No to this “Oh”

Too often, White America has selective memory when it comes to the past. It reminds me of my tween daughter’s forgetfulness around things like chores, and yet she never forgets when her allowance is due.

As a Black American, it is fascinating to me how often White America looks back on the distant past with fond memories. It’s rare to find any Black American over 50 who yearns for those eras to the degree that our white counterparts yearn for them—and how often they are seen as “the good old days.”

Of course, why would anyone of color with any sense of history or self-respect yearn or look back fondly at a time when you were denied access to numerous spaces simply due to the color of your skin? A time when the even the family vacation was a racial experience because you couldn’t count on finding a roadside diner that might serve you and you had to do your best to avoid the sundown towns even in northern states like Illinois lest you end up dead. As my father told me, the day he graduated from high school in Blytheville, Arkansas, he was on a bus out of town that evening. Heading to someplace where a Black person might stand a chance of breathing. No, Black folks as a whole don’t revisit the past here in America because to revisit the past is to realize that the progress we envisioned isn’t nearly as far in the past as we like to think, along with the fact progress hasn’t gone as far as it should have yet (or as far as we’ve have been led to believe).

However, in a changing nation, revisiting the past for white folks takes on an entirely different tone. A time when whiteness paid maximum dividends and extending humanity and decency to non-white people wasn’t a thing. Or, as a local community group in Maine advertised with an upcoming stage production of “Oh, Susannah,” they described a version of the Old South as a “dream remembered” of “knights and their ladies, masters and slaves,” and a “pretty world where gallantry took its last bow.” Oh, and the production was to be composed largely of minstrel songs. And promoted using a Confederate stars and bars flag.

In case knowledge of minstrel-style shows isn’t your jam, let me give you the Wikipedia description:

“The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that mocked people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by Caucasians in make-up or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and all-black minstrel groups that formed and toured under the direction of white people.”

So. yeah…in Sanford, Maine, the local theater group Sanford Maine Stage thought that staging a taste of the old days in the form of “Oh, Susannah” would be a marvelous idea. While the composer of the actual song “Oh, Susannah” was known as one of the fathers of American music, much of what he wrote was fodder for minstrel shows. Foster himself performed in blackface at one point.

A production like “Oh, Susannah” is steeped in racism. It’s one thing to revisit the Confederacy in a historical sense, but even then, it is to revisit some of this country’s darkest history. But as a form of nostalgia and longing? No.

That is a period in history when the degradation of Black people was openly sanctioned and encouraged—when we were viewed as less than human—and this country’s lack of remorse over that in general is bad enough. Its unwillingness to admit what a crime it was and how much it still impacts today. But as bad as that ignorance is, in the era of proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, why would anyone with an iota of decency want to take part in a show  steeped in the misery and subjugation of an entire people and look at as merely wistful entertainment?

Well, after community pushback the theater company decided to cancel the production. But in choosing to cancel the show, there are those voices who refuse to acknowledge how hurtful this very idea was, including a number of the actual performers in the show. Not to mention others in and beyond the community telling people not to be so sensitive and lamenting political correctness.

In this moment, I am reminded of how harmful the silo of whiteness is because too often it prevents its inhabitants from seeing larger truths. Online, there were those upset by the cancellation who were asking “where is the tolerance?” Well, I guess that’s an inadvertent good choice of words for those that actually made that word choice, because “tolerating” is something we tend to do for unpleasant things. So, in a way, those people are making my point. They are asking us to endure such ignorance.

The fact is the marketing of this show used hateful imagery and words—no one needs to tolerate that. The larger question is, “Why didn’t anyone question or flag this production before it became public?” It is not comforting to know that people spent weeks on rehearsal and preparation and no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea? I love theater and there are far too many shows that could have been produced that would not have been steeped in white supremacy. That could have explored the Old South in a more honest or nuanced way.

While the Sanford area is, like many Maine communities, predominantly white, there are non-white community members and white allies who now are concerned that they may be branded as troublemakers for standing up for what is right. The fact is that speaking truth to power often comes at a cost. Still, it’s always the right thing to do. For those who are disappointed that the show is canceled, I would invite you to ask yourself “Why?” To ask yourself why you think that your right to participate in or view a production that is hurtful matters so much. I am sure many of those pushing back would be offended to be called racist and yet their behavior is very much what American racism is all about. It’s the belief in rugged individualism and the American dream while denying or ignoring that it is almost always at the expense of someone else, and most dramatically at the expense of people of color. It’s the same racist spirit that justified “discovering” someone else’s land and then enslaving others to work that land to build a new country.

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Photo by Ron Dauphin on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “No to this “Oh””

  1. So glad to see writers of color pointing out the continual racist attitudes of some of the people of Maine. Being an Africian American woman it is no surprise to me these racist attitudes still lives and fester poison into our society. Unfortunately we (people of color) deal with it on a daily basis. What does surprise me are the pockets of white people who continue to do nothing… say nothing… to correct these racist attitudes. It saddens me even more to know that the governor of Maine harbors the same destructive rhetoric.

  2. …. I was horrified to come upon the “Stars and Bars ” when walking around Sand Hill in Augusta, Maine. Talking to its community leaders, I gladly noted that it was immediately removed ! Sand Hill like Sanford is highly Franco / American. This population with their own history of prejudice in Maine — should have for one, known better !

  3. YES ! “The larger question is, “Why didn’t anyone question or flag this production before it became public?” Sucks ! And this was actually debatable ! Are the people in southern Maine really this stupid ?

  4. “It is not comforting to know that people spent weeks on rehearsal and preparation and no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea?”

    This, above all. Your work teaches me (perhaps forces me) to see moments and situations in which I am or have been a white bystander when confronted with racism …. and to see racism where as a white woman I never knew it existed.

    The first piece I ever read from you was the piece about the reporter who made a story of a blatant racist slur hurled at your family but did it as a white bystander who didn’t even stop to acknowledge the hate and hurt she’d witnessed. I learned a lot about our state by reading that piece.

    Thank you for using your voice, your platform, your talent and especially your energy this way.

  5. “While the composer of the actual song “Oh, Susannah” was known as one of the fathers of American music, much of what he wrote was fodder for minstrel shows. Foster himself performed in blackface at one point.”

    There is a hideous statue in my hometown of Pittsburgh (that fortunately now has been removed from public view) that shows Foster on a pedestal with a full-on minstrel stereotype with a banjo sitting at his knee, practically screaming that he stole the music from black people in the first place. Pittsburgh is planning to replace it with a statue of a black woman, fingers crossed they follow through.

    (Citations for the above info: )

  6. Thanks so much for writing this! It’s encouraging to hear words that I myself say. Also I have learned so much. I had to sing “Oh Susanna” in music class at an all black school and not once did the teacher teach us about the song possibly being sung by whites in black face. America I’d known as the land of the free! But are we as people of color or any minority truly free here?

  7. Dear Blackgirlinmaine, I love this piece. It shows the lack of sensitivity of the white majority against the minority voice. These folks need more ‘come to Jesus’ moments to finally understand. I’m so glad the production was canceled. It never makes sense to publicly mock another group or stir feelings of re-victimization when there is so much art out there that can inspire instead of hurt. I would love to know more about the specifics that lead to this decision. Brava!

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