In 2019, the Knox County Historical society opened yet another version of a Dan Emmett house museum. In 2014, the house that everyone had thought was Dan Emmett's birthplace was destroyed in a fire, although its burning revealed that the home had in fact been younger than previously thought and had no association with Emmett at all. So when the historical society decided to rebuild, they chose to construct a replica of Emmett's retirement cabin to serve as the location for a small house museum. They planned the reopening to coincide with the 2019 Dan Emmett Arts and Music Festival, so visitors could visit the cabin while attending the festival.
A day before the new site was set to open, I happened to be driving past and decided to stop in to see if I could get a look. A very friendly local resident was working at the house, making sure that everything was set for the opening. When I told her about my project, she asked if I’d like to see the script that docents planned to use. It, like the artifacts in the house, talked about Emmett’s success as a composer and performer, his life in Mount Vernon, and of, course, his authorship of “Dixie.” The script explained that while “Dixie” had become identified with the South during the Civil War, when the war ended, Lincoln asked the song to be played and declared that it “now belonged to the Union.” On blackface, the script had almost nothing to say besides a brief note that Emmett's Virginia Minstrels “performed in strange clothing and with blackened faces.” When I asked the guide what docents planned to say if asked about the politics of blackface, she told me that the museum boosters had decided that the topic was too complicated and they didn’t understand it well enough to talk about it at the house.
It is the end of a session of ninth grade honors English class at the high school in Mount Vernon. The class is about to start reading To Kill a Mockingbird, which is perhaps one of the most-taught books in American schools, and one that offers a fictional representation of 1930s Alabama. My son’s teacher has asked me to come in to offer the students some historical context so they can better understand the novel.
I had been talking with these students about what happened after the Civil War, how the legal system of segregation came into being, and what mechanisms—legal and extralegal—were used to uphold it. As part of the lecture, I mentioned that Jim Crow, the name given to this whole system designed to uphold and communicate white superiority and black inferiority, was taken from the name of a character created by white blackface minstrel performer T.D. Rice in the 1830s.
As the class drew to a close, the teacher posed a final question. “In your opinion,” she asked me, “is it ever ok for whites to put on blackface? “What if they don’t intend for it to be racist?” This was, it turned out, a question of some immediate urgency, as teachers had learned that some students planned to celebrate an upcoming school spirit day by painting their faces black and wearing yellow clothes to honor the school colors. As I looked at this class of 9th graders, some of whom may well have been planning to paint their faces black without even knowing what the act signified, I told something I believe deeply. “None of us is outside history,” I told them. “No one should think that they can take a symbol that has been used to communicate hate or degradation and can make it innocent or take it out of its historical context.” If you want to put on blackface, I warned, you better be willing to own that history and what it conveys to others.
For decades now, Mount Vernon has commemorated Dan Emmett and constructed its own identity around being the birthplace of the man who wrote “Dixie.” Most of the people who participate in this commemoration see Emmett as a successful local figure who loved music. In a town where people put down deep roots, they have long memories of positive associations with Dan Emmett. But no one is outside history. Shying away from discussions of what Emmett actually did or how “Dixie” has become a racist symbol, as the most current house museum script does, doesn’t change the history and what it communicates to others. If we whitewash this history, we cannot understand how others—and especially how those most deeply affected by these cultural practices and symbols—will see, understand, and perhaps most importantly, feel our actions. If Mount Vernon continues to honor Dan Emmett, it has to own the message it is sending. The city of Mount Vernon, under pressure from local activists, may have finally renamed the annual arts festival, but that one change has not led to any discussion about whether the many other town places named after Emmett—the school, the streets—should also be changed. And even more importantly, it has not yet led to any kind of exploration of the impact that blackface minstrelsy and a figure like Emmett have left on the world.
So one final story: “I nearly punched a kid today,” my son tells me when he walks in the house after a long afternoon spent with the high school soccer team in 2016. Every fiber of my being tenses. This is it, I think. The first time that a black kid hears a white kid call him the “n”-word. For, much as I rack my brain, I can think of no other action that would so rile my easygoing child. But no, that’s not what has so troubled him. “I’m just so sick of kids telling me that I’m so white. They keep saying that I’m the whitest kid they know.” I look at him, surprised. My son is, in fact, one of the very few black kids they know. When I ask him why he think kids call him white, I realize I already know the answer. They call me white, he tells me, because he excels at school and many of the kids he knows don’t think Black people can be smart.
I look at my son and think: this is the legacy of Dan Emmett, of blackface minstrelsy, of all those ugly and degrading stereotypes that minstrelsy helped spread and popularize. Blackface portrayed Blacks as simple, stupid, ridiculous, stereotypes that persist in some form to this day. It helped set the boundaries, associations, categories and stereotypes that still plague American life. If kids in Mount Vernon cannot associate “smart” and “Black,” it is in part because they are steeped in a culture that has long whitewashed blackface and whistled Dixie.