Memory and the Lost Cause

tags: slavery, Confederacy, nostalgia

Danielle A. Jackson is a writer and associate editor at Longreads.


… Even in Memphis of the 1980s and 1990s, when I grew up, remnants and relics of the Lost Cause mythos were everywhere. My first job was as an actor in a city theater performance of Tom Sawyer, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I played a friend of Amy Lawrence, essentially a chorus girl, and had two speaking lines. I was thrilled to have the job — I was 12 and got to be out of school for more than half the day for rehearsals and performances. I earned a weekly stipend and adored learning from the veteran actors in the theatre’s resident company. The cast was a mix of company members and actors from outside, and we were a multicultural crew. A Black actor played Tom Sawyer, and I was the one Black girl in the chorus. Nigger Jim was played by another Black girl; we only called her character Jim. The actress had several speaking lines and performed a solo musical number to the song “Buffalo Gal,” a song I now know is from a minstrel written by early blackface performer John Hodges. Throughout his life, Mark Twain wrote about his love of minstrel performances, calling them “nigger shows.” He said in his autobiography, “If I could have the nigger-show back again, in its pristine purity and perfection, I should have but little further use for opera.”

Watching the actress’s adroit performance every afternoon and night, singing along with the rest of the chorus to songs about the glorious Mississippi and the whistle of steamboats, I don’t remember feeling anything I would call embarrassment. I sometimes got a vague feeling of discomfort, but, truth be told, I thought I was different from the other Black actress. I was, after all, playing a schoolgirl, not a slave on the run. Weren’t we simply celebrating the glory of Mississippi River towns? Our shared land and culture? I was a child and I was deluding myself.

It is only now, looking back, that I realize that none of the theatre’s resident company, the actors with guaranteed jobs and pay for the season, were Black. While researching this piece, I learned that is still the case.

A subterranean racism is intertwined with many Southern artifacts and practices. It is an incomplete nostalgia, a false memory, a longing for an old South stripped of the truth of what living then meant for many people. At Memphis’ Sunset Symphony, a seemingly benign, popular, old-fashioned outdoor picnic was held on the Mississippi River every May. “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical Showboat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was performed for 21 years by local bass singer James Hyter as the crowd-stopping finale, with encore after encore. Hyter would change the lyrics many times throughout the years, removing words like “nigger” and “darkey.” Even without the hurtful words the song still describes a Black man’s life of impossible toil….


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