With inauguration coverage currently on in the background, it’s the perfect time to quote Jacques Offenbach. No, really. The collocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the swearing in of the country’s first black president has occasioned much discourse on the state of race relations in the U.S., most of it somehow centered around whether we’re in a “post-racial” society or not. At the very least, we’ve turned a page, even if the book remains open—but the issue of race is so ingrained in American history that it’s hard to get an objective sense. Which is why my mind has been turning repeatedly over the past couple weeks to this very curious story that Offenbach relates from 1870s New York.
But I must not close this chapter on American theatres without mentioning a little hall where I heard the minstrels.
There all the actors are negroes; the chorus consists of negroes; the servants are negroes;—cashier, manager, superintendent, men and women, all black!
On sighting the stage, I perceived a negro orchestra, playing tunes more or less fantastic.
But great was my surprise on becoming aware that I was the object of their special attention, and that they were pointing me out to one another. I could not believe that I was known to so many negroes; but, nevertheless, I must confess I was delighted to find that such was the case.
The performance was sufficiently comical to induce me to remain to the end. What was my astonishment on returning, after the first act, to witness a renewal of the same manifestations towards me—that is to say, the musicians again pointing me out to one another. This time they were all white, as white as the bakers in the Boulangère. I became prouder than ever; but, alas! there was deception in store for me. I was informed they were the same musicians, and that, from the manager to the servants, they were nothing but sham negroes, who alternately painted and washed their faces three or four times every evening, according to the requirements of the performances.
—Jacques Offenbach, Offenbach in America: Notes of a Travelling Musician
(New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1877)
Offenbach devoted a chapter of his travelogue to thoughts on the American ideal of liberty, alternately bemused—blue laws against Sunday drinking are a particular annoyance—and cutting. For example, this sarcastic report: “Negro emancipation is another grand reform! The dear negroes are free, perfectly free; let me tell you how,” he wrote. “They cannot enter either the cars or any other public conveyances; on no account do the theatres admit them; and if they are received in the restaurants, it is only to wait on the white guests. This is an illustration of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But then again, Offenbach knew something of discrimination. He goes on:
The proprietor of the Cataract Hotel, at Niagara Falls, had the following advertisement inserted in the principal daily papers:
“Being a citizen of a perfectly free country, and having the right to do as I please in my own house, I have decided :
“First and only Article —’From and after this day, Jews will be excluded from this hotel.'”
As you might expect, Offenbach finds a way to get the last laugh: “It may be interesting to add,” he drily relates, “that after a lapse of two years this liberal hotel-keeper was compelled to give up his establishment for want of business.”
Offenbach’s observations are sanguine enough that I don’t begrudge him his wit, but, fundamentally, what provides him a target for poking fun—with varying degrees of force—is American idealism, and idealism is a pretty easy target: ideals are, almost by definition, rarely met.
Whether the incoming administration can live up to the enormous expectations placed on it remains to be seen. But this inauguration does live up to the “historic” epithet that’s been applied so it so often over the past weeks—not just because of race, not just because of the challenge of this particular moment in time, and not just because, so often over the past several years, the better angels of our nature seemed to be hopelessly on the defensive. It’s that, for one day at least, the grandiose nature of American idealism fuels more optimism than disappointment. That’s a history Americans are born into as well—and every so often, that subjective viewpoint becomes a privileged one.