Paula Deen, Trent Lott, and the American Minstrel
photo credit: coverlaydown.com
“It was only after years of playing the banjo and searching for the ‘pure’ roots of old time music that I finally figured out that, like everything else American, it’s utter lack of purity was the source of it’s vitality and mysterious beauty.”
– Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Atlanta Botanical Gardens is a lush oasis in the center of downtown and is diametrically opposed to the usual Atlanta concert venue. I had the pleasure of seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops there last night alongside my faithful show-goin’ buddies, Todd and Michele. The weather was perfect, and the Drops performed with a level of musicianship I have not seen since I-don’t-know-when. There was lots of banjo and fiddle, of course. They also played the bones, the quills, the stand-up base, and even a kazoo. Rhiannon Giddens sang in English, Creole and Scottish Gaelic. She passionately shared with the audience her knowledge of the history of American Music.
The banjo has it’s roots in Africa. The first banjos were made with skins and gourds. African-American musicians taught the banjo to white musicians, and eventually it became a staple in country and blue grass music. Unfortunately, the white musicians who took up traditional banjo were largely minstrels, and they played the instrument in black-face as part of shows that entertained by portraying black people as happy-go-lucky (if musically inclined) fools. At some point in time, we as a country came to see Minstrel’s portrayal of black people as shameful, so we swept this uncomfortable part of our history under the rug, sweeping with it the roots of the banjo and the role of the African-American musician as a pioneer in American music. Giddens concludes, ‘The music should not have been swept under the rug.”
So there I am on this perfect night, accompanied by my two favorite people, listening to this amazing music, and where do my thoughts wander? They wander to Paula Deen. And I’m like, crap, because I don’t want to think about this mess with Deen’s court testimony, the hot “news story” that it is.
I am not passionate about Paula Deen or her job loss one way or the other. Do I think it is gross that she wanted to have an all-black wait staff at a plantation-themed wedding reception as though American slavery had been quaint? I do. Do I think it has anything to do with her ability to get ratings by making a pound cake on television? Probably not. Does it surprise me, a native Georgian, that a person born in the south in the 1940s has used the “N” word at some point as recently as 1987? It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. As I have said, I have no strong urge to punish her or fight on her behalf, but here is what I think: I think the Food Network hired this woman to be a cartoonish, overly-southern old mama, and then they fired her for being that very character in real life.
Trent Lott also comes to mind as I develop my thesis. Lott, you may recall, was Senate Majority leader about 10 years ago but had to resign after making some controversial remarks. He was speaking at Senator Strom Thurman’s 100th birthday party about how much better our country might have been if only Thurman had won the presidential election back in 1948. (Thurman was a big-time segregationist and fought tooth-and-nail against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Oh, and when he was 22 years old he had a biracial baby with a black girlfriend.)
The true history of our country is not unlike the history of the banjo. It is not unlike the personal history of Paula Deen, of Trent Lott, of you, of me, or even of ol’ Strom Thurman. There is good and bad, heroism and cowardice, knowledge and ignorance, and they are woven together: an “utter lack of purity,” as Giddens put it. It is the responsibility for each of us (and for us collectively as a country) to do better once we know better, but we sacrifice something significant when our shame leads us to throw the banjo out with the minstrel.