Feb 20, 2003
I tawt I taw a minstrel show.
The Harlem Globetrotters came to my town last month, and performed before a sellout crowd.
Or, should I say they sold out before a crowd?
Their brand of basketball, including deft tricks with the ball, dancing and slapstick humor, seems to recall a time when blacks performed entertainment of this nature, back in the 1800s.
That type of entertainment was known as the minstrel show.
Minstrel shows began as whites donned blackface, and performed parodies of black life during antebellum America. Singing and dancing, along with burlesque-style skits performed in pidgen English, comprised the bulk of the entertainment. Even Mark Twain commented on how he loved those "old time negro shows".
These shows used some of the more popular songs in Americana--Dixie, Camptown Races, Oh Susannah, My Old Kentucky Home--as themes throughout the performance.
Didn't Sweet Georgia Brown begin as a simple jazz tune, before it was forever associated with the Globetrotters?
The Globetrotters began in the late 1920s as an exhibition team, the Saperstein's New York Globetrotters. In the 1930s they changed their name to Harlem New York Globetrotters, hinting that all players were black. Blacks were excluded from playing in the National Basketball Association until the 1950s.
Blacks weren't allowed to play in minstrel shows until after the Civil War. Three stock characters were then created, reflecting the stereotypes of that era. One was the carefree slave, another was terpsichorally talented and the third was portrayed as "uppity", or desiring to rise above his station as a slave.
Characters such as Meadowlark Lemon, Fred "Curly" Neal and Reece "Goose" Tatum created stock players that are emulated even today by certain Globetrotters.
Although the Globetrotters have a history of being goodwill ambassadors, playing before heads of state worldwide (Pope Pious XII was the sole audience member of a game in 1951), I wonder whether history has been slightly colored to view them as benevolent, no, even beneficial, in furthering race relations in America?
The popularity of minstrel shows waned in the 1950s, perhaps as a precursor to the waxing political power blacks were enjoying prior to the civil rights movement.
I find it interesting that the Globetrotters, with their form of entertainment--skits denegrating other players or audience members, dance routines straight from "Soul Train" and, of course, playing basketball--still seems to attract audiences wherever they go.
It seems as though Santyanna was correct in saying that those who are unfamiliar with history are destined to repeat it.
So, make sure to check the Harlem Globetrotters' schedule, so you can see the 21st Century versions of Jim Crow, Mr. Tambo and Zip Corn, y'all.
About the author: Chuck Tyler is a freelance writer and journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. His credits include coverage for the South Bend Tribune (www.SouthBendTribune.com) of a triple homicide trial and a town hall meeting of concerned citizens and local officials for the Herald-Palladium (www.HeraldPalladium.com) following 9/11. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org