Orthodoxy and Modernity

In the Image and Likeness of GodLet’s Talk About Orthodoxy and Race

Published on: March 21, 2024
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Orthodoxy and race

One morning not long ago I sat down at a table in a Midwestern university’s special collections library, eager to spend several days working through a cart packed with anniversary books and commemorative pamphlets published by Orthodox parishes and dioceses across North America. These kinds of booklets are invaluable in my work as a historian, and I’ve read hundreds of them. Packed with metrical statistics, personal reminiscences, photographs, and tidbits of information one cannot find most anywhere else, they offer wide-ranging, and often unexpected insights into the lived experiences of Orthodox Christians across time, region, and ethnic jurisdiction.

One pamphlet I plucked from the cart later that day, however, proved different from the others. Printed in the early 1950s for the twenty-fifth anniversary of a Russian Orthodox parish in the Northeast, it included a relatively commonplace section on its choir and performing arts activities. One page praised the work of its longtime choir director, listing the various concerts, operettas, and events he had organized over the years. At the bottom of the page, my eyes paused at the final section: “English Plays and Minstrel Shows.” Beginning in 1940, the parish had staged eleven annual minstrel shows, each one attracting “over 1,000 persons.” Glancing at the next page, I let out an involuntary gasp. There was a posed group picture of the church choir, dozens of men, women, and children adorned in tuxedos and fancy dresses. The choir director sits at center next to the parish priest, one of the most senior and widely-respected Orthodox clergymen in North America at the time. Flanking each end of the first row are men in outlandish suits and brimmed hats. Several clutch tambourines in their gloved hands. Each grins widely in blackface.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, minstrel shows were a popular form of American public performance. Utilizing racial stereotypes, crude caricature, and denigrating tropes concerning Black Americans that originated in the antebellum South, minstrelsy was common and accepted nationwide by the turn of the century, from small-town Vaudeville houses Broadway stages. Blackface was a common aspect of the genre, by which performers used shoe polish, makeup, or a burnt cork to darken their skin, often accentuated with painted-on, oversized lips, tattered clothing, and accessories like top hats, white gloves, banjos, and tambourines. Through these common markers, blackface performers “acted Black,” utilizing exaggerated and derisive vocabularies, vernaculars, mannerisms, movements, and characteristics to reinforce widely-held white American anxieties about racial and class differences—and further articulate what it meant to be white in the United States. Despite the origins and intentions of such performances, blackface practitioners often politely defended their work as anything but racist.

Usually conducted by white performers (and some Black performers, too), the first widely popular blackface persona was created in the late 1820s by white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, the New York-born “Father of Minstrelsy.” Rice’s character, an enslaved and physically-impaired Black man named Jim Crow, was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, adapted by countless other performers throughout the nineteenth century before becoming the accepted moniker for laws passed in the American South after Reconstruction to enforce systemic segregation and recreate the social and economic bonds of enslavement. Blackface minstrel shows were less common on the American stage by the early 1920s, yet this shift reversed with Al Jolson’s performance in the landmark 1927 sound film The Jazz Singer. Blackface then found renewed life in the nostalgic world of the Hollywood movie musical, employed there by such beloved American artists as Bing Crosby (in a musical number for his career-defining, 1942 film Holiday Inn), Fred Astaire (in the 1936 musical comedy Swing Time) and Judy Garland (in 1938’s Everybody Sing). These and other popular film musicals resurrected and normalized minstrelsy for mainstream performers, assumedly becoming the venue by which a Carpatho-Rusyn choir director would discover the minstrel show and adapt it for both the delight and financial gain of his parish and the surrounding community—these shows, after all, were fundraisers.

In recent years, many scholars and other informed observers have voiced outrage over the apparent ease with which racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other hateful ideologies have taken root in some corners of Orthodox Christianity in the United States. When documenting these developments, we often hear claims that any such instance is an aberration, as racism cannot, and never has been an Orthodox ideology or practice. From a theological and dogmatic perspective, point taken. But as a historian of North American religions whose work is guided by scholarship on lived religious practice, I know well that religions are defined by more than just formal theologies, dogmas, and prescribed rituals. Rather, we must also take into account the worlds ordinary believers create within their traditions, adapting their faith and practice to ways of knowing and being in the world which are unmistakably rooted in culture, history, and society.

As I begin work on a new book focused on Orthodoxy and broader American society during the twentieth century, I now situate the recent and noticeable far-right turn among Orthodox Churches on these shores as a long-simmering product of that same acculturation process by which one might have found a parish minstrel show decades ago. These are developments within a much longer thru-line of ideas and social currents which have not been voiced or articulated fully at times, yet were never fully absent, either. And they hinge on American categorizations of race.

In the amalgamation of race and racial labeling in the twentieth-century United States, Orthodox Christians of all ethnicities emerged on the path of least resistance, bearing a tacit coding of ethnic whiteness which was relatively unquestioned and clearly beneficial. The historian Matthew Frye Jacobson argues that whiteness as a racial category—racial categories being “designations coined for the sake of grouping and separating peoples along lines of presumed difference”—evolved in a distinct process that unfolded over time in very specific ways for “ethnic” early twentieth century immigrant groups as they vied for larger pieces of the American pie. Some Orthodox groups endured unquestionable discrimination at a daily, even systemic level. Well into the late 1950s, for example, racist housing covenants enforced in some parts of the U.S. specifically barred Greeks, Syrians, and Armenians from home ownership.

Yet in general, the Orthodox sought, and achieved the identification of Caucasian whiteness during the twentieth century relatively unquestioned, assuming all the social, cultural, and political privileges therein. And because they maintained communities which were more or less ethnically homogenous, their intentional parish communities isolated them from the outside world, perhaps concretizing the community’s racial categorization as something taken for granted. In this way, an Orthodox Christian man could feel perfectly comfortable, if not empowered to don a patched suit and tread the boards of the church hall in blackface. In doing so, he was staking claim just as much to his self-identification as an Orthodox man made in the image and likeness of God as he was to the signature visage of a longstanding and racist form of popular entertainment intended to reinforce the assumed social and cultural supremacy of those racially categorized as he was.

As mainstream as minstrelsy was in the mid-twentieth-century United States, I do not think, nor am I arguing that Orthodox choir members “corking up” in blackface was a common occurrence in those years. I have yet to find another example. What I do argue, however, is that this one image invites further consideration of how Orthodox Christian communities in this period embedded themselves within dominant social currents of their time, including systemic racism, as they built and nurtured parishes and church institutions which remain viable today. Consider that the money raised from an event like a parish minstrel show was reinvested into the parish community, leaving lasting traces in its buildings, programs, and ministries. This might encourage a reckoning that in some small, perhaps untraceable way, that these events laid the groundwork for an assumed normativity by which systemic racism was not broadly recognized or questioned within Orthodox communities, and which has emboldened the turn towards the far right by some believers today. It seems that in general, many Orthodox communities with long histories in this country might benefit from historical examination, community discussion, and perhaps considerations of restorative and forward-thinking practices that would ensure that equity and inclusion become just as much embedded practices as the sign of the cross.

It is a common feature of Orthodox history and discourse in the U.S. to look for elements of acculturation and assimilation—the introduction of English, the shedding of ethnic monikers, turns towards missionary evangelism, and stirrings of jurisdictional unity. But these developments did not occur in a vacuum. As immigrant Orthodox Christians and their children made their way in America, they drew from the worlds that surrounded them. They existed not just in their homes and churches, but in their schools and workplaces. They went to the movies, listened to the radio, and struck up conversations at the corner bar. It is impossible to ignore, then, that generations of believers were products of their Orthodox faith just as much as they were of the wider cultures and contexts in which they lived, learned, worked, and played. They lived within a U.S. society which scholars now show was deeply imbued with white supremacy at a systemic level and were not immune from it. Whether openly avowed or quietly accepted as a normal part of life within Orthodox communities of the time, these ideas—and activities—still resonate today.

At that northeastern church, further research revealed that the parish advertised an annual minstrel show to the general public each autumn until the early 1960s, sometimes staging multiple performances. Even if a given performance did not include the use of blackface, by staging their “minstrel show” year after year, the parish still drew on the appeal of a well-known form of racist entertainment popular in the United States for more than a century. The final reference I could find was for a “hootenanny minstrel show” put on in 1963 as a fundraiser for a new school and recreation building. That building was dedicated a year later. The parish still uses it today.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Aram Sarkisian

    Aram Sarkisian

    Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics (Washington U. in St. Louis)

    Aram G. Sarkisian is a historian of religion, immigration, and labor in the twentieth-century United States, with a research focus on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A native of the Detroit area, Aram holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan and an A.M. from the University of Chicago. He received...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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