The unearthing of a photograph promoting a full-blown theater performance in blackface on a The Dalles stage in 1950 demonstrates just how pervasive this particular form of racial stereotyping has been in America, in Oregon and yes, in The Dalles.
Although the reasoning and attitudes of the time were perhaps not so stark, “minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core,” according to historian Dale Cokrell, quoted as part of a blackface exhibit at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The first popular blackface character, “Jim Crow,” was created in 1830, and performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited. New media expanded blackface performances to television, radio and theaters.
Popular actors Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney helped make the racial parody and stereotypes of blackface a family amusement.
The theater was not the only place you could find racial parody and stereotypes in The Dalles, either. In the early 1900s, the comic pages of The Dalles Chronicle featured portrayals of African Americans in a similar display of racial parody and stereotype offered in the name of “humor.” And when I first arrived in 1998, I was surprised to see the statue of an exaggerated “Little Black Sambo” type statue, mounted next to a gate with his hand out for a tip, across the street from the Wasco County Courthouse. It was finally removed only a few years ago.
You can’t look at this photo without cringing at the message it sends, especially today as the nation takes on the question of blackface and its role in the past and present of American identity.
There will be those who disagree with our publishing it. But such a photo demonstrates how quickly our views can change, in this case for the better.
It also raises questions that are worth thinking about, even as they make us uncomfortable.
For me, the most important question is this: What are we doing today, without a thought, that future generations will shake their heads over, amazed that we could be so wrong headed?
Perhaps it will be the river-turned-lake and the subsequent loss of the worlds greatest fishery. Perhaps it will be the homeless camps we ignore so long as they don’t come too close to town, or the mentally ill we allow to wander about untreated and dying. Things we just don’t notice anymore, because we grew up with them and see no other alternative but the one we exist in. Or maybe our hyper-partisanship in the political realm will reshape the world tomorrow, and the photographs being taken today will be the only window our children have on the “good old days.”
Time will tell, as it always does.
—Mark Gibson is editor of The Dalles Chronicle.