The son of Jewish immigrants, my father grew up poor in a multicultural, multiracial neighborhood where people joked about ethnicity and traded insults. He boxed at a black gym where some African Americans joked that he was darker than them. For a while, he commanded black troops in World War II. He ended up living in the South, and he supported civil rights.
For the first part of his life, before Jews became white, he was neither white nor black, but fell elsewhere in our crazy taxonomy of race. When Alzheimer’s took away what little impulse control he had, he would blurt out to black people how much he liked black people while my sister and I cringed.
A bass baritone, Daddy had performed in community theater, and loved Gilbert and Sullivan. He sang along with a CD of “The Mikado” as my sister drove him to a nursing home, never to see him again. We had taken care of him until his medical problems outstripped our abilities. He didn’t live much longer.
Daddy had admired Paul Robeson, and he loved “Ol’ Man River.” Once, when he sang it in a talent show, he blackened his face and dressed like the dock worker in “Showboat.” To him, he was dressing in costume just as he might for another role. He thought the song was a testament to the perseverance of oppressed people. He thought singing in dialect made it more authentic.
In a family album, Daddy proudly put a photo of himself singing at the talent show. In blackface.
My sister and I finally convinced him that it didn’t matter what his intention was; what mattered was how people perceived his performance. We convinced him that he would offend and anger black people if he continued to sing the song in dialect or if he ever wore blackface again.
I’ve left the photo in the album as a reminder of the complexity of the history of race. And I still know all the words to “Ol’ Man River.”