WHILE HE WAS IN BLACKFACE I WAS IN BIRMINGHAM

The same year Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was posing in blackface (either once or twice, depending on what you believe), four years after Attorney General Mark Herring and his friend donned “wigs and brown makeup” (note to Mr. Herring, it’s called blackface), I went to Birmingham, Alabama to do a summer stock theater production.

For reasons that still baffle me, I was cast in the musical Pajama Game, in the role Doris Day played in the movie. I think they just saw the media value in having the President’s daughter in a play; I certainly didn’t have experience or talent to justify the casting. My co-star was Richard Kline, the accomplished actor of both stage and screen, who is well known as John Ritter’s friend in the show Three’s Company.

Almost immediately after I arrived, I was introduced to one of the patrons of the theater where we would be performing. She was a slight woman with snow-white hair, impeccably dressed, who spoke with a thick southern accent. She had a clear agenda. She implored me to use the visibility I had as the President’s daughter to go out and set the record straight as to what happened in Birmingham in the Sixties.

“Set the record straight?” I remember saying. I thought the record was quite thoroughly documented. Fire hoses turned onto crowds of black citizens, a widely-seen photo of high school students being pummeled with hoses, attack dogs, nightsticks splitting open skulls. In 1963, Martin Luther King called Birmingham “the most segregated city in the country.” I said none of this to her, I just looked at her with, I’m sure, an incredulous look on my face.

“Our Negroes,” she continued, “were paid by agitators to go out there and demonstrate. They would never have done that on their own. My family has had our Negroes for decades, and we care for them just like they’re part of our family. Those people were paid five dollars each to go out there and make trouble.”

I think I mumbled something about not being able to help her with this message. But mostly I remember being stunned that she could so thoroughly rewrite history and do it with such authority. I was of course also aware that she was one of my employers and it would be best to keep my mouth shut.

Over the next couple of weeks, she was relentless, cornering me every time she saw me. On one occasion, I saw her coming and hid in the bathroom.

After our final performance the cast and crew were invited to her home for dinner. I sat beside Richard, drinking wine, as she again started in on how “their Negroes” had been paid five dollars each to go out in the streets and demonstrate in the Sixties, and how Birmingham had been so unfairly represented in the press. This time I responded.

“Were they paid extra to have their heads split open?” I asked her. “What was that worth? Ten dollars? And the fire hoses? Did they get extra for that?”

The table went silent. Richard kicked me under the table, took away my wine glass, and said to me in a fierce whisper, “Shut up. Stop drinking and stop talking. I want to leave here tomorrow in one piece. You’re going to get us shot on the tarmac.”

I obeyed him. I turned my attention instead to the older black woman in the starched uniform who was serving us food. I kept trying to catch her eye. I wanted to communicate something to her – something beyond the language that she’d undoubtedly heard for years. She never looked up. At one point I excused myself to go to the restroom, and Richard grabbed my arm. “Just go to the restroom,” he hissed. “Stay out of the kitchen.” He knew me way too well.

I think about that white-haired woman whenever I hear stories like the ones coming out of Virginia right now. I think of the people who will never learn from history because they refuse to look at it. Because, instead of confronting reality, they made a decision to substitute a paint-by-numbers version that wouldn’t tug at their conscience or, God forbid, break their hearts. Mostly, I think about the quiet woman in the starched uniform with a silver platter of food in her hands. The woman whose eyes wouldn’t meet mine. She had a scar on her wrist, a thick rope of raised flesh that disappeared under the edge of her sleeve. I will always wonder how she got that, and I will always wonder what other scars were patterned beneath her skin.

 

 

2 Responses to WHILE HE WAS IN BLACKFACE I WAS IN BIRMINGHAM

  1. deb kim says:

    Thank you for sharing this. How frustrating. You did the best you could. And it was heartbreaking that you weren’t able to connect with the black woman housekeeper; she knew she couldn’t or that’s the end of her job.

  2. Michael Baron says:

    Much appreciation!! This is an incredibly meaningful and thoughtful post, Patti Davis!! Brilliant insights and perspectives!!

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