Tom Skinner Was Not The Evangelical Radical You’re Looking For

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The black evangelist Tom Skinner has often been portrayed as a kind of radical figure who challenged white evangelicals to confront racism. His speech at the 1970 Urbana Conference is particularly famous (that is, famous in the small world of black evangelical history).

It seems to me this reputation glosses over significant changes over time and evolution in Skinner’s thought. When he burst on the scene in 1966, he was a more complicated figure than the radical image implies. His views in 1970 should not be retroactively applied to the 1966-1968 period. Here’s an excerpt from an in-progress draft of a dissertation chapter:

Skinner represented a new kind of bridge figure between white evangelicalism and African Americans. It had long been the case, as Bob Harrison complained, that black Christians were encouraged to minister among their own people and steer clear of challenging white entitlement to spiritual authority. But white evangelicals did not imagine Skinner’s evangelistic crusades through the traditional parameters of segregated ministries. In fact, when Skinner came to town for a crusade, local white evangelical college students were encouraged to help out. Simply by supporting Skinner they were doing something meaningful about the nation’s racial troubles. He was less an outcast from white evangelicalism, as Harrison had sometimes felt himself to be in the 40s and 50s, and more an ambassador. Said Christianity Today, “Skinner has created a great deal of interest among evangelicals who worry vaguely that they might be missing the boat.”[1] In this project Skinner’s blackness was crucial and revealing of the ways the civil rights movement had upset racial norms in evangelicalism. Bob Harrison’s blackness had made him an outsider. Skinner’s blackness enabled him to act as a liminal figure, a provisional insider in two religio-racial communities at once. By the summer of 1967, Christianity Today was telling its readers that Skinner deserved their “fullest support.”[2]

Skinner was not afraid to make white evangelicals uncomfortable. They were “almost totally irresponsible” in their avoidance of their black brethren, and it was only the pressures of the civil rights movement that had belatedly stirred them from their complacency. He blasted white evangelicals who piously intoned that “Jesus was the answer” while refusing to get involved in the problem. Skinner believed Jesus was the answer too. But he had skin in the game, and he expected other evangelicals to join him. Yet it was precisely this supplicatory undertone that made Skinner’s criticisms manageable. For all the discomfort his words could cause, he did not doubt that white evangelicals had the correct theology on the point that mattered most, and he asked them to help him bring their theology to the ghetto. Christianity Today approvingly noted that Skinner “plays down social insurgence in his sermons because he feels that reform may take ‘sixty years’ but that regeneration through Christ can help now.”[3] To put it baldly, converted Negroes were not rioting Negroes.

Remarkably, Skinner’s criticisms of white evangelicals were tame compared to his open contempt for the black church. He described most black churches as bastions of excessive emotionalism and spiritual immaturity, led by ministers given over to sexual immorality and hypocrisy.[4] As a result, he claimed, “There is hardly any Christian witness in the ghetto.”[5] There’s little reason to suppose Skinner’s hostility toward the black church was anything but sincere, but it also proved useful. It flattered white evangelical assumptions of religio-racial superiority….

I’m still working out where I’m going with this.


[1] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[2] “Summer of Racial Discontent,” Christianity Today, July 21, 1967, 27

[3] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[4] Skinner, Black and Free, 45-53.

[5] Skinner, Black and Free, 32.


Tom Skinner and Evangelical Conversion Narratives

Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?

Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.

I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.

Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.

Are Southern Baptists Ready To Face Their Past?

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Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:

More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.

The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.

The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”

The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.

Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.

The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”

The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.

This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.

It will be interesting to see:

a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.

b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.

c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.

Jim Crow as Family Values

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Gordon Parks, 1956.

White Americans have absorbed the superficial lesson that Jim Crow segregation was bad, but we have worked very hard to not understand our ancestors who practiced it. If we understood them, we would find too many similarities between them and us.

What was it like to be an ordinary white person in a society organized to harm black people? For a short answer, just change this question to present tense and meditate on it. For a longer answer, read on.

Because we don’t actually know the answer to this question, we tend to think white people of that time must have been very different from now. We ask, how could they mistreat people simply because of the color of their skin? Couldn’t they see that it was wrong? The premise of the question is wrong. For ordinary white Americans during Jim Crow, it was as plain as day that segregation was not based merely on skin color. It was a system that promoted good family values and high moral standards while protecting children from degraded people who lacked both.

For our purposes, one example provides a glimpse into this misunderstood world.

After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board school desegregation ruling in May, 1954, the young married men’s Sunday school class of a Winchester, Tennessee Southern Baptist Church became “deeply interested in the racial issue.” Their teacher wrote to a Southern Baptist leader for advice.* They had “seriously & prayerfully” discussed the issue, he reported, and “we want to say & do the right thing concerning it.”

The question had urgency because all the men in the Sunday school class were fathers of young children “in their formative & most important age.” Their prayer and study of the issue led them to “stand firmly but humbly against intergration [sic] of the races. We love the negro, in his place, & think he should have equal rights but separate. They are God’s creatures same as we but God made them different & set them apart.”

What was the nature of this divinely ordained difference? He went on:

We are associated in work and business with the negro sufficiently to know their lives pretty well. They are very diseased physically & their school age children use the most obscene language & think of sex above every thing else. We really shudder at the idea of our children being placed side by side with them in school & [Sunday School] with them.

Shall we do this to help the colored children & pull our children down to their level & maybe make outcasts of ours? Will God hold us, as parents, responsible for this?”

The Sunday School teacher concluded that he was eager to hear the Southern Baptist leader’s advice. “We want to acknowledge God in all our ways that he will direct our paths.”

We may look at this Sunday School teacher’s assumptions of innate difference and physical contagion and comfort ourselves with how remote and backward his views appear. But in his desire to protect his children and give them a wholesome social and educational environment, his priorities are as contemporary as average white middle class parents today who use race as a shorthand for school quality and deliberately keep their children in majority-white environments.

White parents during Jim Crow who wanted to give their children the best became oppressors by default. To have done anything other, they would have had to reject what seemed to be common sense, reject white society’s definition of success and good parenting. “Will God hold us, as parents, responsible for this?” he asked. To act morally was to wrestle with whether they were hurting their children.  To love justice was to give up dreams of a respectable and comfortable existence.

You ask, “how could people harm others simply because of the color of their skin?” Wrong question. That’s not what they were doing. They were promoting family values. They were giving their kids the best. They were surrounding their children with good influences.

Jim Crow was as monstrous as you’ve heard. The people who made it work were like us.


*This letter is found in Clifton J. Allen’s papers at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, Tennessee.

In White Evangelical Attitudes Toward Politics, Echoes of the Civil Rights Era

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Earl Stallings, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, shakes hands with black worshipers on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings was one of the “white moderates” who called for an end to civil rights protests and whom King wrote against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. After this picture was published nationwide, Stallings received many appreciative letters from white Christians praising him for his courage in welcoming black activists to his church.

During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.

The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:

1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists

2. Calm tensions

3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”

To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.

This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.

But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.

And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.

It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.

But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.

Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.

We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.

It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.


* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.

In General, White Evangelicals Like Racism

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White evangelicals tend to support racism. They usually like it when they see it. And in general, they think anti-racism is unchristian.

You won’t find any of this out by asking abstract questions about racism. White evangelicals, like everyone else, know how to give the correct answers to abstract questions. But ask them about specific people and movements, and they’ll quickly tell you the real story.

And this makes sense. It is easy to claim support for abstractions. But in real life, it turns out people are complicated and flawed and everything is messy. So those anti-racists are going to say some things you don’t like. That racist President might have other policies that appeal to you. But do you know the score? Can you see the big picture enough to know that flawed anti-racist movements are better than pro-racist ones?

Most white evangelicals can’t see that. The latest data comes from the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey. Here are a couple highlights:

While most Americans, including 75% of black Protestants, believe Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups (hint: this is the correct answer) only 26% of white evangelicals believe this.

While most Americans, including 84% of black Protestants, believe that police killings of black men are part of a larger pattern of how police treat African Americans, 71% of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents.

While 64% of Americans and majorities of all other major religious groups believe the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States will be mostly positive, a majority of white evangelicals say this will be mostly negative.

There could be more interesting nuggets in the data but it appears PRRI hasn’t provided the crosstabs. This comes on the heels of a big survey of evangelicals by Lifeway Research and the Billy Graham Center Institute. Rather than defining evangelicals by self-identification, that survey used a set of theological affirmations. In theory, that might produce a more truly evangelical sample. And while the Billy Graham Center Institute sought to use the data to rehabilitate the reputation of evangelicals, it too produced some damning results.

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities,” 42% of white evangelicals said yes. Most white evangelicals are not disturbed by racial hatred.

Such data only reaffirms what should already be abundantly clear. Evangelicals of color have shared their experiences repeatedly and have exposed the rampant racism of the white evangelical church. But, as many can attest, such exposure does not cause most white evangelicals to question their racism. It causes them instead to question the sincerity of the anti-racists’ faith.

As most white evangelicals militantly refuse to align their lives with the Gospel, those who seek to follow Jesus must continue to pray that the evil complacency of this religious community would be shattered. At the same time, it is not enough to point out the flaws. We must point positively to Jesus Christ, who really is the savior of the world, who is good news to the poor and oppressed, who offers forgiveness to all and terror to those who excuse hatred of human beings made in his image.

In the 1960s, What Did Spiritual Equality Imply?

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This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).

It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.

But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.

As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.

Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.

I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.

Why Did All Those Evangelical Leaders Go To The White House Dinner?

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Maybe it was the napkins. I’m not really kidding.

Yesterday Tim Wildmon, the President of the American Family Association, described his awe-inducing experience rubbing shoulders with powerful people in luxurious settings at the White House. Would you believe…the napkins weren’t paper? Acting on a tip from Franklin Graham, Wildmon pocketed one of those linen napkins and resolved to take it home with him.

You can listen to the audio here (though I’m not sure I recommend it.* If you dare, skip ahead to 12.00).

The napkin episode was emblematic. Wildmon was in awe of his surroundings and made liberal use of his iphone to document his presence in the White House. You might say this is normal behavior. It’s cool to be able to eat dinner with the President of the United States. But what’s striking is the deeper meaning Wildmon attaches to events like this.

It means that evangelicals are accepted. It means they’re not looked down upon. It means real progress is being made in winning their culture war and making life difficult for people who aren’t like them.

Wildmon seems easily awed by power and wealth, a common fault of insecure people everywhere. “He’s not ashamed of us,” Wildmon declared. While most Republican leaders are embarrassed by evangelicals, he said, Trump is “proud of us.” The importance he places on this tells us a lot about Wildmon and the evangelical movement he embodies.

It’s a movement seeking to conserve its place at the table. In response to power reaching out a welcoming (if transactional) hand, evangelical elites seem to feel great relief and a sense of safety. They revel in their place of prominence. In doing so, they forget the gospel. The good news that Jesus saves wretched sinners makes anything a President can offer seem rather boring in comparison.

The whole thing would be pitiful and poignant were the Christian Right’s agenda not so noxious. Wildmon does not, after all, seem cynical. He appears instead as a person you might pity in other contexts. He takes comfort in the idea that Trump is not ashamed of him, and even that isn’t true. It’s a reminder that not all of the evangelical elites are cut from the same cloth. Some, like Ralph Reed, are just as transactional as any other political power brokers. But others, like Wildmon I suspect, are lying to themselves before they lie to their followers.

It’s all very sad. As I’ve said before, if you want to find Jesus Christ, look to the margins. If he’s not enough for you, by all means, go to the White House and find another god.


*The AFA is one of the leading anti-LGBT groups in the country, with a long history of hateful and outrageous behavior. Their current campaign is a boycott of Target, because bathrooms.

The Sickening Racism of Northern White Evangelicals in the Jim Crow Era

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How did white evangelicals outside the South encounter black people or black culture during the era of Jim Crow? Judging from anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, it seems as though the primary point of contact was through music—the so-called “Negro spirituals.”

I’ve just seen a particularly striking example of how white evangelicals of this era might use an imagined version of black culture as a source of humor, entertainment, and cheap sentiment. A student literary society at a white evangelical college put on a program in 1928, described below:

The first selection is a piano arrangement of Southern songs. Their crooning melody stirs every heart. We seem to visualize a group of darkies around a cabin door beneath a harvest moon, and to hear the soft strumming of a guitar. This vision is then described in reality in an educational talk on Southern life by one who has been a missionary among the mountain folk of Kentucky. A lullaby for pickaninnies, sung by one of our members, delights us next.

Thus far there has been a sentimental tone to our program. Now a humorous note appears in a reading on that subject so near to the negro heart (and stomach): watermelons. Intermittent chuckles are still heard as the secretary announces a negro spiritual by the male quartet. The bass rumbles, the tenor pleads, the baritone calls triumphantly, the plaintive tune delighting yet gripping the audience. Another reading, this time from that friend of white as well as black children, Uncle Remus, is greeted by reminiscent smiles and applause. A negro mammy’s song sung with clarinet obligato closes the program.

What’s striking to me is the utter isolation and indifference exhibited here. In an era of lynching and grinding oppression, they’re able to wring entertainment and sentimentality out of the imagined lives of black people. They appear to know nothing about the actual circumstances of African Americans and they’re so far from caring that they don’t even know it.