(Host) For many years, Winter Carnival at the University of Vermont featured an event known as Kakewalk, a local adaptation of the Black Face Minstrel Show. And only recently, it led to an uncomfortable encounter for commentator Willi Coleman.
(Coleman) I am every woman any place on planet earth, walking toward my car after dark with a large uninvited purposeful man in tow. This is not a good thing. He and I are about to become involved in a battle that is so old, so traditional and so exhausting.
An evening that had started out with such promise had somewhere taken a strange detour. So there I stood, a slightly amazed black woman face to face with a white man in a suit.
He, the talker had followed me out of a building talking non stop. Finally, my temper getting the best of me I stopped and remained rooted to the spot trying to decipher what appeared to be his request, his demand for agreement, understanding, absolution?
What I already know and he sees no reason to understand is that we’ve come to this place from different worlds.
This man and I are both people of a ‘certain age’. I had spent the evening tethered to a microphone lecturing to a room full of people. Most but not all were students. They were a wonderfully receptive audience, there to discover and rediscover the American tradition of Black face entertainment. This late 19th century phenomenon had moved across the country, leaping the ocean to Europe, making a stop in Vermont along the way. As late as 1969 local college students had meticulously darkened their faces, slipped on ‘unusual’ dress attire and spent endless hours learning particular dance steps.
And now decades later I’m listening in almost morbid fascination to a well dressed, college educated man who is swollen with pride. As a student he had participated in Black face minstrel shows. Clearly his experience remained a source of deep pleasure. As if on cue, with knees unbent he pressed the palms of both hands onto the ground. For a moment I was horrified that he might actually indulge in a few remembered dance steps.
I was not prepared for what appeared to be an almost theatrical shift in his tone, his face distorted with anger. I had – he declared – called people like him – racist. Truly surprised but still in teaching mode I countered that I had not once used ‘racist’ to describe minstrel show participants.
Truly surprised and still in teaching mode I countered that I had not once used ‘racist’ to describe minstrel show participants. I neither imply nor call people racist but I don’t shy away from discussing race based behavior – especially when there is historical continuity.
Undaunted he continued. In his opinion I should in fact be pleased. So much skill and work had gone into perfecting these shows. Everybody enjoyed it, Nobody complained. Nobody was suppose to be offended. And here I was making it sound negative.
With his voice growing louder and his demeanor more intense I walked away. This was not a teachable moment. His world and his memories were not to be questioned.
I could not breath in the presence of so much unexamined entitlement. What he needed while young was still on his list of demands. People like me, we should always paint our faces to reflect his joy.
I’m Willi Coleman from South Burlington.
Willi Coleman teaches history at UVM and works in multicultural affairs.