The Runaway Slave’s Lament

Perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of the United States’ two-hundred year participation in legalized slavery and its continual tango with racism is the minstrel show.

The minstrel show, a highly ritualized and formatted performance of songs, dance, acting, and doggerel delivered first by white actors in blackface, then black actors…in blackface…and white actors in blackface in separate troupes, was the most popular entertainment in urban America from the 1840s to the 1880s.

In other words, it bridged the antebellum period, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age.  It only surrendered its leading role in the 1880s, when industrialization and European immigration pushed the minstrel show’s fantasies of southern rural life to the sidelines.

Even so, blackface persisted into the vaudeville, movie, and radio and TV eras.  The last US professional practitioner of blackface, a white performer, Cotton Watts, apparently packed in his act only in 1959.*

And, of course, blackface lives on at the amateur level, for racist frat parties, Halloween getups, & so on.

There’s still a lot of historical blackface/minstrelsy stuff on the Internet.  I’m not going to post or link to it here, but it’s worth Googling in order to realize, man, this was completely acceptable mainstream American entertainment for well over a century.  It does show that attitudes can change, thankfully.

I think there was more to blackface minstrelsy than a) making black people look foolish, subhuman, & not needing or missing basic human rights or dignity and b) thereby allowing white America to reconcile itself to its blithe disregard of the horrors of racism, birthed by slavery but perpetuated by de jure and de facto legal, economic, and social repression after the Civil War.

There was that.  Well, there still is that, but a closer look at the minstrel show reveals that the flip side of southern black inferiority was northern white superiority which, in turn, unexpectedly fed back into ideas of southern white superiority.

Abolitionism was only one, minority strain of northern anti-slavery sentiment.  The other, the “free labor” movement—which fueled the bitter struggles over the admission of territories to the Union as “slave” or “free”–embodied the belief that white laborers would face unfair competition in the new lands from the plantation system and its access to slave labor,  that is labor supported at the bare subsistence level.

The North did not buy the South’s assertion that the plantation system was an inspired exercise in paternalistic socialism that had found a better way to, shall we say, skin the labor cat by offering cradle-to-grave welfare.  But this did not translate into a mainstream abhorrence for the horrors of slavery.

Instead, slavery’s competition was considered to be unfair and, moreso, immoral because it encouraged a culture of dependency among the slaves who, assured of a lifetime of guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter thanks to their masters, had slipped into a state of childlike dependency…

…in complete contrast, of course, to the white laborer, who was captain of his soul, navigating the stormy waters of industrialization and the free market, forging his character in a neverending Darwinian struggle for economic survival and personal improvement (and, if he was extremely tough and lucky, able to secure his gains in wages and working conditions with union membership).

Sound familiar?  Except maybe for the union thing?

This aspect was brought home to me by Robert Toll’s superb history of the American theater, On With the Show (Oxford University Press, New York, 1976).  He has a full chapter on the minstrel craze and the somewhat inexplicable perennial demand of urban northern white audiences for depictions of contented slaves on southern plantations, which went to the extreme of creating a particular genre song, the repentant runaway’s lament:

To underscore the point that blacks were happy only on the plantation, minstrels created the repentant runaway, a character who had experienced both Southern and Northern life and invariably longed to return to the old folks at home…When Negroes did leave the plantation, they quickly regretted is.  “Dis being free,” one typical repentant runaway lamented, “is worser than being a slave.”  To avoid reformers’ charges that Negroes were severely discriminated against in the North…minstrels paid little attention to ex-slaves’ problems in the North.  Instead the focused on the runaways’ glowing recollections of the joys of plantation life…

The “runaways’ lament” lives on in some modern places that, I think, may surprise readers as they surprised me.

Sing the first lines of “Dixie”:

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton

Old times there are not forgotten

Yes, it’s a runaway’s lament.  It entered the repertoire of the Virginia Minstrels in New York City in 1859 and was a smash hit in the North years before it was appropriated by the South, played at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration, and became the Rebs’ marching song.

Here’s one of Stephen Foster’s most beloved compositions:

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,

Far, far away,

Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,

Dere’s wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation

Sadly I roam,

Still longing for de old plantation,

And for de old folks at home.



All de world am sad and dreary,

Eb-rywhere I roam;

Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,

Far from de old folks at home!

Yep, “Old Folks at Home”, another runaway’s lament.  It was a mainstay of the Christy Minstrels.  It’s now the official song of the state of Florida.

How about that song we associate with mint juleps and fast horses:

The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home

Tis summer, the darkies are gay

Weep no more my lady

Oh weep no more today

We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home

For the old Kentucky home far away

Anthem of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky State Song…runaway slave’s lament.

One last example: “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny”:

Carry me back to old Virginny.

There’s where the cotton and corn and taters grow.

There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.

There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa,

Day after day in the field of yellow corn;

No place on earth do I love more sincerely

Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.


Carry me back to old Virginny.

There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow;

There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.

There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.


Carry me back to old Virginny,

There let me live till I wither and decay.

Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,

There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.

Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,

Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.

There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,

There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.

Official state song of Virginia 1940-1997,  Now, thankfully, demoted to “state song emeritus”.

For bonus cringe points, Ole Virginny was written by an African-American, James Bland, the “black Stephen Foster” in 1875.  Bland apparently wished to reassure white America that, 12 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the ex-slaves’ hearts were still with “Old Massa and Missis”.

Somehow, all these beloved Southern anthems turn out to be defenses of the ante-bellum slave system.  How ’bout that.

When I grew up and sang these songs, well some of them, well maybe just “Swanee” & “Dixie” as part of US folklore exercises in music class (in New Jersey; no state song; shut up! we were not in the business of recognizing Kentucky or Virginia for their musical endowments), the “runaway’s lament” angle was never explained and, I’ll say, never occurred to me.

So I guess it can be asserted that these old songs, stripped of their historical associations and cleaned up by switching out “darkies” in favor of “people” (as was done for “My Old Kentucky Home” by command of the state legislature) are harmless repositories for the sentiments of all Southerners missing their homeland: a Tallahassee trucker rumbling down a lonely Montana highway, a Richmond bond trader spending Christmas in Tokyo, a Lexington frat boy in Syracuse wishing he could be back home in Kentucky vomiting in a urinal at Churchill Downs on Derby Day…

…or a disgruntled son of the South airing out his states’ rights inclinations by flying the Stars & Bars & whistlin’ Dixie.

Well, maybe these songs aren’t really for “all” Southerners.

These songs are, as a matter of authentic Southern heritage, BS.

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, PA and died in a Bowery flophouse.  James Bland was born in Flushing, Queens and died in Philadelphia.

The guy who wrote “Dixie”, Dan Emmett, was a founder of the Virginia Minstrels and the leading blackface empresario of his time.  He lived and died in Mount Vernon…Ohio, not Virginia.

According to Wikipedia, Emmett, who subsequently composed the fife and drum manual for the Union Army, said of “Dixie”, “If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d have written it.”

It should also go without saying these catchy ditties did not represent the genuine aspirations of runaway slaves, whose descendants form sizable minorities in the Southern states that gave these songs official recognition.

The songs were explicitly racist compositions designed to feed the false plantation mythos demanded by the northern minstrel industry…and feed the fantasies of white audiences everywhere.

The only way that one can justify singing these songs, let alone making them state songs, is to say “I don’t know history…and history—at least your history– doesn’t matter.  In fact, I prefer pleasing and polarizing myths to history…or to a song that truly represents my state and its history.”

Maybe somebody can write a song about that.

Call it “The Ex-Slaveholders’ Lament”.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.

*Minstrel shows were also a huge deal in England.  In the 19th century, various iterations of the Christy Minstrels performed in Great Britain for decades and the vogue for American blackface minstrelsy  persisted well into the 20th century.  The Christys’ signature song, Ten Little… , well, you know what, became engrained in English popular culture and served as the title of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries—until it was renamed And Then There Were None.  An embarrassments in the P.G.Wodehouse canon is Thank You, Jeeves, in which Bertie’s infatuation with a minstrel troupe leads to some blackface japes and ugly language.  And, somewhat astoundingly, the BBC broadcast a hugely popular blackface variety show, The Black and White Minstrel Show, from 1960 through 1978.  I guess there’s room for an interesting essay on the resonance between US and British imperial racism.  More study needed!

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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