It was my first junior high school summer band camp. I was probably 13 years old. My family and I had just moved from the Midwest to a beautiful state in Appalachia known for friendly people and a dynamic musical culture.
Before I officially joined the junior high school band and my new state, my classmates had been made aware of my presence. They were told a new girl would be joining the squad. A girl from a big city. Someone who undoubtedly knew how to play the flute extremely well just because she attended school in the big city. But I was a beginner, just like them. I enjoyed music, I wanted to learn concert music and marching tunes. I believed early on that music had healing power. As a flutist, playing music made me feel like I was solving little problems with my fingers and my breath.
But unlike many of my band mates, I had no concept of myself as a girl who learned how to play her instrument in the big city. I thought of myself as one who enjoyed listening to and playing music. If I could get to be really good, good enough to entertain my family and friends, and good enough to join the marching band and the concert band, then that was fine with me.
Summer band camp presented me with the opportunity to grow as a musician, bond with my fellow players, and enjoy the beautiful and historic Appalachian region. But when I said goodbye to my family members for a week of band camp, I did not know that in just a few days, I would encounter a new side of some of my classmates. Their blackface side.
At this school, one day out of band camp was reserved for “Slave Day,” a tradition I hadn’t been previously made aware of — and as I reflect on that day, I think about being one of the few people of color attending public school in a state that was created in opposition to the values of the secessionist South. Why did we celebrate the oppression of minorities when our state was created in opposition to slavery? This question, and many others, were never addressed when the fateful day arrived.
After a few days of excitement waking up early to the sound of a bugle horn, I encountered furtive glances from my band mates. I didn’t know why.
And then, at some point, in the process of waking up, searching for shoes and clothes, I encountered one of the more popular girls, a red-head, with her hair parted down the middle in two tufts, each secured by a red band. I gasped when I further noted that her face, normally coveted in freckles, was covered in black paint.
“Aww, it’s Slave Day!” She said with a grin.
I must have looked stunned because she repeated slowly, as though I could not understand her words, S-L-A-V-E D-A-Y!
On this day, everyone was to dress as slaves, she explained.
And do what? I wondered, either silently, or out loud. I remember peels of laughter, excited voices, and more white faces in blackface and clown-style Afros. Not all of my band mates dressed in blackface parodying formerly enslaved African Americans, but Enough did so that I immediately b-lined it to the pay phone. To this day, that pay phone is one of the clearest memories I have of my early adolescence.
I phoned home.
“MOM,” I stammered.
“UMM … ”
“What is it? Is something …”
“UH, do you know something about SLAVE DAY”?
Without hesitation, the next words out of my Mom’s mouth were, “I’ll be right there. Be safe!”
And sure enough, as the Slave Day band camp activities commenced, I watched my adolescent peers act out fantasies that I never could have conceptualized as a black girl.
Mostly, I was bored, confused, and alone. I wondered if Slave Day would impede the progress I was making as a flutist. I wondered whether other junior high school bands had Slave Day. I wondered if Slave Day was celebrated everywhere. I could not imagine black people participating in Slave Day. I wondered why I had not been forewarned.
But mostly, I wondered whether my classmates who donned blackface considered what a person like me thought about the Slave Day experience. As an adult, I think about how this experience wasted my time.
It did not take me long to realize that the people with whom I had literally been in concert with all week thought nothing about my experience of their hazing/ritual/bonding event. Not one person asked whether I was in shock, or OK.
Then, in the middle of my moment of contemplation, amidst the hi-jinks, arrived Mom.
The meeting between the band director and my Mom on Slave Day was one of my earliest introductions to the art of diplomacy.
When Mom calmly inquired about the intent of Slave Day, and who it was meant for, our band director looked at her squarely and proclaimed, ” They’re all my slaves! They’re ALL my slaves”.
I share this recollection in this blog post because recent news events concerning racism in America have captured public attention. Rachel Dolezal’s passing as black, the tragedy in Charleston, the events leading to #blacklivesmatter campaigns, and events in Europe regarding cartoons, should cause all of us to reflect on values, rhetoric, and ideology.
I don’t know whether Slave Day still exists at my old school. But now and then I think about how that event impacted my life.
I think about my former classmates, too. I now wonder, how did the constitution of Slave Day influence their understanding of race relations in America? Did they go on to develop a diverse network of friends whose ethnic and religious backgrounds are different from their own?
Slave Day is one example of the totalizing rhetoric that mainstream culture sometimes employs in order to maintain dominance.
Cultural studies scholars may investigate other instances of “Slave Day” in institutional settings to learn more about totalizing rhetorics of domination.