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. 

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