While at the Dallas Museum of Art tonight enjoying Arts & Letters Live with Chris Cleave and Jennifer Ryan, I was struck by the fact that yet again, I was the SBF in the line waiting to enter the auditorium. I settled into an aisle seat near the front and glanced around the room. Nope, no one looked like me. Initially I was incensed, like “black people, where are you?? Don’t we read anymore?” Only after Jennifer lightened the mood speaking of her “Party Granny” did I felt the weight of singleness subside. She talked of feminism in London during WWII and the transition women made from homemaking to car repair and eventually back to the home when the men returned. Then Chris took the stage.
Chris Cleave was in Dallas 10 years ago at the now closed Legacy Books at Shops at Legacy. I sat in a metal rimmed chair with little cushion as he talked about his latest work, Little Bee. He signed my book and as I recall, he was as personable then as today.
Tonight’s focus was on his most recent historical fiction novel Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a novel inspired by the love letters between his grandparents, David and Mary. He spoke of how they met, the war (it was 1939) and the love letters they shared until David (his grandfather) returned from the frontlines and was rejoined with his bride Mary. Chris took us on a journey of life in London, flashing photographs of children who were sent away to the countryside for fear they would be killed by the impending threat of the Axis Powers bombing London. Chris showed a few photos then he remarks, they’re all white children. He flashes another photo, this one featuring just shy of a dozen smiling black children and perhaps a white child or two. Chris explains: these are the children who were left behind in the city to endure the peril of shelling and bombs dropping from overhead. These children were the progeny of black entertainers who performed in minstrel shows (more on that later) for the amusement of white audiences; they were not whisked away to the countryside and remained in the city because white Londoners would not abide sharing the pastoral hinterland with blacks. He flashed several other photos of black minstrel musicians, and one photo of a dapper, handsome Cab Calloway looking fellow who Chris said was London’s most popular swing (big band) leader of the era. (I think it was Joe Harriott a Jamaican alto saxophonist.)
As he spoke I was keenly aware of my onlyness. Of my SBF-ness. Perhaps no one in the audience saw me when I entered. That often happens when people do not expect to see someone like me at a rodeo in Walla Walla, skiing in Bend, or sitting in a Presbyterian church singing I Can Only Imagine alongside the other parishioners. I would venture a guess that those nearest to me saw me as sharply as if a neon light were affixed overhead flashing “SBF in row 10.” What I felt was the typical discomfort of being alone in a sea of white hearing of a history that is conveniently not written, spoken, or shared. Chris gave the audience a brief lesson: nearly 10,000 black people lived in London during the late 1930s, the time period of his latest novel. But these people are missing from history books. It made me wonder how many survived the bombing as he showed photos of the devastation, the city covered in rubble. Chris noted the blatant racism of the day: leaving behind black children to suffer in unimaginable horror while the white children (smiling blonde faces featured in ads urging parents to send them to the country for safety) were protected.
Back to the minstrel shows. Popularized in the 1830s and continuing for decades (Al Jolson in the 1920s, the Amos ’n’ Andy Show in the 1950s), minstrel shows were a caricature of blacks featuring whites covered in black face paint with exaggerated eyes and mouths outlined in white or red. Whites amused themselves by portraying blacks as ignorant, foolish, clowns. Buffoonery is probably the best way to express it. (Note: Blacks also performed in minstrel shows to the delight of white audiences.)
I bought the book Sunday afternoon, hadn’t cracked the cover or done more than read the back panel. I was not prepared for the history lesson or my visceral response to the details he presented. After the talk, both authors signed books and chatted amiably with the patrons. When I presented my book for signature Chris thanked me for coming. I thanked him for returning to Dallas and for using his talent to teach us about a past long forgotten.