MY TURN – Confessions of a child who wore blackface


Published: 2/14/2019 8:55:04 AM
Modified: 2/14/2019 8:55:15 AM

Yes, I wore blackface as part of a minstrel show sponsored by the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) at our New Hampshire parish church. It was during the late 1950s, a time when Al Jolson in blackface singing, “Mammy” and George Gershwin’s “Swanee” were still popular on radio and television, and songs of the South by Steven Foster were sung at variety and minstrel shows.

The man in charge was an elderly black man, Mr. Jefferson, I seem to recall. He’d arrive at the rehearsals in a suit and tie. He was a song and dance man during the days when vaudeville traveled North, South, East, and West throughout the land. Mr. Jefferson lived in nearby Haverhill, Mass., and saw his minstrel shows as a sort of calling, a chance to preserve the art form and personally serve as a goodwill ambassador from the black (referred to then as Negro) community.

My mother encouraged my participation and volunteered to sing a song or two herself. I remember her strutting back and forth in our farmhouse kitchen practicing, “They’ll Be Some Be Some Changes Made,” (“They’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the sea, From now on they’ll be a change in me...”)

Though blackface today is considered racist, and many of the antics performed in blackface historically would be considered demeaning, Mr. Jefferson’s cheerful demeanor guided us into an evening of entertainment that was family-centered and fun. My mother sold me on the idea by explaining that it was important to see the world from others’ eyes and donning blackface might help do that.

Whether or not it was the blackface that led me in that direction, a few years later, as a teen in college, I volunteered to campaign for President Lyndon Johnson in Roxbury and his plans for a Great Society under the Civil Rights Act. Later, I protested the racist George Wallace, joined the NAACP and together with friends Micky and Neil Richardson helped establish NAACP Black Youth groups in Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell. We also attended the NAACP National Convention together following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Of course, I am not recommending that folks don blackface, but to recognize that cultural norms come and go. Nor am I excusing the behavior of the governor of Virginia or his attorney general, but I would recommend that we take a deep breath and let them either dig themselves in deeper...or dig themselves out of the racist hole they’ve apparently dropped into. Rule of thumb, examine their behavior in terms of legislative and judicial initiatives and rulings...and base your judgment on what impacts lives.

Genevieve Fraser lives in Orange and has been involved in local politics and civic life for many years.

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