Among Rochester, NY’s cultural treasures is the 110-year-old Dentzel carousel, nicknamed, ‘the Duchess’. Generations of Rochester children (including mine) have been enraptured by its three rings of 33 horses, three rabbits, three cats, three ostriches, three pigs, two mules, and a lion, tiger, goat, giraffe and deer. Most carousels, sadly, have been cut up and turned into decorative knick-knacks.
Rochester’s is one of only 14 menagerie carousels left in the United States, and one of very few that remain in their original locations. In this case, that’s the Lake Ontario shoreline in Charlotte, in Rochester’s most popular summer park.
For as many times as I’ve visited it, I’ve never noticed a panel which has recently caused a minor ruckus in Rochester. This panel depicts a large rooster confronting a small black child while another black child peeks around the corner of a barn. Both children are what were once called “pickaninnies” in popular American culture. (According to Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle, there is also a Native American in traditional clothing, but nobody is fussing much about him.)
The scenery panels on carousels form a sort of frieze above the riders. They were often illustrated in broad strokes of Americana—military cavalcades, dragons, voluptuous women, exotic animals, naughty children and cute kittens, among many other themes. Since the carousels were usually protected by a wooden superstructure, the panels’ primary purposes were to hide the mechanics of the carousel and to add to their turn-of-the-century exuberance.
“Rather than taking it down, there should be some interpretive material at the carousel to explain the panel, its history and why once-common racial stereotypes are no longer acceptable. Taking it down is a terrible idea, both from a preservation point of view and from a social justice point of view,” said Rochester native, preservationist and historian Dr. Martha Vail. And apparently, that is what Monroe County plans to do.
Martha and the county have it exactly right. Removing all symbols of our racist past is a twist on the word “whitewashing.” Once we do it, we no longer have to think about our own complicity in the racial problem.
Call it the Huckleberry Finn problem if you wish. Yes, Mark Twain used crude language for blacks. But Jim, the escaped slave, is a heroic figure: logical, compassionate, gentle, and non-violent.
Full disclosure: for years I have had a golliwog on my dresser. This is the colonial British version of a pickaninny, and, yes, they are abjectly racist in design. But they were also cherished by generations of British emigrant children, and they’re as much a cultural symbol of diaspora as they are of racism. Do I plan to get rid of it? No. Do I plan to buy one for my grandson? No.
In similar news, the Metropolitan Opera has decided to do Othelo without blackface in September. There’s a significant difference there, of course. Removing blackface changes nothing about Verdi’s original work of art. But if the scenery panel on the carousel is removed, it’s gone forever.
Only two more days until my workshop on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park. Interested in next year’s Maine workshop? Email me.