Allow me, if you will, to stray from my usual posts about computers, Internet technology, and mathematics.

In the mid-1980s I saw a musical on Broadway called The Tap Dance Kid. I enjoyed it a lot — I liked the story, the characters, the songs, and the dancing. It’s not a very well known musical, it got a poor review in the New York Times (Frank Rich liked it much less than I), and it ran for less than two years.

It’s the story of an African-American family, centered around a pre-teen called Willie. Much of it is the standard sort of story: Willie wants to do one thing with his life, but his father thinks that frivolous, and demands that he aim higher, follow the family business, or some such. The Jazz Singer is one version of the story that’s been done a few times.

In this case, Willie wants to be a dancer — a tap dancer, in particular. His father, William, is a lawyer, and would like Willie to be one too. He looks down on the dance idea, and on Uncle Dipsey, Willie’s mentor.

In some versions of this story, the father is just being obstinate, insisting on his vision of his son’s success over the son’s own. The Jazz Singer has that, but adds cultural tradition to it. Whether it was Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neil Diamond, the son was more than just “wasting his life”, but also abandoning the family and its heritage.

So it is in The Tap Dance Kid: William wants Willie to meet the former’s standards in life, of course, but he also wants his son to show the world, as he did, what a black man can do. And so it’s doubly disappointing to him that Willie is going in a direction that’s not only frivolous, but also stereotypical.

William’s disappointment comes through in the story’s climax, the powerful and moving “William’s Song”. He starts by berating Dipsey before he addresses his son:

Who ever heard of a grown man named “Dipsey” before?
Every day of your life, every moment you live, you lose!
You’re going nowhere, but you go too far,
Telling my son he’s gonna be a big star,
Shining, shining, sure:
Shining shoes!

Now, Willie, I don’t want you thinking I haven’t any feelings.
I don’t want you thinking I haven’t got my dreams.
I only want what’s best for you,
’cause we’ve got better things to do
Than dancin’... like a monkey with a ring through its nose!
Dancin’: every time a curtain opens
Another door is gonna close behind you.
And I won’t have that; I just won’t have that!

[Listen to an excerpt from “William’s Song” on Amazon. And as I write this, I see that the out-of-print CD is going for $180! Yow! If I ever need some extra cash, I suppose I could sell mine.]

I thought about The Tap Dance Kid and William’s line about shining when I was recently in Boston: there was a shoe-shine station in the hotel, off by a side entrance. Most of the time I passed, it was unattended. A few times, it was attended, but without a customer — the gentleman attending it, a black man who seemed to be in his 50s, his sparse hair graying, was reading a newspaper. But once, there was a customer.

I had an uncomfortable reaction to the scene. There was a black man kneeling at the feet of a younger white man, the former buffing the latter’s boots as they made small talk. There were sepulchral echoes of a slave past going through my mind.

But what of that? I felt uncomfortable? The man seemed at ease with his job, and perhaps he liked it very much. Perhaps he enjoyed working in a nice hotel and having a chance to talk with many different people throughout his day. I didn’t ask him, and I wouldn’t have known how to do so without having it come across disrespectfully. Am I being like William, expecting this man to represent all African-Americans... and denigrating[1] his job in the process?

Worse, am I showing up as the white man looking to “save” the black man from... from what? From being part of an image that sticks in my mind and makes me uncomfortable? From something I imagine him to have risen above, when I don’t know the first thing about him or about his work? How arrogant of me!

I don’t know how to conclude this entry, so maybe some commenters can provide a coda.

[1] It’s the word that came first to mind, and I then realized that it has a particular connection here, in its obsolete sense of “to make black.”