the third a ha-ha punch line:
Ray (stretching): “I sho’ am tired!”
Me (stretching): “I tired too!”
Ray: “Yeah, you is tired, but I twice as tired as you, ‘cause I twice as big as you.”
With that, we shuffled off stage, to laughter and applause from the appreciative white junior high audience: students, teachers, administrators.
I surely knew better than to participate. My parents were immigrant Jews from Europe, and, my father especially lectured me against holding any racial prejudices. In Columbia, he headed the biology department at two black colleges; Benedict College and Allen University. At our home there, we dared break the color line, as African-American colleagues of my father were invited over for dinner.
So why didn’t I resist putting on blackface? I and my brother were just kids, and under a lot of psychological pressure because of where our father taught. Anytime we told a white adult, parents of our friends, they would recoil in disgust. Some children were not allowed to play with us. A house we wished to buy fell through when the owner found out my father was at a black university.
Did I try to fit in at my segregated school, betraying my father and his values to be a popular white boy? This I don’t remember at all. I assume my South Carolina teachers set this talent show up, found the racist minstrel show routine, cast me and directed me, a vulnerable 11-year old. But analogous to some survivors of sexual abuse, I can’t help feeling complicit in this ignominious, scarring moment of my life. I’m truly, truly sorry.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.