Monday, October 21, 2013

The Last Minstrel Show

When I first heard that the Harlowton Kiwanis Club was going to stage a minstrel show in blackface, I reacted with righteous indignation.  I wrote a letter to the Harlowton Times.  I petitioned the County Board.  I met with the town leaders, most of whom were members of the Kiwanis.  The response I got from each of those venues was:  “How could a newcomer like you be so brazen as to question and challenge a town tradition that has been well-received and going on for years?” 
Despite presenting journal articles and solicited letters from African-American leaders in Montana and throughout the country on how minstrel shows had created and perpetuated black stereotypes and demeaned black culture, I was reassured that the show was just for fun and meant no disrespect to anyone.  The show went on.
The only thing I had accomplished in my efforts was to make myself persona non grata within this small Montana community.  My wife and I were shunned by many of our “friends” and the County Board sent a letter to the National Health Service Corps requesting that I be reassigned.  Because I was just a few months from completing my assignment, it was determined that I should remain in my position while the town looked for another physician.  Without a doubt, that was the most painful and stressful period of my professional life.
During those last few months in Harlowton, I had the opportunity to reflect on what happened.  I realized that I had been quite na├»ve and arrogant in my approach to changing a well-established cultural norm.  Besides that, I was ineffective.  Data and thoughtful analysis were no match for community values and tradition.  And, my direct and confrontational approach had served only to make people feel threatened, defensive, and resistant to change. 
It was only then that I remembered that 20 years earlier, my parents along with several of their friends, had worked behind the scenes to have our hometown parish stop holding its annual minstrel show.  Through numerous one-on-one conversations, they helped form a consensus about what was best for the parish to meet its mission and, a minstrel show did not fit into that narrative.  When a group of parishioners finally approached the pastor, it was inevitable that the minstrel show tradition would be abandoned.  I wish I had remembered that lesson a few months earlier before I had been abducted by the arrogance of youth. 
That Montana experience was 40 years ago but memories of it quickly and vividly returned one month ago after my talk on the issue of infant mortality at the annual meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).  In my presentation I highlighted the racial disparities in infant mortality rates and the fact that, if we are to effectively reduce those rates, we must address the issue of race in our society.  Because my speech was given on the anniversary of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech (see my September 18th Blog, I also made the point that there is still debate about how best to proceed in achieving racial equity – incrementalism, accommodation, confrontation, etc.. 
In the Q and A after the talk I was thanked for having the “courage” to bring up the issue of race.  Later, several of my State Health Officer colleagues shared that they feel restrained from bringing up the issue in their state.  I was surprised by these responses because I always assumed that one of the main tasks of public health is to shine a light on the things that interfere with health – public health is the constant redefinition of the unacceptable – and that our reluctance to talk about race and racism is one of those things.  I was also surprised by the fact that, while many things have changed in the last 40 years, our willingness and ability to talk about race is not much better in 2013 than it was in 1973.  This week’s controversy about changing the name of the Washington Redskins underscores that point. 
But we have an opportunity to change that.  On Tuesday of this week we will be launching our Advancing Health Equity effort.  In preparation for a report to the legislature on how to advance health equity in Minnesota, we will be critically looking at our organization and the structural barriers to health equity that currently exist.  A major part of this effort will be a conversation about race focused on developing a sense of what each of us, and the Department, can do to advance our goal of health equity.  The leadership role we must take in advancing a state-wide conversation about race and heath equity will also be part of our agenda.  I’m sure it will initially be a difficult conversation but one that needs to happen. 
In that conversation there will be no interlocutor, no “Mr. Tambo,” and no “Mr. Bones.”  My hope is that there will be multiple authentic conversations taking place where all voices and all perspectives are heard and considered.  My hope is that our efforts will take us to a place where we can say that we have seen the last of the minstrel show and the legacy it created. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

My Whole World, Soon Gonna Be Get Mixed Up

At the intermission of a 1971 Pete Seeger concert, one of the leaders of an activist graduate student group on campus got up and asked for donations to help pay the legal fees of some of the group’s members who had been arrested during a protest outside the university’s administration building. Several people in the audience vociferously disagreed with the speaker and tried to shout him down.  Soon there were shouts and angry words flying from every corner of the pavilion. The political disagreements that were so uncompromising and bitter and so evident throughout the country at that time were being played out in microcosm before my eyes. 

Today, I can still recall the protest and the passionate disagreements among audience members, but most vivid is the image of what happened when Pete Seeger returned to the stage. With his banjo in-hand, he began deftly picking the melody of the first song of his second set. While the audience continued to roil, Pete announced, “I don’t fully agree with what the group is demanding, but I fully support their right to voice those demands. Because of that, I will be donating my fee for tonight’s performance to help pay their legal fees. I am confident that this will be an investment that will benefit everyone here.” 

Before the stunned audience had a chance to react, Pete began singing a song I had never heard before. The song was simple, lively, and catchy. By the second verse, the audience had stopped arguing and shouting and was beginning to join in the singing of the chorus. From that point on there was a sense of community among the crowd that hadn’t been evident before. 

For the last 42 years, whenever the world seemed to be spinning out of control and the increasing diversity among us seemed more of a curse than a blessing, I have thought about the events of that night to help bolster my spirits that things will get better.  But I could never recall the specific song that transformed the crowd. Recently I was given a CD containing some of Pete Seeger’s lesser known songs. As I listened to the music, I heard a song that I immediately recognized as the song that calmed the crowd and created a sense of community during a very divisive time. Listening to the words, I realized the song is just as relevant today as it was in 1971. Perhaps the message of this simple song can help us get through the struggles of dealing with differing perspectives and conflicting opinions in 2013 as effectively as it did 42 years ago.

ALL MIXED UP by Pete Seeger

You know, this language that we speak
Is part German, part Latin, and part Greek,
With some Celtic and Arabic and Scandinavian all in the heap,
Well amended by the people in the street.
Choctaw gave us the word “okay,”
“Vamoose” is a word from Mexico way,
And all of this is a hint, I suspect,
Of what comes next:

Chorus:           I think that this whole world
                        Soon mama, my whole wide world
                        Soon mama, my whole world,
                        Soon gonna be get mixed up.

I like Polish sausage, I like Spanish rice
Pizza pie is also nice.
Corn and beans from the Indians here
Washed down by some German beer,
Marco Polo traveled by camel and pony
Brought to Italy the first macaroni.
And you and I, as well as we’re able
Put it all on the table.                          Chorus

There were no redheaded Irishmen
Before the Vikings landed in Ireland.
How many Romans had dark curly hair
Before they brought slaves from Africa?
No race on earth is completely pure;
Nor is any one’s mind and that’s for sure.
The winds mix the dust of every land,
And so will woman and man.              Chorus

On, this doesn’t mean we will all be the same.
We’ll have different faces and different names.
Long live many different kinds of races
And difference of opinion; that makes horse races.
Just remember The Rule About Rules, brother:
“What’s right with one is wrong with another.”
And take a tip from La Belle France,
“Vive la difference.”                           Chorus

As we strive to adapt to and benefit from the increasing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in our state and the markedly different political perspectives of some of our hyper-partisan elected leaders, I hope we can be respectful of differing views even if we disagree with them. That may be the only way to develop the sense of community needed to successfully address the challenges that face all of us and allow us to come together to take the next step toward the creation of a better world. When we eventually realize that we are all in this world together and that “We’re All Mixed Up,” perhaps we may finally reap the benefits of the diversity with which we have been blessed.