Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Brethren in Blackface

Brethren in Blackface

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 23, 2010

This is an unusual topic for Keepa, but I think not inappropriate. It is as much a part of our past as are many of the other, happier articles I post. In reading it, please know that while I don’t endorse these artifacts of the past, neither do I unduly condemn our grandparents and great-grandparents for participating in normal American popular culture. This post is meant only to inform.

Usually when Mormons talk about the relationship between Mormons and Mormonism and blacks, the conversation centers on priesthood and somewhat related (in past generations, not in the present) issues of intermarriage, access to temples, and fellowship. There are other aspects to the relationship between race and church, though: Until fairly recently, Mormons have also been primarily Americans; we imbibed some of the social attitudes and indulged in the cultural atmosphere of America in ways that had nothing to do with doctrine or theology.

The culture shared by Mormons with the rest of America is blatantly obvious in many of the jokes published in the church magazines. As I gather materials for Keepa’s usual Saturday “Funny Bones” posts, I constantly run into jokes that I simply can’t bring myself to publish alongside the corny or clever bits that I do publish. (Is it a double standard that I print jokes about ultra-thrifty Scots, or other ethnic groups? Probably. But it seems to me that a story based on a supposed national trait that is basically good until carried to extremes – thrift – is vastly different from a story based on the supposed criminal tendencies that are at the base of black ethnic jokes from a hundred years ago.) A sampling of the jokes that do not make the cut for “Funny Bones” posts:

So Tricky [1890]

Shortly after a fire in a town “down South,” a colored man called on an insurance agent and said:

“Wants my money, Cap’n.”

“I don’t owe you any money.”

“Ain’t yessef de ‘sho’ence agent?”

“Yes, I am an insurance agent.”

“Den yer owes me money, fur my sto’ burned up durin’ de late fire, sah.”

“You were not insured in my company.”

“Golly, you say I wa’n’t!”

“Come, get out of here.”

“Hold on, boss, an’ lemme ‘splain. Woz Mr. Jones ‘shored in yer comp’ny?”


“Woz Mr. Jackson?”


“Wall an’ good. Now my sto’ was jus’ bertwixt Mr. Jones an’ Mr. Jackson. De wall o’ dar sto’s made de wall o’ my sto’. Ef yer’d a took dar sto’s erway, my sto’ woulder been gone. De inshoin’ o’ dar own sto’s insho’ed mine, doan yer see?”

‘No, I don’t see.”

“Den I ain’t goin’ ter git nuffin, is I?”


“I’ll recollect dis, sah, an’ see whut de cou’t’ous’ll hab ter say”; and, turning away, he muttered, “Ef I’der knowed de comp’ny woz so tricky, I wouldn’ter set de blame sto’ afire.”

The Test [1911]

“Des yo’ belieb dat Jim Johnson am really converted?”

“Deed I does. I’se bin visitin’ his house fo’ de last free months, an’ dey hasn’t had a mouthful ob chicken.”


THE WISH [1918]

Sometimes I wish that I was jus’
A little colored boy,
‘Cause don’t you see – he often can
Nice dirty hands enjoy.

To Have Been Expected [1926]

“No, suh,” said Erastus Pinkley from behind the bars of the village lockup, “Ah wouldn’t ‘a got into no trouble wif de constable, suh, ef it hadn’t been fo’ wimmen’s lub ob dress.”

“What has dress to do with it?” asked the amazed visitor.

“Well, suh, my wimmen folks, dey wa’n’t satisfied wif eatin’ dat chicken; dey had to go an’ put de fedders on deir hats an’ p’rade ‘em as circumstantial ebidence.”


Jokes like these, and the exaggerated facial features and swaggering gait evident in even such a simple cartoon as the one above, were staples of the minstrel show, the uniquely American form of entertainment that depended for effect on parodies of the black body (both appearance and movement), black intelligence, and black family life and customs. The most identifiable feature of minstrel shows was the exaggerated blackface makeup worn by white (and even some black) performers as they joked and cavorted and sang. Minstrel shows were wildly popular from the 1830s on into the early 20th century, until vaudeville replaced them on the professional stage. Amateur productions by high schools, community theater groups, and other organizations remained popular and continued the minstrel tradition into the early 1960s, when finally the social and legal gains of the Civil Rights era shamed us into realizing how patronizing and derogatory such burlesques really were.

Mormons were not immune to the insensitivities of the minstrel show – but also no worse than the rest of the country, as far as I have any way to judge. Some elements of minstrelsy can be found in the pages of church magazines from the early 20th century, as in this drawing and poem from 1913. (Those elements, in case you are innocently mystified, are the ethnic speech of the black speaker, his joyful and exaggerated pleasure in singing about food, and his inexpert plinking away on a banjo as he speaks.)


is what I fink;
I’m a lucky darky chile,
Feel like singin’ all de while –
I’ve a norange, an’ a pine, sah,
An’ they bofe o’them are mine, sah!
An’ a melon, an’ a mango,
An’ a little dinky banjo!
Feel like singin’ all de while,
Such a lucky darky chile;
That is what I fink –


One of the church magazines published a story for children in 1926, “Frisky Rabbit,” which opens:

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Sam, and Sam was as black as a very dark night. He had shiny, white teeth, big round eyes, an ever ready grin, and a cage full of rabbits!

Father and Mother Rabbit had eight babies. Most were white.

But alas! That eighth little rabbit! He might easily have belonged to a different breed for there was not a spot of white from the tip of his long pointed ears to the end of his skimpy little tail.

He was as black as little Sam himself, and his head was chock full of mischief and ideas.

The rest of the story – more than four pages – consists of the adventures of Frisky-the-black-rabbit who ran away to the garden owned by a white man, “Mr. Man,” and his wonderful treatment by the white family who adopted him as a pet.

He had never been in a real house before and standing on hind legs, he tried hard to eat the roses on the wall paper, which made the boys laugh until their little sides ached.

Frisky was much surprised and equally pleased at finding himself such a clown, so he made them laugh all the more by doing all the stunts little black Sam had taught him.

But Frisky got homesick for the other rabbits in the old cage at home, so he ran away back to Sam’s cabin.

On the back steps of the little negro cabin, big tears running down his face, Frisky saw Sam, but not before Sam saw Frisky.

“Nigger Baby, don’t you nebber do dis no mo’, if you don’t want to break yo’ little Sam’s heart.”

And Frisky must have promised, for he spent the remainder of the night in the same bed with Sam and Sam’s five little brothers.

Isn’t that an adorable picture to accompany a cute little story? Well … except that Frisky behaved as if he were a character in a minstrel show, displaying his jolly ignorance and performing tricks for the amusement of the little white boys. And the above picture of the six little boys – none of whom, other than Sam, have previously appeared in the story by so much as the merest mention – carries the unspoken subtext that blacks breed like rabbits, to have so many little boys all the same size.

If you think I’m stretching in my interpretation of the features of a minstrel show in the above items, there is no possible mistaking of the fact that Mormons easily and frequently exploited the minstrelsy theme in these clips from different years and widely scattered geographies:

This advertisement was published in a Church magazine in 1944:


A California ward Primary produced the operetta Little Black Sambo in 1945; its production “was most beautifully presented in every detail”:

In 1948, a Salt Lake area seventies quorum produced “Sambo’s Minstrel Show” as a missionary fundraiser. The report in the Church News:

It’s a pleasure to see a good show and to be thoroughly entertained. Thousands of members of the Church in Salt Lake City wards and stakes were delighted during the past year with the performances of Sambo’s Minstrel Show, presented by members of the … Quorum of Seventy, of … Wards under the direction of [name].

Many who would enjoy seeing a repeat performance and others who have not had the pleasure will be pleased at the announcement that the show is scheduled to play most of the coming year – from early fall until spring – and if other quorums, ward or stake organizations would like to include this happy troupe on their program schedule, there are still some vacant spots in their billing book.

The show is a genuine minstrel according to officers of the quorum, and consists of two parts, with a cast of more than thirty members. It has taken many months of practice and effort on the part of the cast to make it the type of show all would want to see.

These Seventies have a deeper meaning and purpose, other than just entertainment, behind this black-face show. Always active in missionary work, the … quorum has kept members of their quorum and others in the mission field paying all expenses. At present they are giving assistance to two missionaries, a husband and his wife, and the money received from all performances go into this mission fund to carry on the great missionary work.

Presented on a percentage basis, the quorum takes a part of the proceeds, garnered at each performance, for their missionary fund and turns the balance over to the sponsoring group or organization.

If any are interested in engaging the services of these performers contact …

The report is illustrated by this photograph:

From 1950, a Canadian stake roadshow photo preserves this glimpse of one cast, who “played to capacity houses” in all six towns and eight wards of its circuit.

In 1951, a branch in the southern United States produced a minstrel show:

With sweet melodic tones of the old plantation days singing out, excitement and enthusiasm running high, and utterly “bulging at the seams,” the little old chapel … was the scene of another outstanding entertainment …

On show night Mr. Interlocutor … “refereed” the antics of a stage full of “darkies” all bubbling over with rhythm. Highlighting the show ere the “Beal St. Boogie boys” … “Lena Horne” … “Al Jolson” … “Eddie Primrose” … “a couple of mad cat jitterbugs” [and] “Two bad actors” cracking puns, named “Sambo and Bones” who wound up with a fine rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” …

Proceeds from the successful entertainment will finance the Gold and Green Ball soon to be held.

This outstanding entertainment follows close after an all-out success for the lively branch in presenting a colorful pageant entitled “The Gospel through the Ages” …


Minstrel shows were still being produced as late as 1961, as indicated by this report from Idaho (no photograph is available):

More than a hundred boys, girls and adults … used a little black makeup and a lot of talent to stage a minstrel show that helped to bolster Bishop [name’s] lagging missionary fund.

[names] combined forces to direct “Darky Daze” minstrel.

“It is the best thing that has happened to our ward in a long time,” said [name]. “I can’t decide which made me the happiest – the wonderful harmony the program fostered in the ward or the sum above $300 that went into the missionary fund at the end of the show.”

The show played to a capacity audience. Offers were received to take the show on the road for fund raising projects in other wards and stakes.


If we were no worse, then neither were we any better, in this particular regard, than the rest of America.

I should warn you-all that I’m not in a particularly generous mood toward the kinds of comments Keepa has been drawing from certain quarters recently. If this post offends – if you want to express outrage towards Mormonism, or you want to scold me for airing dirty laundry in public – you have a lot more leeway to do that if you have supported Keepa with your comments in the past. Absent that track record, do not be surprised if outrage and scorn doesn’t make it past my filters. I’m unashamedly curmudgeonly today. Even more than usual.



  1. Ardis: This post does indeed offend. Thank You.I understand my mother so much better. This was a punch in the gut I needed.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 23, 2010 @ 7:27 am

  2. As offensive as it is to us now, I think it serves a powerful purpose.

    It helps us look at how casual and commonplace racism was then, for one. It also helps us better understand the environment in which the Church was grown, and maybe understand a little better why the Lord might have allowed the priesthood to be withheld for so long.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 23, 2010 @ 7:56 am

  3. SilverRain,

    The idea that the Church is a social construct is disturbing, though not surprising. It does not make me feel better.


    You are on a roll.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 23, 2010 @ 8:40 am

  4. Thank you, Matt.

    Chris’s comment to SilverRain is sufficient for the needs of this discussion. The priesthood issue has a tendency to suck all the air out of the Bloggernacle, so let’s steer clear of it just this once, beyond this.

    Thanks for noting the banality of racism, SilverRain, and how it can be such a part of the background that it isn’t necessarily visible to most of us most of the time. I doubt whether any or many of these minstrel shows were put on with the explicit intent to demean, but that doesn’t alter the effect, does it?

    Thanks, Chris. Not very Thanksgivingy, maybe, but it’s what’s on my mind.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  5. Ardis,

    Sorry for my tone. Hey, I have felt uneasy about these things since I was a TBM. I am not leaving (related to your earlier post), but I still calling it as I see it.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Comment by Chris H. — November 23, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  6. I suppose I am part of the insensitive crowd, because I am not offended. Sure, I can see that these are in poor taste and that they represent standards of conduct that is no longer acceptable, but these are not my attitudes and the Church today does not condone them, either.

    I find it fascinating that we used to think this was acceptable, and I think it is sad that similar feelings still exist in small, isolated pockets (in and out of the Church). As a view into history, I think this is fascinating stuff. Keep it up, Ardis.

    Comment by JW — November 23, 2010 @ 9:15 am

  7. Thank you for this post. I found it interesting and informative. I was not offended. I appreciated the inclusion of pictures as well as the exclusion of specific names and places. As you stated in the introduction “It is as much a part of our past as are many of the other, happier articles I post.”

    Growing up in the west, I never faced racial issues. Now that I am living in the deep south, it is a different world.

    Comment by kew — November 23, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  8. Your tone is just fine, Chris. I held my breath waiting for a response, and your mildness is much appreciated.

    Thank you, JW and kew. I am relieved to know that my intent to open “a view into history” is evident, and hope that no one sees this post as exploiting these materials for a baser purpose. Naming names seemed unduly harsh and would have been a kind of exploitation in the other direction.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  9. Chris—Of course the Church is affected by society. It is made up of people who, by no great coincidence, live in society. I find it normal, not disturbing.

    That does not make it a social construct, however.

    The purpose of the Church, from what I believe, is to perfect the Saints through application of the Gospel. Naturally this comes with the base assumption that they are not currently perfect.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 23, 2010 @ 10:01 am

  10. And don’t we prove that every day!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  11. I’m sure you’re probably sick of my one-worded responses, but here’s another: whoa.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — November 23, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  12. Michelle, she may prefer one word responses at this point.

    SilverRain, everything, in my view, is socially constructed to some point. Long boring explanation for another day.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 23, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  13. Boggles the 21st century mind, doesn’t it, Michelle?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  14. I agree. The value of a post like this, as Ardis said, is to see that, yeah, we were no better than many contemporaries, but we were probably not any worse, either. The little details provided (in the way of photos and stories) help tell a more complete, nuanced picture than some blanket allegation of racism. Thanks for helping us improve our view into history.

    Comment by David Y. — November 23, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  15. This post is simultaneously fascinating and jarring. While I’m well aware of Mormonism’s (and America’s) racist past and have read plenty on the history of minstrelsy and blackface, the images are always unsettling to me.

    What intrigued me about what you’ve posted here is that regional dynamics at play. While Mormons in both the intermountain West, Canada, and the South all participated in these shows as part of church functions, Latter-day Saints might interpret/understand them very differently from one another based on their own regional location, cultural upbringing, experience with individuals and communities of other races and ethnicities, etc. Aside from the quotations/reactions embedded in these articles, Ardis, have you ever come across an account/reaction to one of these shows in a diary or letter?

    Comment by Christopher — November 23, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  16. Wow, this post makes me want to cry — literally. I grew up in a suburban New Jersey ward that was pretty racially diverse (at least from my youthful eyes) before moving to a much more homogeneous setting in the small town South. Being in that ward, more than anything else I believe, instilled in me a deep appreciation and love for our black brothers and sisters.

    The first time I attended an LDS Church in the fall of 1985 I was seven years old; I’m pretty sure the first person I met was one particular African-American sister who was serving as Ward Librarian at the time and who would bring a bag of lollipops–every single week (except Fast Sundays)–to give out to all the Primary kids after the 3-hour block. I’ll never forget being in what seemed like a never-ending line of Primary kids standing in single file snaking down the hallway from the library (in good order) waiting for our treat. Her name was Geneva Levine, and she died of cancer in 1998. She was an amazing singer, and an impeccable dresser. During her chemo and radiation treatment, she never changed her loving, kind attitude of service. Some years later while shopping, my mom found a beautiful doll that looked so much like Geneva she bought it then and there. To this day it sits on the piano in my parents’ living room, a visual reminder of a wonderful, wonderful person and sister in the most important sense of the word.

    Of course, there are others who have had a lasting impact. For several years in the late-80s and early-90s Brother Ron Williams served as First Counselor in the Bishopric. Brother Williams was a very tall, physically imposing man who was one of the funnest people to be around I can remember from my youth. He had the most infectious and easygoing laugh, and his personal kindness showed in so many ways. Not long before we moved out of the ward, I had the opportunity to be set apart for a calling by him. The blessing that came with that setting apart contained some sacred promises that I’ll try to live up to for the rest of my life.

    Sister Dottie Collins was another wonderful African-American member of that ward; she and Geneva were almost inseparable, and together they brightened any room they walked into. Dottie and Geneva were part of the Single Adults, with my mom, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. They, and most of the other singles from the ward, had a tradition for a few years prior to our move where they would spend Christmas Eve at our home. Those were some fun times, even for a kid.

    Brother and Sister Coombs trusted me to babysit their daughter regularly. Sister Coombs was from the Carribean, and I loved her accent. Brother Coombs was the kind of guy you could always count on.

    Of course, these men and women were just a few of the many great members of our ward, of all races, who (at least as far as I could tell as a young person) all got together for ward potlucks, road shows, Christmas parties, and Pioneer Day activities and it just didn’t matter what color everyone’s skin was. Brother and Sister Tam were from Hong Kong, and lived just a couple of blocks away — they would give me rides to the building early on Sundays with them for choir practice.

    And seeing those images and things from the past — the ancient past, as far as I’m concerned — just makes me want to cry, because I imagine it would make those good brothers and sisters mentioned above want to do the same.

    Comment by Tom O. — November 23, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  17. Shoot. The first sentence, second paragraph of my comment should read:

    What intrigued me about what you’ve posted here is the regional dynamics at play.

    Comment by Christopher — November 23, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  18. Thanks, David.

    No, Chris, I haven’t run across anything like that (but I haven’t spent much time with more recent diaries, either). As you might imagine, you can’t just sit down to write a post like this — you have to accumulate the bits and pieces as they turn up while you’re on the way to something else. Ever since seeing the first blackface roadshow picture, I’ve been alert to related items — you can bet I’ll spot a relevant diary entry if I ever happen to be reading the right diary.

    Tom, yours is a beautiful comment. Thank you for that — I almost wish it were a guest post standing on its own, except that it is just what is needed for perspective on this post. By introducing us to a few of the very individuals whose bodies and lives were distorted for the sake of light-minded laughter, you bring this from the realm of theory into real life. You make us see — in a way I cannot do with these historical records — what is at stake when we demean people in the ways illustrated. Thank you, more than I can say.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  19. Thanks, Ardis.

    And as far as my reference to the “ancient past” goes, I hope that doesn’t offend any of your readers for whom these things may be contemporary. :)

    After writing that post I decided to do a Google search for Geneva Levine, and I discovered that her obituary appeared in the Deseret News on August 9, 1998. It thought that was remarkable for someone who (to my knowledge) had ever even been to Utah, nor had any (biological) family there. Here is the link:–Geneva-Levine—New-Jersey-Missionary-Mom.html

    She was truly a remarkable woman.

    Comment by Tom O. — November 23, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  20. Thanks for this Ardis. This seems to be another facet of the argument that church and prophet are always embedded within a culture, and find it difficult to transcend its bounds.

    Comment by Ben S — November 23, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  21. Caught in the spam filter?

    Comment by Ben S — November 23, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  22. Ardis,

    Nice post…er…as in, you wrote it well and framed it well…the content of course is not so nice.

    These kinds of posts are appreciative for educating us continually on the kind of culture and society we desire. We can look back at the past and say, “this is not for me.” I think we’ve come a long way in the church and in America in general. Never forgetting this kind of history will ensure we not repeat or reproduce in a similar fashion toward another group we dislike.

    Comment by Dan — November 23, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  23. Any idea who Eddie Primrose is. Anyway, there’s plenty to feel bad about here, but one of the things that really saddened me was the parodies of real artists in the minstrel shows. I’m not a real expert in vintage jazz, but I’m pretty sure Lena Horne deserved better. Well, let’s more forward and try not to be jerks.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — November 23, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  24. Yes, Ben, sorry — freed. I very much appreciate that link. Like Tom’s personal experience, your scholarly perspective is something that I couldn’t have provided but which greatly adds to understanding.

    I hope so, Dan. There’s always the danger of saying, “Well, yeah, we shouldn’t have done that, but this is different.” I agree with you, that remembering the past is one way to guard against that rationalization, or at least leave us without excuse if we ever get close.

    Indeed, Moniker!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  25. Lena Horne deserved better, as did Marian Anderson, and many others, named and nameless. Who can listen to Marian Anderson singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial without being moved?

    My first exposure to blackface was in the Little House on the Prairie books. I see an interesting discussion of the scene at a blog called “love isn’t enough”: “Pa in Blackface: Confronting Racism in Our Children’s Books.”

    Comment by Researcher — November 23, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  26. As I’ve been thinking a little more about this, I’ve wondered if it’s not about racism as much as it is about mocking people. It is so easy to try to be humorous or interesting by finding a scapegoat. People took the life circumstances of speech, movements, culture, etc. for granted.

    For many, it’s no different than when we make Jewish jokes, blonde jokes, lawyer jokes . . . or any number of other jokes that make up 98% of jokes, period.

    Or, for that matter, when we watch sitcoms and movies that habitually make fun of human foibles or relationship dynamics, like Friends, the Cosby Show, Glee, or Napoleon Dynamite.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 23, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  27. Ardis,

    This is jarring, as it should be. It makes me wonder what someone looking at us in 60-100 years will find just as jarring (though I’m not recommending we create a list here).

    I also appreciated Tom’s comment, and it brought to mind faithful Brother Washington who attended my ward when I was young — long before he could have the priesthood. His faithful presence allowed my parents to teach me more than once about the Lord’s love for each individual.

    Comment by Paul — November 23, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  28. “For many, it’s no different than when we make Jewish jokes…”

    Please tell me you intended some sort of irony when talking about scapegoating in one paragraph and then dismissing Jewish jokes as harmless in the next. Please.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 23, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  29. Humor — even when it isn’t blatant mockery, as SilverRain notes is a major factor in these minstrel-related items — at someone else’s expense is so tricky. I’ve heard (and told) reams of Mormon jokes that were absolutely hilarious, that were affectionate even while they pointed at some foible in our culture. But we’ve all also heard Mormon jokes that were nasty and cutting, that mocked the sacred and depended for their “humor” on twisting and deliberating causing pain.

    Isn’t the difference between the two types of jokes largely dependent on the presence or absence of contempt or affection? Not the fact that some ethnic or religious or linguistic or political group is the subject? The tricky part for everyone is that unless you’re a member of the joked-about group, you may not realize the mockery inherent in some jokes.

    Thanks, Paul — “jarring” is an apt word. And like you, I wonder what we’re doing now that will be shocking to our great-grandchildren!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  30. Chris—I was pointing out that for some it is no problem, listing examples from a joke book I read some twenty years ago.

    Tell me, please, that you didn’t mean anything by singling out the Jews as a group not worthy of mockery, but ignoring blondes and lawyers. If so, it only proves my point.

    Ardis—I think you’re entirely right. I suppose that my point is that for many, the “colored jokes” were meant with affection. The pain they caused was discounted or unseen . . . and even, in some cases I would guess, nonexistent.

    There were plenty of slave owners who cared about and for their slaves, and looked at them with the same kind of affection many give their children or pets. They genuinely believed they were unable to care for themselves, much like children, and saw it their Christian duty to take care of them. And, in fact, when the slaves were freed, there were many who were afraid of the “outside world” and chose to stay with their previous owners for scandalous wages. At least, that’s the impression I got when I studied it in school. But I’m hardly a historian.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 23, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  31. Ardis, my capacity to be civil has been maxxed. Good luck.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 23, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  32. SilverRain, that kind of paternalism was certainly expressed as a rationale/justification/rationalization for slavery, especially in the post-Civil War world when the South’s legend of the “Lost Cause” was born, and in the post-Civil Rights Movement era when blatant white supremacy was driven underground in polite society. It is a mistake, though, for us to perpetuate that idea — the most fundamental principle of the gospel, for instance, is the right to act for ourselves, a condition that is antithetical to slavery. Really, could anyone be happy and grow as a human being under the control of a father, a husband, or anyone else while being treated as a child or a pet, regardless of claimed affection? And an owner? I don’t believe real affection or care or humanity can survive in the heart of someone who owns another — a protection of investment, maybe, but an owner can’t have a slave’s personal best interest at heart.

    Please, readers, I won’t host a pile-on. Let’s not pursue this, please.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  33. Go read Philemon.

    (Is that “piling on”?)

    Comment by Mark B. — November 23, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  34. Goodness, I’m not saying it was RIGHT for heaven’s sake. You don’t have to convince me. I’m just saying that in their own minds it was right.

    And since in their own minds it was right, who are we to condemn them for their well-intentioned misconceptions, when we are chock-full of our own?

    I’m saying that ANY time fun is made at the expense of another person, it isn’t right, and trying to draw parallels to our own, so-called “enlightened” modern-day behavior.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 23, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  35. SilverRain: “They genuinely believed they were unable to care for themselves, much like children, and saw it their Christian duty to take care of them.” For a second, I thought you were talking about a certain political party.

    Ardis, great post. I appreciate your thorough research and willingness to put it all out there. It is important that people know how things were, not too long ago. My parents have had to come to terms that they had many racist views that are no longer acceptable, even if they were essentially paternalistic and well-intentioned. They were no different than these LDS folks, even though they joined the church in 1955, so I can attest that it was a cultural norm beyond Mormonism. My mom still calls African American babies “pickaninnies.”

    Comment by hawkgrrrl — November 23, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  36. Well, thank goodness! I was afraid on first reading that I had to convince someone of the odiousness of slavery without either driving anyone screaming from Keepa or leaving any doubt with others about where I stood! I’ll just amend my response, then, to say that yeah, such paternalism was and is a part of the (obviously untenable) rationalization of slavery and possibly does allow some people to mask their demeaning behavior from themselves if no one else.

    Thank you, hawkgrrrl. I guess we can be grateful for progress, while acknowledging that we’re not all the way there yet.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  37. Boggling, jarring, yep. You know, one time my grandpa used an old racially slurred saying and we were all just shocked. I didn’t consider him a racist person at all. Social tradition is just so strong that sometimes it goes without the strong feelings that started it, I suppose. But I don’t think that’s an excuse and I do think racist cliches should be changed.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — November 23, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

  38. Ardis in #29 expresses what I was wondering and thinking in reading these posts. What differentiates the minstrel jokes from the Scottish jokes in our moral sensibilities? Contempt versus affection could express it, but also jokes aimed within the group (many Mormons being Scottish) versus outside the group – aimed at “others” who are considered forever outside that society.

    Is that what morally/culturally distinguishes the minstrel stereotypes from the essentially similar Ma and Pa Kettle stereotypes, which I enjoy, and somewhat relate to?

    Disclaimer: Being 61 and from the West, I heard some of those objectionable phrases at home, from people who had virtually nothing to do with blacks their entire lives. So the words don’t shock me. They are a part of me, even though I don’t use them, and am now repelled when I occasionally hear them. Further, when I heard those words as a missionary in the South, they weren’t just provincial/eccentric/ignorant, they were chilling, knowing the threatening attitudes of some whites there toward blacks.

    Comment by Clair — November 23, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  39. Clair, I think how the joked about group thinks about matters. While I’m a big proponent of having charity in how one interprets an other (I get annoyed at times with feminists who seem intent on the worst readings) it is also true that a speaker has a duty to be charitable to their audience. To make an analogy, some fat people might be fine telling jokes about their weight or others telling jokes about their weight. Others may be emotionally crushed if you said the same joke.

    When a person is in a position of significantly unequal power (as African Americans undoubtedly were through most American history) and when the words end up both maintaining that inequity and outright hurting then I don’t think it ultimately matters if it was all meant in good fun. The speakers should have known better. We can say that these sorts of things were common, but then a lot of evil things are kept in society due to the false traditions of the fathers. It’s unfortunate that we, as Mormons, were led here instead of leading the way to racial equality.

    All that said I do think society went too far in the anti-ministral backlash. Outstanding African American comedians like Amos and Andy have unfortunately been tarred with that broad brush. I think it completely understandable why, but I also hope that we eventually reach the state where that sensitivity due to the overwhelming persecution is at an end.

    Comment by ClarkGoble — November 23, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

  40. Maybe, Clark, that sensitivity will ease when the inequity is over. I’ll make no attempt to argue here about the reasons for the inequity–it’s impossible to prove anyway–but there’s no getting around the plain fact that by nearly every measure, African Americans in our society have worse outcomes than whites (or Asians or Hispanics or nearly everyone else except perhaps the original inhabitants of the land)–whether it’s income level or education or ownership of property or family stability or political power (despite the Obama presidency) or, probably, feeling fully a part of the American polity. Once all of those inequalities are gone, then perhaps we can stop worrying about the insensitivity.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 23, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  41. A problem with the inequity idea is that it doesn’t give guidance on an individual level. Lots of blacks are better off and more powerful than am I, but that would not excuse me joking about them, unless, as Clark implied, we were joking together.

    Treating blacks as a group because of some average demographics might prolong the divide we wish were lessening.

    Comment by Clair — November 23, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  42. Ardis, I’m curious. Did the magazines also have ethnic or dialect jokes or pictures about other groups like those about blacks? Mexicans or Chinese perhaps?

    Comment by Clair — November 24, 2010 @ 9:37 am

  43. Mark it is interesting that some African American thinkers are really embracing these disparaged comedians of the early 20th century. That said it’s still a matter of controversy (from what I as an outsider can see in places like Slate’s The Root). So you have folks like Spike Lee comparing a modern comedian like Tyler Perry to Amos and Andy – and obviously not in favorable terms.

    That said back in the 50’s the NAACP led a boycott of Amos and Andy because they felt the show was demeaning of the black community. So I think things are complex since these actors often knew how their performances were being taken by the white community and affecting the black community. But changing social mores and attempts to overcome persecution can lead the entertainment leaders of one generation to be despised by the next. (Look at what happened to Louis Armstrong, for instance)

    As you say, once the blatant inequities are eased that tension will start to resolve. Although I suspect there will still be generational gaps.

    Clair, the problem is that while some African Americans are more powerful they are still the victims of attempts to undermine that power and marginalize them. Power relations end up be complex.

    Ardis, like Clair, I’m curious about perceptions of the Chinese who in some ways were just as persecuted and enslaved as African Americans. (Think of the railway) I have to confess I know little of Chinese – Mormon relations.

    Comment by ClarkGoble — November 24, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  44. Clair and Clark, I can recall very few jokes about the Chinese. This is one from 1914:

    “Why do you sign your name Norah?” asked a teacher of one of the Chinese boys in his class. “Don’t you know that Norah is a girl’s name?”

    “Oh, no,” was the reply. “Norah is the name of the famous American who built the ark.”

    and I recall another that confused l’s and r’s, although I don’t recall the theme of it.

    If there have been Mexican jokes, I don’t recall any at the moment. There *is* a remark in one of the little essays submitted to the Juvenile Instructor that I’ll post soon in the third installment of “Mormon Kid Art” that might startle you — it’s barely possible that it refers to Japanese farm laborers but far more likely that it refers to Mexican farm laborers.

    There are lots and lots of other ethnic jokes. The dialect jokes tend to be about Scots, Irish, Swedes and Jews. I don’t find them offensive; I hope that’s not due to numbness on my part but rather due to their milder nature. I admit that it isn’t too flattering to make jokes about the Irish as if they were all drank too much, or about Jews as if they all had big noses; I take them much as I do jokes about Mormons having more than one wife, as long as those jokes don’t have a biting edge to them. They don’t have the malice of the black dialect jokes — they’re more like the Chinese one above, which I don’t think is offensive. At least it doesn’t say anything negative about the group’s honesty or intelligence or industriousness, but is just a play on an accent and the newness of Western civilization. (Now somebody is going to educate me as to why it is nevertheless offensive … if that’s so, better I learn now than later.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  45. Clark, I’m not convinced that interracial relations need be that complex. If I sit next to a black fellow at a business lunch, I don’t want to double think every comment I make to him because somewhere another black man was ill treated. I doubt he would want that either.

    Comment by Clair — November 24, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

  46. Someone at JI posted a post a few months back on LDS perceptions of Mexicans especially from within the colonies. I recall being pretty interested at the time, but can’t remember much of what was said.

    Clair, I think they are that complex simply because the persecution can’t simply be understood as one individual but must be understood in terms of community. (I’d add I think this was true of Mormon self-identity in terms of persecution that really only started disappearing in the early 90’s in my view) Words have meaning in a context and we always have to be aware of that context when speaking. It’s not just race either. I remember back in my 20’s when still single getting very frustrated moving from dating women in Utah and women outside of Utah. The ones in Utah would get offended if I didn’t call them “girl” as it meant I thought they were old or ugly. The ones outside tended to find “girl” demeaning or disrespectful. And believe me, if I spoke in the wrong context at the wrong time it really did have big effects.

    This is scaled up numerous times with race or the like when almost certainly all African Americans have encountered demeaning language in their life and it is like a canker sore. Whether they elevate it too much is irrelevant. It is an instinctive interpretation. And remember that even if only small minority (say 10%) of the population are offensively racist that means the typical black person will encounter quite a few of these people. So I think their reaction is completely understandable. (Just as many Mormon perceptions of Evangelicals in my generation are understandable – most of us directly encountered pretty offensive situations)

    BTW – this post at Slate was one of the ones I was thinking of above. It doesn’t directly deal with minstrels but does deal with cartoons heavily informed by that style of entertainment.

    Comment by ClarkGoble — November 24, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

  47. Somehow in the tightrope walking of moderating this yesterday, I didn’t see Researcher’s #25. That’s a terrific link, Researcher, especially for somebody like me who loved and collected and dreamed the Little House books.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  48. I don’t know why anyone thinks this subject is relevant today. All those people are dead or very old. Their misdeeds don’t impute themselves to me or others today. It is good to know the history, but there is no need for hand-wringing today about the actions of previous generations. To me, history is best when history is told without commentary from the perspective of our modern sensibilities. We can acknowledge the past, and strive to do differently, but we cannot judge those in the past in light of our modern sensibilities.

    I’m a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when I was 17. In my conversion, I adopted the Gospel of Jesus Christ — I did not adopt the social and entertainment values of the Rocky Mountain west.

    Comment by ji — November 26, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  49. Given that the modern era started in about 1500, I am not sure why some works written in the 20th century would not fall within the context of modern sensibilities.

    Hate to beak it to you, JI. Much of what you accepted was just that…the values of a Rocky Mountain culture.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 26, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  50. I appreciate that you don’t feel tainted by this, ji, but as others have noted, they know people — living, mortal people — who are still affected by these not-really-so-long-ago events (Some of the events recited here occurred in my lifetime.) Some are affected because they are the butt of the joke; others because they, or their family members, still struggle with tendencies to perpetuate the stereotypes. It really wasn’t so very long ago, at least not long enough ago to consider it safely and irretrievably in the past.

    In another direction, virtually everything I post on Keepa is here because history is reflected in — is very much relevant to — the present. Some articles contrast our present with our past. Some articles perpetuate the memory of a Saint from the past. Some articles explain how our present church practices grew out of an event in the past. None of those articles would be of any interest if they didn’t have relevance to the present. That’s true of negative matters, like these blackface shows: knowing the history lets us evaluate how far we have come, whether that’s far enough, and how we got into such habits in the first place to guard against falling into related traps again (how we looked at blacks in the past isn’t all that different from how too many church members look at Hispanics today).

    Again, I’m very happy to know that some people are free of these attitudes and their consequences. Such people are in the minority.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 26, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  51. Chris H., no. 49 — No, Chris, I didn’t accept Rocky Mountain social and entertainment values when I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Ardis, no. 50 — You’re right about the power of history with regard to us today — I much prefer to use history to help guide my own actions and thoughts (repeating the good and avoiding the bad) than to judge those who lived in the past. As far as I know, our God might not have counted the actions of those persons as sin, but I tend to think they would be sin for me today.

    I tend to see what was reflected in those Church-related magazines as Rocky Mountain culture rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those magazines had to take advertising and sell subscriptions to stay in business, unlike the Church magazines of today. Today, a better parallel to the old Church-related magazines is the Church-owned TV station — is it KSL? I hope no one fifty years form now will look at KSL broadcasting content and interpret what they see as Mormon doctrine.

    I would change one word in one sentence in the original posting. I would change “we” to “they” in the second paragraph, so that it reads, “[they] imbibed some of the social attitudes and indulged in the cultural atmosphere of America in ways that had nothing to do with doctrine or theology.”

    Comment by ji — November 27, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  52. Can’t do it, ji. We — I, you, the rest of us — can’t be “we” with the Mormon people of the past when we are proud of them, while pushing them away as “they” when the issue is something we aren’t so pleased to own. In for a penny, in for a pound.

    Of course the attitude represented by this post is not doctrinal. It *is* culture, though, American culture (not merely Rocky Mountain culture) embraced by our people so completely that they didn’t see anything negative in it.

    And if your idea were true that the magazines only published this stuff to sell subscriptions — how cynical of you! — that would be absolute proof that our people DID find this poisonous stuff amusing, enough to pay money to have access to it, and not to subscribe if the magazines didn’t publish it! Ouch! I refuse to go there, and don’t think you’ve really thought the matter through.

    While I point out this unkind, unfortunate aspect of our — yes, *OUR* — cultural past, nobody should mistake that I’m condemning our grandparents for sinning in this regard. Right at the top of my post I note that I do not “unduly condemn” our ancestors; I don’t believe they were consciously sinning, but following along with the unenlightened wider culture of which they were a part. You’re right, though, that if you — or any of us — were to duplicate these things today, we would be sinning against the greater light that we have.

    Acknowledging that these things were a part of our past does not require us to pretend that they didn’t matter — to excuse them because they weren’t doctrinal, or to pretend that they weren’t pervasive throughout the church, or to imagine that we were forced to do it by financial concerns. We used to do this because we shared a culture with the rest of the nation. *We* did. And we don’t anymore.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 27, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  53. Ardis,

    There’s were we differ — you might be embarrassed by the last generation, for “something [you] aren’t so pleased to own.” I’m not embarrassed by them. I won’t repeat what they did in this regard, but I’m not embarrassed to be associated with them. Anyway, I see their actions as cultural, not as Mormonism. I’m entirely satisfied to call them good Latter-day Saints. Even so, I’m glad the culture has changed.

    Comment by ji — November 27, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

  54. “Regret” rather than “embarrassment” would be a more accurate assessment.

    I’ve said from the top of the post on through the comments that this was cultural, not doctrinal. As long as you’ve dropped your odd assertion of a pecuniary motive and are no longer denying ties between our people of the past and our people of the present, then we don’t appear to differ.

    In any case, ji, you’ve had your say now. Move along.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 28, 2010 @ 7:55 am

  55. oh boy, and wow, Ardis. I’m feeling a little ill right now.

    Comment by meems — November 28, 2010 @ 10:38 am

  56. I’ll be moving along, too. See you all later.

    Comment by Clair — November 28, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

  57. I found the following in Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 15, p.523. This would have been in the 1870’s in Washington County (Scipio Kenner was an ancestor of mine).

    In the days when amusements were held in the old Social Hall there arose an aggregation known as the Negro Minstrelsy. Its leader was Joe Russell, a painter. The end men were Scipio Africanus Kenner as Sambo and Jos. W. McAllister, now of Kanab, as Bones. Among others of its members were Clem Horsley and brother, and Joseph Judd. They burlesqued everything and everybody. Their jokes and witty sallies are still remembered and it is said that their concerts were attended by the Church Authorities who used to winter here, and more than one of whom were wont to roll back in their seats and roar with laughter at the doings and sayings of the Negro Minstrels.

    Comment by Andrew Hamilton — November 28, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

  58. […] have often found themselves on the wrong side of America’s pathetic history of racism. Hell, Mormons themselves even participated in and put on their own minstrelsy shows well into the 20th […]

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