Discussions about race and ethnicity are often difficult. For a minority culture that has suffered there may be feelings of anger, loss and sadness. For members of a majority culture, there may be shame, denial, even horror in the face of a history in which they or their ancestors were involved in acts of humiliation, cultural repression, enslavement or even genocide.
Yes, discussing race can be hard, and that is why we must discuss it. That said, it is generally not so difficult to discuss other people's shortcomings. Having a little distance between oneself and the consideration of racial disparity or cultural repression, for instance, can be quite instructive, even inspiring.
Welcome to issue #30 of Puppetry International magazine. As always, we've picked a topic and put it out to the community of puppeteers and scholars in the hope that they will interpret it in the broadest and most interesting ways imaginable. This issue is devoted to Puppetry and Race. The idea came to us awhile back after receiving an article about Ralph Chesse's production of The Emperor Jones, which he first mounted in 1928. Though we did not publish the article, it occurred to us that we really needed to devote an entire issue to Race, a topic that has shaped our nation in profound ways, and has been a source of both pain (slavery, the KKK, the internment of Japanese-Ameri- cans—let me count the ways . . .) and pride (the Civil Rights Movement, the Rainbow Coalition, the election of Barack Obama...). We were sure that both the struggles and triumphs in this problematic narrative would be reflected in our puppetry as well. We were right.
It was also no surprise that this appeared to be the case all over the world. We knew, for instance, that Handspring Puppet Company, since it's founding in 1981 in apartheid South Africa, has dealt with race relations through their work. As articles were proposed, we realized that the differences between "racial unrest" and "ethnic strife," were not always so easy to delineate. In fact, the difference between race and ethnicity is not at all clear-cut. While "race" is generally thought of as having first and foremost a genetic component, a quick search of articles on the internet reminds us that: "Most races actually share multiple genealogies with significant cross-over," and that: "Most racial categories are defined by govern- ments—not by scientists." Ethnic groups may have a common genetic heritage, or might be defined by religion or other shared cultural traits. In her article on endangered shadow puppetry in northern China, Annie Rollins makes a case for traditional shadow puppeteers as a minority whose very identity is threatened by a major cultural shift.
Gaura Mancacaritadipura, writing about the ubiquity of puppetry and how traditional varieties of puppetry are associated with the ethnic communities that created them "and transmitted them down to the present generations...," reminds us that: "Ethnic communities have migrated at certain times during history, carrying with them their arts and culture, including in some cases puppetry arts" (page 36). Such migrations bring marvelous cultural diversity to an area, but they also bring change to an established culture, resulting in everything from an uncomfortable period of adjustment, to all out war. He (like other writers in this issue) refers to an earlier, troubled time without elaborating on the disturbing details. I think it is natural to want to put the past behind us, particularly when dealing with the ugliness of racism or the suppression of a minority culture in front of an international audience. On the other hand, if we are not fearless in exposing the horrors of our past, how can we find understanding and forgiveness in our present, healing in our future? Amber West refers to our "post-racial" society (quotes, hers), an expression that gained traction around the time of Barack Obama's election (page 8). Maybe we are entering a post-racial period, yet just to say so means we are still using race to define ourselves. Perhaps we will need to play with this concept for a few years, or decades, until a future generation declares itself to be post-post- racial, discarding, at last, the need to feel superior to some perceived "Other," and embracing the real treasure trove of both cultural and genealogical diversity.
-Andrew C. Periale