The high point of my first year in high school was a minstrel show. The year began in the Fall of 1959. That great decade, the sixties, was soon to begin, but it was still the fifties in my home town, the boring, conservative, celebrate-America fifties. The racist fifties. Just five years before, Emmett Till had been murdered in Mississippi, dumped into the Tallahatchie river with his head bashed in and a seventy pound exhaust fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Just three years before, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, United States Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi had this to say about Black people:
In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers . . . African flesh-eaters. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives . . . . All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.
Neither I nor my classmates in Ford City, Pennsylvania, a small industrial town forty miles north of Pittsburgh, knew anything about such matters.
I was apprehensive about high school. I had spent the past six years in a small Catholic school, and, although I did not like the nuns and their regimentation, at least I had known all my classmates. The sisters did their best to make conformists out of us: teachers had to be obeyed, and priests, and parents. Independent thinking was dangerous, the work of the devil. Our eighth grade teacher, Sister Herman Joseph, made memorization the basis of all our learning. We would write down terms on the left-hand side of our notebook pages, and she would dictate the appropriate definitions for us to write on the right-hand side. Then we would stand around the room, and she would read out a definition. If you got it right, you kept standing; if you missed, you sat down. Grades were based on how many rounds you remained standing. She had me keep the grade records, so I got to sit down at all times, and I also always got the first question. I had a good memory, so even if I had not studied, I could memorize all the answers by the time it was my turn again. So getting a good grade was simple for me. Learning anything worthwhile was another matter. Sister’s definition for the radical, Tom Paine, was “As great an infidel as Voltaire.” Not that I learned anything about Tom Paine (or Voltaire) in high school. I did not, and only reflected back on the utterly incredible and reactionary definition in my notebook after I did learn something relevant in college. Not one teacher at any level thought it worthwhile to teach us about Emmett Till or Senator Eastland. A biology professor in college, a Catholic priest, told us that if a white woman had a black baby, you knew that there was a “nigger in the wood pile.”
At least Herman Joseph didn’t beat us when we got the wrong answer. I still wince when I think of how her predecessor had banged a girl’s head against the blackboard because she confused inches, feet, and yards. Perhaps this was teacher’s way of preparing her to obey her husband; learn what he wanted or you’ll get the thrashing you deserve. In any event, I had the highest grade average in the school, but Sister would not allow me to get the traditional award medal. She said that I learned too easily. Rewards went only to those who endured the appropriate suffering.
On my first day in high school, my home room teacher, who also taught Latin, called out the role, and when she got to me, yelled out “Melvin Yapp.” This set my classmates into howls of laughter. She had glanced down at the last name on another roster, but some of my friends called me “Melvin” for quite awhile. Then there was science class, taught by a heavy set farmer (he really did have a farm) with a beet red face and a penchant for looking up girls’ dresses. I hated this class, especially after the teacher knocked one of the students clear out of his seat for talking. I feared mightily that this would happen to me. Two older students, repeating the class after failing it the year before, sat beside and behind me. They were always making fun of me. They would ask, “Getting any?”(meaning sex), but I was so naive that for a long time I thought that they were saying, “Git ninny,” which made no sense at all. When I looked at them dumbfounded, they would almost fall down laughing. The teacher was always picking on them, mocking their inability or unwillingness to learn the material. If I so much as smiled when this happened, both of them would hit me when the teacher’s back was turned. Then for at least a month, the two of them would grab me in the hall after class and drag me in the opposite direction of my next class, punching my arms and twisting my wrists. Since they were bigger than I and there were two of them, physical confrontation seemed out of the question. So I hit upon an alternative strategy, one which I used successfully throughout high school.
I was always academically bright. My mother encouraged me to read a lot, and I did, everything from encyclopedias to novels to comic books. But being smart is not an unalloyed virtue in a place in which most young people are going to be factory workers or otherwise employed in jobs which do not require much formal education. If you stand out too much intellectually, you run the risk of social isolation and physical and verbal abuse. Luckily I was good at sports, too, especially baseball, which my father had me playing with much older kids by the age of six. He coached a youth team for boys nine through twelve, and he would bring me to the practices. I would take my turn at bat, and he would throw the ball pretty hard. If it hit me, I’d be too ashamed to cry; it wouldn’t be the manly thing to do. Sports helped me then to develop strength and a little toughness. Nothing was more admired among men than sports ability and fighting prowess, and at least I had the former. I had an absolute aversion to fighting, and, most remarkably, I made it through high school without getting into a single fight. I did this by making special efforts to befriend the toughest boys. In the science class, I began to let the two bullies copy from me on the weekly quizzes. This helped them to pass and showed them that I had some courage. Soon the punches and the hallway abductions stopped; by the end of the year, the three of us were almost buddies.
I perfected this strategy over my years in high school. I walked to high school, and I arrived long before classes started. I would wait in one of the stairwells for the kids who hung out there, guys from the shop classes, guys who smoked cigarettes and were not afraid to fight. We’d talk about sports or about teachers or I’d just listen. After awhile they’d think of me as a friendly and harmless person, but one who might help them out if they needed it. In my sophomore math class, I helped some of the basketball players get through algebra. I didn’t like science classes, so later I enrolled in the regular physics class instead of the college prep course. This worked out well; I found the work easy but I helped a lot of the other students. That way no one would think that I considered myself better than them because I was smarter. Unfortunately the teacher forced me to transfer into the more advanced class. Outside school, besides baseball, I learned how to bowl and to shoot pool with some skill; all of these sports helped me to be a regular guy even if I did get good grades. Another trick I learned was to prepare for each class during the one before. That way I never had to do any homework, showing my disdain for school and impressing my classmates.
The ninth grade students were divided into seven sections. Students were placed into the sections according to performance on standardized tests and perhaps (although I have no personal knowledge of this) upon the demands of the more aggressive parents. These tests were culturally biased and in no way measured our potential abilities. So it is no wonder that no black boys or girls were placed in the first three sections, the ones in which the students presumably had some chance of furthering their educations. There was a small black population in the town, segregated entirely at the south or “lower” end. About five to ten percent of my class was black, and it was in high school that I had my first encounters with black people. Not in my classes, because I was in the first section and this was lily-white, and as I think back on it now, comprised disproportionately of children from more middle class (i.e. not factory worker) families. Most of the black families in town were poor, although a few men worked in the town’s large glass and pottery factories. As I got to know my black classmates, it seemed to me that they were as smart as anyone else, but somehow they often had problems with their studies and, in general, the students and the teachers did not think that they were capable of good work. When a black student did excel in school, people would wonder in amazement how this could have happened.
Racism was such a fact of life that it was taken for granted. I never remember saying anything derogatory about any black person just because he or she was black. But in this I was probably exceptional, because guys were always commenting on the “niggers” or “coons” or “jungle bunnies.” It was inconceivable that a white girl would date a black boy, and if she did, she would for ever after be dismissed as a slut. “She fucks niggers” was pretty much the same as “She has the plague” or “She has sex with animals.” The boy would have to watch his back, because this was a reason for violence. And even if I did not use racial epithets, I still never missed an episode of “Amos and Andy” on television. We were forever talking about this show, much the way people talk about “Seinfeld” today. Except that we would laugh about the outrageously stereotyped behavior of the show’s characters, implicitly accepting the idea that this was the way black people really did act. We would imitate the voices of the gullible “Andy,” the con man “Kingfish,” and the slow-witted janitor, “Lightin’.” We would memorize lines, and I can remember some of them still.
The clear implication of all this was that we considered black people as a kind of exotic species; they were not like us. They existed to make us laugh and to thrill us with their athletic prowess. Black women were thought of as over-sexed. People would say “You’re not a man until you’ve split the black oak” (had sex with a black woman). No one ever challenged this kind of talk; to do so would mark you as a “nigger lover.” Yet it was not necessarily bad to have black friends, as long as you understood that you were white. We suffered amazing delusions about the feelings of black persons. One of my good friends worked in his father’s combination convenience store and gas station, located at the “lower end” of town. He was our expert on black life; he knew nearly every black person in town. We’d listen intently as he’d tell us about black folks, about the big fat whore who lived at the “Blue Goose” hotel, about the foolishness of the slow-witted “Dewey,” about the strange antics of the sickly brother of the town’s best basketball player. He said in a tone of superiority that he could call our black classmates “niggers” because he knew them so well. A few years later, I was drinking with a friend in a bar in a rough neighborhood. We had just bought a milkshake glass full of gin for a woman who said that it was her birthday. We were the only white persons in the place, and my companion, a very fat ex-sailor, started to talk about “niggers.” I told him to shut up; that kind of talk could get us killed. He said, “Don’t worry; they know me here.”
I disliked all of my ninth grade classes except one, English. Latin was difficult and boring. Fortunately our teacher was often sick, and the substitute knew nothing about languages, living or dead. Civics was taught by an old woman who really believed that it was important for us to know every detail of the mechanics of every level of government. Maybe she was right, but this material was as dry as dust to me. I’ve already mentioned the science class. I don’t know which was worse, the teacher’s brutality or the way he’d say, “Please you people,” when we got on his nerves. I didn’t mind algebra. It was taught by one of the school’s legendary basketball players, and he made it interesting, telling us little tidbits like the Arabic root of the word “algebra.” But my favorite class was English, which was taught by our favorite teacher, Mr. Conlon or “Skinny” for short.
Skinny was one of those teachers who seems like “one of the guys” to the students. He’d tell us jokes and let us in on some of the gossip of the school, the things that went on between the teachers and between them and the staff. This was an extraordinary thing in those days when the gap between student and teacher was a lot wider than it is today. He had us do unusual assignments, such as spontaneous speeches on a subject he’d name on the spot. We were his “best” students, but he had to teach many of the other sections as well. That year he had to teach the Section 7 class; these students were deemed hopeless by the school, which was why they were put there in the first place. Skinny let it be known that these kids were too dumb to learn, so he had devised alternative education for them. One of his tactics was to conduct arm wrestling contests among the boys in the class, among whom were some of the ninth grade’s strongest. We thought that this was great stuff. Why waste your time on those who were impervious to learning, whose skulls were too thick to permeate? Better to prepare them for the hard manual labor that they were no doubt going to do for the rest of their lives. Quite a few of them were black.
Since we were his star pupils, Skinny gave us a special task, one which we took to with great enthusiasm. He organized us to perform a minstrel show for the entire school. Only boys would actually act out the parts on stage, but the girls would do the rest of the work. I don’t know where he got the “script,” but minstrel shows were still performed by some civic organizations, so maybe he was a member of the Kiwanis Club or some other do-gooder organization and he got it from there. At any rate, we auditioned, were assigned roles, and began to rehearse. I remember that one of our section’s science brains, a nice guy but a bit of a sissy, was chosen to play the straight man or “Interlocuter.” The rest of us were given a variety of stock minstrel roles with standard minstrel names like “Rastus.” We rehearsed diligently, learning a large number of lines. The main idea was that the Interlocutor would ask each of us questions, and we would answer in our best imitation of what we thought was southern black speech, tripping over the words and twisting them around nonsensically so that we would get a laugh out of the audience. Some of us also did skits, again with the idea of illustrating the natural stupidity and childishness of black folks.
The minstrel show was a great success; not a single teacher or administrator criticized it. We were all proud of our budding acting talents. We had enjoyed putting on black face and dressing in outlandish costumes. Best of all, we had relished being allowed to talk in front of a large audience the way the actors on “Amos and Andy” talked. We were assured that what we had done was good when my friend, the “expert,” told us that he had talked to a black girl in our grade, and she had told him that she had not been offended.
I can say now that I do not think that I have ever done something which has shamed me more than the minstrel show. I do not remember that it bothered me then, but it has bothered me a good deal since. The grossness of it, the inhumanity of it, the way in which it degraded not just my black classmates but all black people, the completely casual way in which Skinny assigned it and we did it, all of these things make me sick now. The sad thing is the knowledge that so many of my teachers, people who should have known better, in 1960, than to have allowed this to happen, enjoyed it, committing themselves to the same racism which filled up the tree limbs with dead black bodies.
White people like to say that things have really improved for black men and women. A lot of whites complain that blacks keep bitching and moaning about what happened to them in the past, when what they should be doing is getting on with their lives. It is true that not many people dress up in blackface these days, although it is not unknown in college fraternities. And lynching is no longer a fact of life in the South. There are thousands of black office holders, a significant Black middle class, even Black billionaires and CEOs. Black styles and Black music dominate youth culture. So, why rehash the past?
We don’t need to belabor the past. Just look at the present. Four decades after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Acts (and forty years since I graduated from high school), more than half of all prisoners in the United States are Black, half of more than two million people. At least 65 percent of all prisoners are Black in Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia (96 Percent Black). Researcher Richard Vogel reports that, “In 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice developed a statistical model that predicted that an African American male who was 16 years old in 1996 had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison over his lifetime. If the Department of Justice differentiated incarceration rates between poor and non-poor, there is little doubt that we would see that poor African Americans in contemporary society actually face ‘the inevitability of prison’.”
I could go on and talk about poverty and unemployment rates, life expectancies, infant mortality, access to medical care and the like. But enough said. How are we to explain these appalling disparities except as consequences of the same racism that killed Emmett Till and encouraged us to put on our minstrel show?
MICHAEL D. YATES can be reached at: email@example.com