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On committing a cultural felony: 'The Scottsboro Boys' minstrel show

4/12/2011, 5:23 p.m.

Kwando M. Kinshasa, PhD

African-American Studies Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

There is a lynching occurring on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, and it is a bloody and gruesome affair. However, in a manner typical of many post-slave and supposedly post-segregationist societies, this lynching occurs in the format of a cultural exhibition, a theatrical performance that supposedly addresses a major judicial event in America's judicial history: the 1931 Scottsboro, Alabama, rape case.

The resulting performance, as currently performed, unfortunately implies that tragic judicial injustices institutionalized by terroristic, racist mentalities, if supported by special financial interest, can trivialize history's victims to the extent that later generations might not understand or appreciate the value of their own successful struggles against insipid racism, economic exploitation and acculturation. Such is the case with the Scottsboro case and its current presentation through the supposed artistic framework of a minstrel show!

Yes, a tragic sage of judicial terror and attempted state murder depicted through the medium of a minstrel show is now applauded by some. Sadly, such reenactments as this do not simply debase the past and its on stage reenactors, but it also reduces the audience to an unenviable role of being conspiratorial spectators to a cultural lynching, a cultural felony. Such is the case with the recent Broadway production entitled "The Scottsboro Boys."

As in the past, public lynchings throughout America's bloody racial history, either before or after the 20th century, were staged not only to murder their intended victims, but more succinctly and slyly to also violate and then execute the cultural and political sensitivities of all who witnessed the event. However, when such an act is performed symbolically within a playhouse, the audience, regardless of their shock, is encouraged to become socially, culturally and physically committed to observe the social script or narrative as it unfolds. If they choose not to do so, it would clearly be at their own financial default. Hence, an emotional and financially entrapped audience is metaphorically trapped to become an enthusiastic crowd, a disgruntled rabble, a confused, disinterested flock or even an angry mob! In this instance, they do so while becoming witnesses to a cultural and politically torturous minstrel performance, a cultural felony entitled "The Scottsboro Boys."

Tragically, the attempt to address a major event in African-American history through the stage format of a minstrel show is both absurd and an affront to the cultural and political integrity of this ethnic group and the ongoing experiences of people of the African Diaspora. The crassly concocted minstrel show does little to address the solemnity of the nine Scottsboro defendants' continual brutalization, beatings, torture, and psychological suffering by guards and wardens while in several prisons throughout the 1930s and most of the 1940s.

Nor does it explore the reality that the Scottsboro defendants were, in truth, a tragic metaphor for hundreds of thousands of African-American youths trying to maintain a level of survival within a nation, America, whose laws were actively functioning to eliminate any semblance that their social, cultural and political wellbeing was a recognized fact.