Not long ago I was offered a gig at The [ Withholding the Large Virginia Town’s Name Here ] Arts and Culture Center. After responding with the thank-you-for-inviting-me email, I went to the center’s website to see what the place was like. There I encountered the following program description for a series they were presenting (I’m not making this up):
“Explore the items of everyday life during the Jim Crow era at Culture & Cocktails.”
Wow, I thought. What a sickening piece of copy.
I could picture the white people at the arts center milling around, sipping their pinot grigio, wistfully gazing at “COLORED ONLY” bus station waiting room signs. A few of the older patrons would sigh with that pang of nostalgia.
Now, I am sure there are plenty among you who think I am overreacting.
There are certain people of a certain culture who confuse old-time gentility with good taste. These people, above all, seek comfort. (And they like to keep comfort all to themselves – on their own terms).
Back in the 1980s when I moved to Orlando, I was presented with a housewarming present from a couple who were closely related to me. (These people did not live in Covington; you do not know them. No guessing, please. They’re long dead, anyway.) They gifted me with a ceramic Chinese fisherman. If this fellow had been standing he would have been about twelve inches inches tall, but he was sitting and slumped with a mournful look. He was wearing traditional garb: a conical rice hat, above-the-ankle pants, a long mustache drooping from the corners of his mouth, and a loose, threadbare shirt. He was fishing with a cane pole that had a real string with a tiny ceramic fish dangling from it. He was the perfect depiction of what an “Oriental” man should look like from a white-centric perspective.
Let’s just say that this objet d’art did not express my personal aesthetic.
Not long after I received my fisherman, I attended an outdoor arts festival in Maitland, Florida. There I met a potter who had created these hilarious, cartoon-like, bulging-eyed, multi-colored fish about the size of a medium bass. The fish had small holes in their bottom lips, and the potter had displayed them on real metal-clip stringers.
Yes! There is no feeling quite as satisfying as discovering works of art that cause one delight! And I immediately had an idea; I bought me one of those clay-fired fish, brought it home, and hung it with a brad nail on the bookshelf just below the little fish dangling from my fisherman’s pole, the effect being that my new fish was going to swallow my fisherman’s fish, and maybe the fisherman.
On their next visit, it was clear to me that I had offended the relatives who gave me the ceramic “Chinaman.” (Yes, I know.) I could tell that they were taken aback by how I had lampooned the dignity and artistic integrity of their gift. (Later, I was to learn from my sister that this was indeed the case.) Alas, one person’s sense of whimsy is another person’s tacky.
I possess enough good taste to know I have bad taste.
Many years later, this same couple visited Colonial Williamsburg. As it turns out, they cut short their three-day stay by a day. They were uncomfortable with seeing people portrayed as slaves. (In 1775, more than half the population of Virginia’s capital were enslaved.) My relatives reported to me that they thought the slavery depiction was in bad taste.
• • •
And now… I hope nobody at that distant Arts and Culture Center in Virginia reads this.
Or, maybe it would be good if they did.
• • •
Indeed it was a character-interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, my road-friend Darci Tucker, who landed me the gig at the aforementioned arts center. One recent morning after a workshop in Williamsburg, she and I, along with our friend, Sheila Arnold Jones, who portrays an enslaved person, were having breakfast at The Capitol Pancake House (where all the costumed CW riff-raff hang out). I told Darci and Sheila about the Jim Crow/Culture and Cocktails. Sheila cried, “What?!” as she began to choke on her French toast. Darci did what we in comedy call, a spit-take.
Yes, I had orange juice upon my person, but my class-clown work was done.
Let’s all pay attention with all our hearts, everybody – Andy
© 2017 Andy Offutt Irwin