By Susan Townley
Thomas Dartmouth Rice of Boston Mass, was a leading black face entertainer during America’s Ante-Bellum era. Rice is remembered because he happened to notice a severely crippled slave while touring the South during a performance tour.
The enslaved man’s grotesque movements made him stand out because one of his legs was shorter than the other and his back was bent with one shoulder lower than the other. The only way this hapless gent could move was with a hop and a skip while he dragged his longer leg and twisted his body forward.
This man’s agonized movements, and the laughter of the watchers who happened to see him as he worked, inspired Rice who was always looking for new material for a his act. He decided to mock the man’s movements while singing traditional African-American slave-ditties as he jumped and stumbled around the stage in black-face to the high-hilarity of his White audiences.
Rice performed this racist black faced, and very popular act for audiences in Britain and throughout the United States for two decades. He named the act after the ditty that drew the most laughs, ‘The Jim Crow Jump,’ which became a widely popular song. And over the course of time this caricature became known far and wide as Jim Crow.
During this same Ante-Bellum period of Rice’s development of his Jim Crow character, the first steam engine was introduced in Boston. Boston’s White citizens immediately created the Blacks only car. It was known as the Jim Crow car.
American entertainers including Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan, and even Bugs Bunny did not shy from donning black face in their performances and movies.
After the Civil War, the Southern the border states, intent on denying Black Americans their human rights, developed ‘The Black Codes’ that were called Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the colloquial term used to describe this body of laws, customs, and practices implemented to demean, degrade and isolate Black Americans.
While this example of 19th century racist insensitivity is repugnant, a surprisingly similar episode reported by the media in 2016 is equally as repellant.
Remember then candidate Donald Trump’s shameless mockery of the New York Times reporter who covered his campaign?
What credible candidate other than Donald Trump would find a man’s twitching muscles of an autoimmune disorder cause for amusement and ridicule?
What presidential candidate or president, other than Donald Trump would solicit the support of his base by promoting racism, misogyny, and ridicule of the weak? How is it that anyone is so deluded as to think a man like this should be the judge or chart the course of present, past, or future American greatness?
Rice was not the first performer to put on black face, but, as one of the leading performers of his era, his use of black face made other actors feel free to use it. And it spread like wild fire and was a regular component of American entertainment into the 60’s.
Similarly, Trump’s shameless expression of racism and misogyny makes others feel free to express their own feelings of racist hatred.
Is the great America for which Trump and his followers yearn? It certainly is the place, as the Washington Post reminded its readers 50 years later in which Trump’s father was arrested in 1926 for participating in a KKK riot in Queens, NY.
As a White woman, this is not the kind of American history I want to own. But, from personal experience, I am acutely aware that we are as sick as our secrets and therefore, if we cannot take responsibility for the vestiges of Jim Crow still thriving in our country, we will never get over the sickness with which slavery infected us.
Each of us must own up to the ways in which structural racism limits the lives of those around us. In owning up we must recognize just how corrupted we have become because of racism, bigotry and misogyny.