Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Fun: Uncle Jack the Good Darky, Herman Cain's Crooning Minstrel Confessional, and AMC's Hell on Wheels

I hope you are enjoying your daylight savings day and the extra hour for onanistic, sensual, culinary, drudgerous, painful, or obligatory deeds it allows. In all, today should be good fun. We have the New England Patriots seeking revenge against the foul and dastardly New York Giants; The Walking Dead, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden. And of particular interest to this ghetto nerd history buff, Hell on Wheels will also be premiering tonight on AMC.

I have heard some interesting things about this show, and will most certainly be watching it through a race critical lens.

In my sojourns across these Internets in pursuit of my daily high, I came upon the following essay in the online magazine, Religion Dispatches. There, Professor Butler of the University of Pennsylvania, offers a great take down of old Herb Cornbread Cain, the Tea Party GOP's favorite bucking and ducking, shucking and jiving, new age race minstrel.

Of particular note: she does a great reading of the semiotics at work in Herman Cain's rendition of the spiritual "He Looked Beyond My Faults" at the National Press Club. Professor Butler's suggestion is that Cain basically admitted that he sinned and that his personal god had already forgiven him. Ultimately, and as I suggested here, Cain was able to deploy a script of forgiveness and penance to turn the tables of righteousness against those who would dare attack him.

In her essay, Professor Butler makes reference to a statue in Louisiana named Uncle Jack the Good Darky. As a young negro of a certain age I have never heard of good ol' Uncle Jack. I learned something today as his story is fit for an epic poem--or at the very least a good graphic novel.

I can also imagine a Boondocks episode where Uncle Jack the Good Darkie comes alive and reeks havoc on all who oppose him (or alternatively gets his hustle on and stars in a reality show on Bravo or BET). Uncle Ruckus and Herman Cain would seek the blessings of Uncle Jack, just to have him turn around and slap them across their collective mouths.

[If Aaron McGruder emails me for the actual script treatment, I will kindly put him in touch with my SAG affiliated agent].

The following story is great folks: it has all the requisite dramatic elements of racism, subterfuge, intrigue, and violence.

Once more, history is stranger than fiction.

The Journey of Uncle Jack

An 82-year-old sculpture has divided its life between Natchitoches and Baton Rouge. Now “Uncle Jack” is about to be moved again.

Erected in 1927 in northwest Louisiana, the sculpture was hauled three hundred miles to the Rural Life Museum (RLM) in Baton Rouge in 1972.

The life-size bronze sculpture on a limestone base was commissioned by Jackson Lee Bryan. It depicts an elderly African American man, shoulders slumped, head bowed, tipping his hat.

Bryan, a planter and banker in Natchitoches, envisioned a tribute to African Americans who helped build the South’s agriculture-based economy. He commissioned eminent sculptor Hans Schuler of Baltimore to create the piece, at a cost of $4,300.

Unveiled in May 1927, the statue bore the inscription: “Erected by the city of Natchitoches in grateful recognition of the arduous and faithful services of the good darkies of Louisiana.”

White people regarded the work as a tribute to slavery. The local paper noted that the Rotary Club had adopted a resolution “that express[es] the general Southern sentiment toward the faithful old slaves who took care of their masters’ wives and children and homes while the masters were away fighting to hold them in slavery.”

Even some African Americans approved of it. P. Colfax Rameau of Birmingham wrote to the Natchitoches paper: “Do not think it will be an insult to the modern, Christian negro. He will only say deep in his heart, ‘I wish there were more white men in the South of the cloth of the Honorable J. L. Bryan, and mob violence would soon be history for unborn white and black boys and girls to read.’”

Dubbed “Uncle Jack,” after Bryan, the sculpture became a landmark. Tourists took photographs of it, and tributes appeared in newspapers all over the country.

“Many white people in the parish have been nursed or served by the old-time ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties,’ and a warm regard remains on each side,” wrote the New York Times.

The National Geographic ran a photo of Uncle Jack. Postcards identified him as “The Good Darky,” and a poem by that name noted, “How faithfully he played his part, and with the fervor of his race/ Gave all . . . and then his heart!”

But not everybody was happy to see the first statue in town honor a black man, however humble. It was repeatedly vandalized by “paint pouring,” whitewashing, and even a reputed cross-burning.

Pearl Payne, 91, who was nine when the statue was erected, recalls that local African Americans “didn’t appreciate it. They took if for nothing good. There was controversy. It had a negative effect on our people.”

“I recall ire and dismay in the black community,” says Ed Ward, who grew up in Natchitoches in the fifties. “It brought forth negative feelings because it promoted a subservient and menial view of the race.”

With the sixties came racial unrest. Then-mayor Ray Scott got a telephone threat that the statue would be dynamited. “We were threatened with harm we had never seen before,” recalls Ward, a black businessman and civic leader.

In September 1968, city workers showed up in the dead of night to remove the thirteen-thousand-pound statue. Alerted by an anonymous phone call, Jo Bryan Ducournau, the daughter and heir of Jack Bryan, rushed to the scene to stop the imminent destruction. “She basically threw a fit,” says RLM director David Floyd.

“They were wrapping it in chains,” says Natchitoches historian Bobby DeBlieux. “It was going to be destroyed. [Ducournau] talked the mayor into taking it out of the ground without destroying it.”

Exactly how the statue was removed is shrouded in mystery. The Natchitoches Times ran a photo of the sculpture atop a bulldozer and a close-up of Uncle Jack with ropes draped around his neck, looking like a lynching victim.

The statue was hidden at the local airport, according to one account. Ducournau reportedly received many requests for it, including one from the Smithsonian Institution.

Four years later, Steele Burden learned of the statue’s fate, contacted Ducournau, and asked her to “loan” the statue to the Burden Plantation.

The Burden family owned five hundred acres in the heart of Baton Rouge. In the 1960s, they began giving the property to LSU in increments. Steele Burden had begun collecting relics of Louisiana plantations—plows, wagons, tools, even buildings, which he dismantled and hauled to Baton Rouge. He resurrected them on the Burden property, creating a collection that commemorated life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Lousiana. By the early 1970s, it was called the Rural Life Museum.

The sculpture was moved to the RLM in 1972. Set in a landscaped spot selected by Burden, Uncle Jack appeared to greet visitors as they approached the museum by car.

In 1974, the loan became a gift. Burden added a second plaque to the statue’s base: “Donated to the Rural Life Museum by Mrs. Jo Bryan Ducournau.”

As visitors increased, the statue attracted more attention—not all of it positive. In response to a 1989 letter from State Representative Raymond Jetson complaining about the word “darkies” on the original plaque, LSU president Allen Copping wrote: “It was not possible to completely remove the inscription without damaging the plaque and the base of the statue. Instead, the staff . . . constructed a wooden frame to cover the entire inscription. . . . . I am confident that the modifications made to the base of the statue have eliminated the possibility of anyone being offended.”

The second plaque, added in the 1970s, was removed from its position higher up the base of the statue and screwed into the wood now covering up the original plaque.

A prominent visitor offended by Uncle Jack was writer Maya Angelou. In 1997, Angelou wrote: “Uncle Jack is the quintessential obsequious Negro servant. . . . The droop of his shoulders bears witness not only to his years but more specifically to his own understanding of his place as a poor black in a rich white world.”

In 1999 James W. Loewen wrote in the book Lies Across America, “This statue was from the start intended to be useful only to the cause of white supremacy. The [museum] has not used ‘The Good Darky’ to ‘provide insight into the largely forgotten lifestyles and cultures of pre-industrial Louisiana,’ the museum’s avowed purpose. No plaque gives any information about its history or symbolic meaning.”

Although the term “darky” is considered outdated and racist today, many recommended that the original plaque be uncovered and resume its place as part of the piece. “The word ‘darky’ is offensive, but consider the times,” says Kathe Hambrick, founder of the African American Museum in Donaldsonville. “You can’t change history. Every plaque that was ever made for the statue should have a label on it [for interpretive purposes].”

Another African American who supports the statue is Clifton Webb, a Baton Rouge native who first saw it thirty years ago. “I thought it was magnificently executed with a real sensitive feel for who this African American was,” says Webb, a sculptor who studied art at LSU. “It exemplifies [his] nobility. It could have been negative, but the man was beautiful; he had a beautiful face.”

As for the plaque praising “darkies,” Webb says, “I believe that you don’t just go around erasing and wiping out history. We need to understand that’s how things were. It should be there; it’s an opportune moment for education.”

With the RLM building a new visitor’s center, Floyd says the board of directors decided last summer to move the statue inside the complex of buildings to make it part of the tour given by docents.

When word of the planned move got out, many thought it would be removed entirely from the RLM. Floyd got calls and emails urging him to keep the statue. “I made a stand from the beginning that we would not get rid of it,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to use it as a teaching tool.”

Meanwhile, Natchitoches wants Uncle Jack back as part of a planned museum in the Texas & Pacific railway depot downtown. Ed Ward, who once opposed the sculpture, hopes for its return. “It can be a stumbling block transformed into a stepping stone,” he says.

But not everybody in Natchitoches agrees. Pearl Payne, a retired teacher, is content to have it gone. “I would say no, you’re just bringing back something bitter,” she says. “It’s not good to open a can of worms. It’s better to just leave it away, since it’s been away so long.”

Ruth Laney can be reached at


fred c said...

Never heard of this either, unsurprisingly, but happy to read about it. I liked the statue as soon as I laid eyes on the picture, and immediately was struck with the futility of trying to keep a good man down. (Particularly when the oppressor has no intellectual or moral grounds for doing so.) For me, the statue carries the equally strong impression that Uncle Jack has an interior life that is very different from his submissive exterior.

Wish thinking? Who knows, but that's what I see.

I'm sure that the South was full of Uncle Jacks, men who perforce adopted the social posture that dictated for them under physical threat. They worked hard without prospering, and society got the benefit without paying for it. And don't forget, those were great men (and women) who were building Black American culture, starting from the fist ship to hit Charleston.

Black American culture didn't spring fully formed out of the ground in New Orleans in the 'teens and twenties; not from Harlem in the thirties. Those Uncle Jacks showed the world what the world demanded to see, and at the same time, with their brains and their integrity, they built a wonderful culture that shines as a beacon to the world.

What more uplifting message is there in the world than the fact that you can rise above a bad situation and do some good for your people?

Nice neutral presentation of the post by the way. Thanks Professor, for sharing.

chaunceydevega said...

"Uncle Jack has an interior life that is very different from his submissive exterior. "

Interesting read. Can you comment some more? I am curious.

fred c said...

We all have a persona that we show the world, and we all live with the truth that is in our hearts. These can be very different things. Am I generalizing based on my purely personal reality? I don't think so.

I think that this is particularly true about oppressed people. Most particularly when the oppression is backed by existential threats. Uncle Jack wants to show respect; he wants to avoid reckless eyeballing. He is required to do these things, he does them for his own safety and the safety of his family. What's really in his heart? Well, we know, don't we?

Maybe I am reading too much into it. Maybe I am wrong. But what I see is a good man in a bad situation, performing a role that has been forced on him, while quietly building the future.

CNu said...

Any minute now, we'll get to see with our own eyes an example of what was in Uncle Jack Cain's "heart" when he was acting out in Washington DC. CDV, you making book on the type of queens whose knickers he was trying to get down?

ish said...

So Chauncey what did you think of Hell on Wheels?

A pretty fascinatingly classic contortion on the main white "hero," eh? I mean, a good southern boy (yay! the South will rise again!) aggrieved by the nasty marauding northern aggressors, revealing his misunderstood inner decency by freeing his slaves before the war. It's like a teabagger vision of US history writ very very small.

PS damned redskin savages. Thank God for that noble blonde woman.