History must be examined; not suppressed. In the past week, controversy has erupted at Doane over the inclusion of a photo display that includes images of Doane students, from the 1920s, sporting black-face.
In response to student concerns, Doane’s President, Dr. Jacque Carter stated, “immediate action has been taken and an investigation has begun. The photos have been removed and the display outside the library has been taken down.”
I applaud Doane University and Dr. Carter for acting in the interest of students offended by the display. However, removing offensive photos does not solve this issue. It only covers them up.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” This famous quote from George Santayana captures the essence of the field of history.
Entrusted with the past, we must preserve it and learn from our transgressions so that the sins of one age may not manifest in the next.
To understand why Doane students from the 1920s were decked out in black-face, we need to understand the historical context of the time. While black-face is no longer tolerated, that was not always the case.
Although black-face is now taboo, it used to enjoy tremendous popularity in America.
According to black-face.com, instead of being obsessed with the next Marvel movie or teen vampire drama, “from 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America.”
Dressed up in stereotypical outfits worn by free blacks, white men became famous for turning their faces black and then acting out scenes to entertain white audiences.
Even after the popularity of minstrel shows declined, black-face remained a staple of entertainment up until the 1950s, when, according to black-face.com, in 1952, the black-face show “Amos ‘N Andy ranked 13th in the Nielsen ratings and in 1952 it won an Emmy award.”
If Doane had taken the opportunity to offer information such as this to students, they could have examined our own time period and reflected upon things that seem funny now but are likely to age poorly due to steady increases in cultural sensitivity.
It is easy for us to condemn 1920’s students for wearing black-face, but who is to say that we will not be viewed similarly for our annual Cinco De Mayo parties?
Maybe it is just me, but I do not think our grandchildren will see how it is funny for a group of predominantly white Midwesterners to dress in sombreros and celebrate the independence day of a country that is often mocked and ridiculed by these same white Midwesterners?
As students and teachers dedicated to critical inquiry and reflection, we cannot shy away from issues and questions that challenge and disturb us.
By removing the examples of black-face, Doane has missed a valuable opportunity to help us learn from a less savory moment of its past.
While it is unpleasant to see the skeletons in Doane’s closet, this University and its student body cannot move on as long as it refuses to come to terms with its past.