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Eye on the News

John H. McWhorter
The Case For Moving On
On ice cream trucks, memory, and race in America
11 July 2014
Photo by Ken McCrimmon

Can ice cream be racist? The question has lately caused a small dustup—and, as you might imagine, the issue is larger than ice cream. It is, in fact, indicative of a certain psychic roadblock in enlightened black thought of late.

It started with Theodore R. Johnson III, writing on NPR’s blog to tell us that when we hear an ice cream truck play “Turkey in the Straw,” we must understand that the tune has racist origins. Johnson points out that when ice cream trucks started playing the tune in the 1920s, it was not long after the tune had been tricked out repeatedly with racist lyrics—including a minstrel-show perennial called “Zip Coon,” not to mention an awful pre-World War I version he unearthed with the lyric “Nigger Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.” Furthermore, because ice cream parlors played minstrel songs in the nineteenth century, people in the 1920s and 1930s would have associated “Turkey in the Straw” with its unsavory alternate versions. In response to Johnson, I wrote that by the time those trucks existed, people thought of the tune as simply “Turkey in the Straw,” a song about the farm. No evidence exists that ice cream parlors were ever sites uniquely associated with racist music.

Johnson answered my reply, and it is here that we encounter the psychic roadblock I referred to above. For Johnson, the main thing is that somehow, some way, we must “acknowledge” the racist history of that ice cream jingle—even if it requires bending over backward regarding the facts. For example, he has managed to find—and I am sincerely in awe of the effort—a sheet music edition of “Turkey in the Straw” with a “Negro” caricature on the cover. But this sheet was labelled as a “Ragtime Fantasy”—that is, it was an example of a fashion in pop during the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century of arranging preexisting tunes of all genres in a ragtime style. Indeed, ragtime itself was associated with black people, but this “ragging” genre was applied to all and sundry. The sheet-music edition reveals “Turkey in the Straw” as a “minstrel” tune about as much as the 1970s’ “A Fifth of Beethoven” reveals Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a disco song.

In response to my observation that “Turkey in the Straw” was associated with farm animals in the pop culture of the time (such as Looney Tunes), Johnson notes that some Looney Tunes reveled in minstrelly caricature. Most of us knew that already (and I have written about the Looney Tunes known to addicts as “The Censored Eleven”). Old movies were full of racist material, but we don’t therefore decide that any song Max Steiner or Alfred Newman played on a soundtrack was, by association, “minstrel.” As for ice cream parlors specializing in minstrel songs, Johnson notes that these establishments used a music box that played not just minstrel tunes, but also waltzes, “fiddle tunes,” and the like—the pop music of the day, in other words. Those music boxes were common inside many other establishments of the day; the notion that an aging gent in 1932 would hear a minstrel tune and think especially of ice cream makes no sense.

It’s revealing that Johnson is so deeply committed to showing that there is something racist about ice cream jingles—it tips us off that Johnson is ultimately talking about something much bigger than ice cream. His intent becomes clear in his final observation—that ice cream trucks have played other tunes with minstrel histories, such as the Stephen Foster chestnuts “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” No doubt, those tunes were racist in their original incarnations, with their dusting of “Negro” dialect and more (some of the lyrics to “Oh Susanna,” now unsung, show how sick America was at the time). But those songs were written back in the Gilded Age. As time passed, they seeped into America’s pop fabric as faceless little ditties. Almost no one learning “Camptown Races” (doo da, doo da) at camp, or while taking elementary piano lessons, has any idea that the song began as a black-oriented tune.

Meanings morph over time; eventually, origins become footnotes. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” originally referred, sub rosa, to mocking the idea that a black bandleader would have a highfalutin name like Alexander. Or, think of what the expression “that sucks” really means—and note that, today, we never do.

I dare any remotely enlightened person—white, black, polka-dotted, contrary, hip-hopped, or anything else—to sing “Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha Ha Ha” out loud without cringing. But the question is how much we need to “consider,” eternally, the history of things like ice cream jingles. We should reflect often on slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, yes. But ice cream? It’s that purse-lipped, “eat your vegetables” brand of reflection that is Johnson’s larger project. We are not simply to live in the present; lord forbid we look ahead with anything but wary caution and, most importantly, an endless consideration that this present was furnished by people singing about nigger this and watermelon that, and doing much worse besides.

An ice cream truck goes by, playing a tune which—if anyone in 2014 is even aware of the lyric—is about the barnyard. Your average person is thinking about getting a popsicle or cone. Johnson wants us to stop, mid-lick, and “consider” that 130 years ago, people would have heard that tune and been as likely to associate it with its “Zip Coon” lyric as the “Turkey” one. Mind you, he isn’t saying that we ban the song, only that we think about it—but why, and to what achievable end?

Johnson’s position is akin to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in his Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations,” which was greeted with something approaching religious rapture in certain corners. Just as Johnson suggests that we lick the popsicle amid reflection, Coates wants us to enlighten the person “scarfing their hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” He wants an America where our racist history is not just something taught in school and commemorated in museums and Oscar-winning films and hit plays, as it currently is. To Coates, none of that is enough; America remains a country that “turns away” from acknowledging racism. In line with that perspective, Johnson classifies critics of his first article as the sorts who “don’t get it,” who “don’t want to talk about race.” Coates seems to want America’s racist past to constitute an eternal, gnawing background awareness for all citizens, analogous to Serbs’ communal memory of Kosovo Polje. Well-meaning Americans will savor neither ice cream nor hot dogs without a daily reflection on these weightier matters.

The typical statement in this vein is, “America needs to have a conversation about race,” now a keystone of educated black discourse. Is the proposal about reality? Who seriously thinks any amount of argument about “collective responsibility” could ever convince today’s diverse American populace that it owes black people for slavery and Jim Crow? Some even insist that this new American understanding would be necessary before any real change can happen, but the logic is unclear. Once all Americans could recite basic information about race riots and redlining, then somehow, wealthy and influential people would open the financial floodgates and heal black America? In most other contexts, one is to dismiss cynically the possibility of this ever happening, since whites, as the thinking goes, are determined to hold on to their privilege. How would a national history lesson or conversation change that? And if we all know it wouldn’t change anything, then what is the goal of having the conversation?

In any case, let’s say that somehow, this psychological revolution came about, with the ensuing opening of the cash and policy floodgates for black Americans. What, precisely, would happen, that hasn’t happened yet, because America wouldn’t go down on its hot-dog-scarfing knees to “understand”? As Jason Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us points out, our nation’s record of helping black people become significantly less poor is not encouraging. And it’s not because malevolent forces have prevented the pursuit of obvious solutions. Anyone with an ear cocked to issues such as education and poverty knows that answers to the problems are maddeningly elusive.

If we could do the Great Society again, what would be the magic bullet this time? “More programs,” some advocates say. Perhaps. But at this point, we lack a plausible plan. Programs doing what, based on what track record? And as such, the key question is: how would Americans’ knowing more about their racist past make those programs more efficient or successful?

These are hardly unfamiliar questions to anyone thinking about race today— but they cast the idea of America not “facing itself” in a different light. The notion is, in its way, mysterious. America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we’re told—but the only reasonable interpretation of that claim, in a country that talks about race 24/7, is that, actually, America doesn’t want to talk about racism. And then, we are also to understand that somehow a grand talk about that would result in a transformation of black America that has been elusive to the most devoted people for 50 years. At the end of the day, this is not so much an idea as an incantation, as we see partly in that coded use of the word race instead of racism, almost as if we were dealing in a code, a liturgy.

I do not charge that the code-talkers are insincere; much less do I propose the tired notion that they are “race hustlers.” However, the idea that America needs a grand conversation about race remains gestural rather than pragmatic. Linguists have a term, phatic, for utterances that only serve a social function, rather than conveying information. “How are you?” is the classic example: one is less interested in knowing the answer than in simply acknowledging the presence of the other person. The idea of a national conversation on race—which quick reflection confirms could never happen and would solve no problem, anyway—only makes sense as phatic. The content of the utterance is less the point than its intent.

To be a concerned black person, many have internalized, requires harboring a feeling that something large-scale is just out of our reach; that we exist as a people eternally unfulfilled; that a shoe has yet to drop. Our identities, so battered by 350 years of brutality and dismissal, feel incomplete. We seek a true sense of nobility, and we find it in the ironically comforting status of the underdog.

Make no mistake—we must protest where it is called for. I reject the “black bourgeoisie” argument that we must quietly wait things out while keeping our chinny-chins up. But today it’s increasingly difficult to characterize black America’s problems as a matter of a single problem or cause, in the way that desegregation was. The efforts that today’s problems require can’t create an identity as easily. One seeks something larger, something that, crucially for us with our history, heals. Hence the idea of something as large-scale as an ever-elusive, overarching conversation America somehow “never” has. The concept has an operatic sense of catharsis in it. It’s even true that some Americans think race plays less of a role in black people’s fate than it does. None of this, however, belies the fact that what is being proposed is a kind of stage-managing of social change that no human group has ever sought—and which, I submit, black America needn’t seek, either.

I suspect that civil rights leaders before, roughly, 1966 would be perplexed by today’s calls for a conversation about race, especially one that imagines all Americans taking and passing some kind of national history test on institutional racism, past and present. The old heroes fought against segregation and discrimination because it was impossible for any but a few black people to get ahead otherwise. But Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and the others did not seek a perfect society. Today, we seem to be doing just that: we cannot be whole as long as nonblack Americans are going about with their summer snacks, unmindful of our past. But are human societies ever so exquisitely mindful? Could they be?

The idea that modern America could be so self-consciously, stringently, and unceasingly reflective about the matter is what underlies Johnson’s insistence on the ice cream grievance and on the incongruous claim that conversations about race aren’t already going on, year ’round. The commitment is not to a conversation but to a conversion—a massive one, called for out of a sense that we must be as committed to what other people think as to what we ourselves do. In practice, there seems to be more interest in the first commitment than in the second—and one points this out on pain of being labelled “anti-black.”

I fail to see in the conversation about conversation anything resembling what our greatest civil rights leaders tried so hard to inculcate: black pride. I am deeply committed to forging change for black people, especially poor ones. I salute the crumbling of the War on Drugs; I cheer Senators Corey Booker and Ron Paul for their recent commitment to prisoner reentry policy; I will continue to argue for educational strategies that actually work for poor (black) kids. But I reject the idea that none of this change truly matters until America achieves an elevated degree of moral sophistication about black people’s past, present, and future—and that this enlightenment, once attained, would somehow create unprecedentedly rapid and effective policy changes. I further submit that the call for this all-encompassing awareness constitutes an unintended diminishment of black people. I cringe under the implication that we, and only we, need such exquisitely calibrated treatment in order to succeed under less than perfect conditions.

It isn’t that I, as someone who has written and spoken on race (and racism) now for 15 years, “don’t want to talk about race.” But shouldn’t we focus on race as it exists in the only real world we will ever know—where there has never been a way to settle old scores perfectly, but in the end, what matters is getting over? Change happens, if slowly. As blacks in America move on, we can admit that sometimes, an ice cream jingle is just an ice cream jingle.

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