We have a story today that is a big-time reminder of how things have changed in America…and it’s all inspired by a book of jokes.
I am often prowling thrift shops looking for interesting things, and I came across a 1946 copy of “10,000 Jokes, Toasts, And Stories” (edited by Lewis and Faye Copeland), which contains a section of jokes entitled “Races and Nations”…which contains a subsection entitled “Negro”.
We are going to examine some of those jokes…and the world in which those jokes resided.
I warn you now: it will be highly unpleasant; but as we come out the other side the goal will be to show that what was not only acceptable, but commonplace, not so very long ago, would be considered wildly unacceptable today—and that we are a better people for the change.
“Sambo, suppose you were to receive a letter from the Ku Klux Klan advising you to get out of town, what would you do?”
“I’d read it on the train.”
“Is your husband a good provider, Dinah?”
“Yessum, he’s a good providah, all right, but I’m allus skeered dat nigger’s gwine to get caught at it.”
So the deal is, if you’re under 50 years old, or a recent immigrant to these shores, you probably have little or no familiarity with the overt racism that was practiced against the Americans who descended from slavery.
Now I’m not talking about the kind of covert racism that means the security guard spends more time following the black customers than the white ones…I’m talking about the kind of overt racism that means the black customers aren’t even allowed to enter “white” stores.
Lunch counters were segregated, there were “white” and “colored” water fountains (before you go look at the picture, see if you can guess which one has the cooling unit installed). Fire hoses weren’t used just to put out fires…they were also used to put out school children who didn’t fit the racial profile.
Rastus shuffled into the employment office down in Savannah one morning and said hopefully:
“Don’ spose you don’ know nobody as don’ want nobody to do nothin’, does you?”
Rastus was in trouble again, and the sheriff asked him if he were guilty or not guilty.
“Guilty, suh, I think” replied Rastus, “but I better be tried to make sure of it.”
As these jokes demonstrate, black people were portrayed as ignorant, lazy, shiftless and quick to steal. To ensure these “undesirables” didn’t threaten white populations, some locales became “sundown” towns…so called because of the signs they posted at their city limits:
“Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in Elwood”
—Sign posted in Elwood, Indiana, 1966
(Fun Fact: did you know that Indiana was such a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s that KKK Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson once said about himself: “I am the law in Indiana”? Of course, that was before he went to prison for rape and murder later in the same decade.)
Racism, as defined in law, was extreme and trivial, both at the same time. It’s reported that Birmingham, Alabama passed a law requiring segregated checkers and dominoes in 1935 (presumably after the Great Checkers Incident of 1934, or some similar affront)…and Oklahoma passed a law making it a misdemeanor for teachers to teach in mixed-race schools.
A darkey was examined in a Harlem court, to prove the identity of a white man.
“Did you see the man?” asked the attorney.
“Yes, sah, I seed him.”
“Was he a white man?”
“Do you say you saw the man and can’t say whether he was white or black?”
“Yea, sah, I seed him, but dere’s so many white fellers callin’ derselfs niggers round here I can’t tell one from toder!”
The Boys of Summer are hitting the fields of their respective stadia this month, and no conversation about race and baseball would be complete without a mention of Jackie Robinson, who everyone knows broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball…except that he didn’t.
Moses “Fleet” Walker, and his brother, Welday Walker , seem to actually bear that honor: in 1884 they played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Black players continued to play until 1890, when owners seem to have decided amongst themselves that there were to be no more black Major League players; a decision that lasted until Robinson became the first player “in the modern era” (1947, to be exact) to join a Major League club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
(Another Fun Fact: remember the movie “Bull Durham”? The stadium used by the Durham Bulls–Durham Athletic Park–was at the center of a segregation and boycott battle during the 1950s…a battle the boycotters won.)
Rastus-“Ef yo’ says anything ter me Ah’ll make yo’ eat yo’ words, man.”
Exodus-“Chicken dumplings, hot biscuits, and watermelon.”
So about now you may be asking “what is the point of today’s story?”…and it’s pretty simple:
Barack Obama is president.
Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, where the first battle of the Civil War was fought, is the Democratic House Whip.
Rosa Parks is a national hero for an act of civil disobediance.
David Duke is the Governor of Nothing.
And out of all that change, we’ve become a better people.