Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom

Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom is a grassroots, web-based oral history project devoted to preserving and passing on the memory of dance in the Jazz era through the lives and words of everyday people. This is your story—please contribute by talking with a parent or grandparent, neighbor, or friend and explore the archive to see how others have shared their stories.

“What If Grandma Says Something Racist?” and Other Legitimate Concerns About Recording Family History

Kelly C. Porter
December 30, 2014

As a recorder of oral history, I am in the business of routinely cajoling people to engage elderly family members in conversation about their memories. There are many good reasons to do this: to pass down family history to younger generations, to find shared interest and dignity in the voices of elders, to connect generations in times of rapid change. More rarely discussed are the ways in which such histories and conversations can create real tensions, confrontations and fears in our families and lives.

As the old saying goes, "don't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table." There are some good reasons for that, most of them having to do with minimizing discord in favor of the things that keep people together. With important relationships we have to be willing to do this at least some of the time in order to focus on the bonds between us, rather than what might threaten to divide or disrupt. However, this oft-cited maxim, if applied too liberally can create its own detriments: that in avoiding emotional or controversial topics we might risk never talking about what really matters; that we keep meaningful differences and our feelings about them secret in favor of the semblance of harmony. Whether that is silence about the fact that Aunt Sally still talks about "the gays" taking over while your secretly glitter-fabulous tutu-wearing son winds his spaghetti with tears forming in his eyes, or that grandad's speech is still over-seasoned with observations about "the negro," there are a lot of families that, if it were not for the fact that they were related, they would be more likely to annihilate one another than to sit down for a holiday meal together.

American civil rights history is replete with meditations on this very topic: the difference between politeness and real understanding. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King often described the importance of creating tension so that understanding could eventually emerge. In his "Letter From The Birmingham Jail," Dr. King rebukes the white moderate who "prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." I would contend that this observation applies just as well to the family dinner table as to our politics and protests, to the many ways we shallow our dialogue with others to give the appearance of harmony when we know or fear that deeper divides are present. There can be an especially tense divide between younger and older family members on matters of race, gender, politics, popular culture.

In an oral history interview that I conducted with my own two grandmothers some years ago, I found myself in one of these tense moments, innocently enough when I asked them about their memories of listening to the radio as girls in the 1920's and 30's. The question elicited the expected stories about brothers building the first family "crystal set" radios out of oatmeal boxes, and imitations of favorite on-air characters like Barron Von Munchhausen, but it also produced a brief discussion about Amos 'n' Andy. To be clear, Amos 'n' Andy was a popular radio sitcom set in Harlem, and it featured two white voice actors, Andrew Hogg Brown and George Stevens, playing a variety of roles in what could be considered a radio version of blackface minstrelsy. As I sat between my grandmothers discussing the show, the discomfort in the room grew: theirs, mine. One reflected that the show "would never fly now" and after a long pause ". . . but it was funny." I hurried them along to another topic with the characteristic embarrassment that often follows moments in which an elder seems to display politics or opinion now considered outmoded at best, offensive at worst. Later, as I prepared the video for the web, I nervously contemplated editing out their Amos 'n' Andy discussion in an attempt to save face for all of us. Perhaps more hauntingly, I realized with some self-recrimination that I had hurried them away from an important question, and I knew that someday I should address it. It was an error of mine to fail to approach what we were all choosing not to say about race. Our conversation pointed to some of the ways in which we feel the need to edit or elide family history to make it more agreeable to the present.

One of those grandmothers has now passed on, Dorothy, who died last year at the age of 93, like her mother before her. On her deathbed I whispered into her unhearing ears all of the genuine gratitude I felt in knowing her: for taking care of me while my parents worked, playing fabulous games of make-believe when I was a little girl, for her epic stories of the many places that she had lived, her dry wit, her laugh which was hip and infectious right to the end. The fact that, like many white folks born in 1919, she listened to race comedy which would make a liberal like myself blanch, diminishes none of that. Yet if I had been a bit braver, more equipped, I could have found ways to discuss the contradictions which I knew were there before it was too late. She loved jazz and many of its black musicians. She had Jimmy Lunceford's autograph, could talk endlessly about Sidney Bechet's "licorice stick" (clarinet) with genuine emotion, and yet she admired them partially through a popular culture which was not entirely distinguishable from minstrelsy . . . may it rest in peace.

If a tradition of white Americans imitating blackness with disgraceful humor created contradictions within my grandmother's memory of the swing era, then some 70 years later those contradictions become even more complex. Say what you will about the racism of the jazz era, but at the very least it was often enough right out there on the surface for all to behold. Curious music-hounds can listen to hundreds of shockingly racist swing tunes performed by white and black outfits alike-- titles like "If the Man In the Moon Were a Coon," "The Sheik of Araby," "Bigwig in the Wigwam" and "In Blinky Winky Chinatown." While the lyrics of these songs may be tough-to-stomach now, what's worse is that some of them were recorded by heavy-hitting musicians and were often almost unforgivably snappy. This is to say that many of our white grandparents and great-grandparents may have walked to work whistling "Jimmy Crack Corn" not because they were the sort of person who might burn a cross on someone's front lawn, but because racism was a central fixture of much of the popular culture of their day. Racism is still part of our popular culture, though its shape and rhetoric have changed some. Our white elders were consumers of that culture, and to some extent they benefited from the privilege it afforded them. There is always a seductive appeal to media and opinion which professes our own cultural superiority.

As I think about songs and nursery rhymes taught to me by my grandparents, they are full of the usual fond Americana like "My Darling Clementine," "Casey Jones" and "You Are My Sunshine," right along-side minstrel rhymes like "eenie meenie miney moe, catch a tiger by his toe, if he hollers let 'em go . . ."-- in my grandparents' day, the couplet would have read "catch a n----- by the toe." This kind of humor was seen as acceptable amongst otherwise "nice folks" precisely because of its cultural ubiquity. The fact that I learned the same rhyme decades later with altered words is even further indicative of what had transpired in those years. This excuses none of the harm done by structural racism, but it makes it more comprehensible. When you inspect a race-laden popular culture you can then begin to fathom how nice folks who worked hard and loved their kids could also harbor views of others that seem shockingly inequitable. The passing down of "eenie meenie " is an apt metaphor for how many white Americans personally deal with a history of racism: we're still singing the same song, but we have censored some of the words. White America has become better at monitoring our language and shushing notable signs of the unreconstructed among us, but has our public culture really come that much farther than Amos 'n' Andy? Yes it has, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Because white America has routinely sanitized its history from mention of race, we have often forgotten the darker roots of familiar and benevolent-seeming media, institutions and culture.

As it turns out, recent research in child psychology from the Children's Research Lab at the University of Texas seems to suggest that white parents are far from having taught their kids to be equanimitous regarding racial and ethnic difference. Rather they have tended to think that not talking about race will create children who are 'colorblind' or unaware of racial or cultural difference. Consequently, when valid questions about ethnic difference arise in the precocious noggins of our youth, they are recited platitudes like "everyone is equal," which is of course true, but does not go far enough to help them understand the difference and discrimination they already witness in the world. After all, what is "equality" to a 7-year-old?

After testing the effects of various media like multiculturally-themed videos which imply through diversity that all races can be friends, the U of Texas researchers discovered that they do not really improve scores on racial attitude tests for kids much. They also discovered that when you ask white parents to bring up race for the purpose of encouraging equality with their kids, asking questions like "If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?" as a jumping off point, many of them will drop out of the study because they are so profoundly uncomfortable with the task.

It seems that the study's dropout parents all had a similar song. They believed that even acknowledging differences in skin color or ethnicity would give their child negative racial attitudes, make them see difference where before they saw none. It seems many white Americans fear that talking about race will produce racism, or make them a "racist," especially if we do not feel capable of performing this task perfectly every time we do it. In effect, the result of this assumption is that it has precisely the opposite effect: in absence of direction from parents and other responsible adults, kids are left on their own to process a culture which has a lot to say about race, and not all of it very enlightened. Kids already see and wonder about differences between people and cultures, but they need guidance on what those differences mean or don't mean. Unsurprisingly, when the young children of the white parents in the study were asked straight out "Do your parents like black people?" 14% said "No, my parents don't like black people" and 38% of the kids responded "I don't know." As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in their excellent summary of what child psychology research has to say about the learning and unlearning of racist attitudes (in a chapter aptly titled "Why White Parents Don't Talk about Race"): "In this supposedly race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions-- many of which would be abhorrent to their parents." It also turns out that African American parents are somewhat more likely to discuss race and racism with young children, but often (heart-breakingly) to prepare them to withstand discrimination, slander or white violence. It seems that white Americans will have to be a good deal more explicit about the uncomfortable matter of race if they really want to raise children who understand and undermine discrimination.

To be sure, the task of discussing the issue of racism is not easy, with the young or the old. There are racialized elements of American culture and history that take real mental jiujitsu to comprehend. If we return to the cultural landscape of the jazz era, and many of our elders, it is easy to be reminded of how complicated the signals about race were then, and continue to be. Consider for a moment that troupes of black minstrels and dancers also performed in literal blackface. Whenever I talk about the history of American minstrelsy in a classroom setting one of the first questions posed (and almost always by a white student) is about how blackface minstrelsy could be seen by anyone as racist if black folks participated in it, too. Likewise black students frequently wonder about a practice that on the surface would seem to be a self-imposed debasement for black practitioners, or worse, an acquiescence to the caricature of black life provided by white supremacy. Though here, too, the story is more complicated.

From a time preceding the Civil War right up through the beginning of the 20th Century, blackface minstrelsy was by far America's most popular form of stage entertainment. In fact, let me reword that for appropriate emphasis: for over 60 years the most popular form of stage entertainment in America was the racist satire of black life. Indeed, very few black performers were even admitted to the public stage without the greasepaint and self-deprecation. When you consider that context, the racist threads which ran through the white affinity for jazz and swing are a good deal more predictable (even if they are still hard to forgive), as is the decision of many black performers to 'cork up.' In a culture still processing the psychic wounds of minstrelsy--a practice which simultaneously elevated and denigrated black American culture--the humor of the minstrel show may have been largely offensive, but can be viewed in historical context as simply a part of stage-business for many black performers.

From behind the mask, many black minstrels attempted to exceed the caricature that they were obliged to accommodate. Where troupes of white minstrels competed with each other to achieve the most 'authentic' impression of black life (and succeeded at least as often in delivering little more than their own racist fantasies), many black musicians and entertainers felt that in minstrelsy they had at least gained a popular audience for black performance, even if it was created through hideous caricature.

Louis Douglas of the black minstrel troupe Belle Davis' Georgia Pickaninnies, who later produced his own European tour of "A Trip to Coontown" with Will Garland's Negro Opera Troupe once commented: "Of course, I had burnt cork on my face, and my lips were painted like they were big and white, but since everybody was doing it, I didn't let it get to me." There are an abundance of similar reflections from black performers of this era. When dancer/musician Dawn Hampton was asked how she felt about her family band's early names for a documentary about her very musical upbringing (they were called "Deacon Hampton's Pickaninnies," and later "Deacon Hampton's Cottonpickers"), she remarked "We didn't know, we didn't allow those things to enter into our lives . . . we did what we had to do." If the psychic wounds of minstrelsy were the price of admission to the stage, many black artists were willing to pay it for the opportunity to make a living as a performer, and perhaps to even be seen to outperform the trappings of minstrelsy itself. Indeed, the Hampton family performed all the way to Carnegie Hall, for some years from behind a bass drum painted with a grinning Topsy and an outsized chunk of watermelon. All of this is to say that racism is complicated, both then and now, and the contemporary gentleman's agreement amongst liberal white folks to avoid talking about race is not necessarily a step towards enlightenment. It often just creates different and more subtle breeds of misunderstanding. That fear still renders us incapable of listening to the opinion of black folks when we most need to do so.

How do we talk about memories which touch on race, gender, contentious sexualities or politics, especially with elders whose reflections may cause tension in the present? While I do not for a moment wish to infantalize the elderly, I think that some of the findings on children and race still apply just as well to people of all ages. Far too often our only question when confronted with an unwanted opinion in the family is "Why would you say that!?" It is a response borne largely out of a will to save our own ego and a pleasant time. We do not want to be reminded that people with whom we associate might harbor such sentiments. We would much rather everybody talk about something else. Yet there are ways to explore these sorts of utterances, rather than sweep them under the rug.

So how do we do this? Most people respond defensively to being put on the spot or being judged, so sometimes it's better to wait for a more private situation, lest a conversation turn into a public roast. People can use their own good judgment about how to gain the trust and ensure the relative calm of particular family members. Yet there are better questions for those situations than "why would you say something so awful?" They include: Why do you/did you feel that way? What made you worried about _______? What do you think will happen if ______? Even exploratory questions about when and how someone had occasion to interact with people of different ethnic backgrounds, and how those interactions went are both valuable to history and to understanding the attitudes of family members who are sometimes the hardest to deal with.

When you start exploring experience rather than immediately contradicting it, exploring how a person has arrived at their understandings, even if they may seem misguided, you can begin to find ways into people's thinking, and the experiences that have formed it. We can also gently offer our own feelings in return, demonstrate that a person's utterances have both practical and psychological consequences for people who they love and value. Sometimes the sharing of our own stories and experiences which have yielded different understandings of the same controversial topic are a powerful antidote in and of themselves. Agreement is not always to be found, and yes, sometimes these conversations erupt into indignation like a pressure-cooker filled with Mamie dolls and racial-slurs, but it seems that any chance we have at real understanding depends upon our willingness to sincerely explore human experience where it gets prickly, furthermore to do it with curiosity rather than dread. We may not have time or energy to do this with everyone close to us. If we are lucky we might have the opportunity to engage this way with even one family member who still harbors regrettable stereotypes or even outright hatred. Yet, in my experience people often underestimate the ability of elders both to make sense and to change their minds. Much to the contrary, in the many conversations I have had with people in their 80's and 90's, I have found that just having an opinion solicited or questioned can be refreshing to our elders in the sense that it assures them that their voice still matters at least enough to be reckoned with.

Many older relatives from Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and East-European immigrant families formed opinions of racial minorities in the United States primarily through popular culture, and through perceived competition for work brought on by waves of African American workers migrating to manufacturing hubs out of the same financial desperation that plagued white immigrant families. Many black families found that the brunt of their quotidian racism came from the white working-poor who were worried about being undercut for wages and labor. It's the same familiar animus that currently has some Americans screaming with insensate rage at buses of refugee children on their way to amnesty hearings along America's southwest border. There is a sense of both desperation and entitlement in this anger, then and now. When we fear we will not have enough to survive, people's sense of humanity tends to reliably retract to ever-smaller groups, to protecting "our people," whomever we perceive them to be.

Through the jazz years we also discovered that one of the things that could bring black and white performers to agreement on race was the disparagement of various other immigrant cultures. Chinese and other East Asian immigrants got their share of derision, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Politically this translated into actions like culturally-specific immigration quotas or the internment in prison camps of 120,000 blameless Japanese-Americans on our own soil. In the recording industry the amount of anti-Japanese propaganda recorded by black musical outfits alone during the war years could go for weeks. I remember gaining a whole new set of conflicting feelings about popular dance orchestras like Lucky Millinder's, after hearing them play tunes like "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap." This is to say that racism is complicated, and it is always interlacing with other fears and inequalities to create new and puzzling breeds of itself.

While many American families pass down heroic tales of immigration, poverty and labor, the darker chapters of contempt, violence and misunderstanding are often glossed-over. We fear what it means for our own identity if our ancestry were rendered in full unedited detail. The same applies just as well to sexism, homophobia, disability, classism, to the real schisms in our family history. It extends, too, to our contemporary debates over history curricula in public schools. So often we are unwilling to contend with histories of discrimination unless our ancestors were the glorious victims-- humanity's David to the world's Goliath. Yet we do not need to lionize or disavow our ancestors in order to be assured of their humanity, and certainly not to preserve ours as their descendants.

The real pain and discord caused by white supremacy in American society is part of many family histories, and it is still fresh. For those of us in the younger set, it is good to be reminded that our actions will be judged by future generations, maybe one day by family we have yet to meet. Thus, having a culture which engages our elders with dignity will one day be important to us, too, and not in the least because a large part of human dignity is culpability-- the acknowledgment that a person is able to be responsible for his words and deeds, his beliefs. When we fail to engage our elders about the real effects that their speech and actions have on loved ones, we fail to fully dignify them as we would a true equal, as equally-human. Except in cases where an elder may not be responsible due to dementia, Alzheimer's Disease or other mental health issues, our silence on these important matters may not only maintain attitudes of hate, but also inadvertently deflate the sense of dignity that a person maintains only by being acknowledged as an intellectual participant in the world. There is not always a good opportunity to do this, most often not a comfortable or quickly-apparent way, but perhaps the primary problem is that we frequently opt for comfort over the risk of understanding, that we do not try and have not tried hard enough.