Tobin Miller Shearer
Hip-hop artist, rapper, and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs reminisced about his experience with the Fresh Air Fund (FAF) during an interview with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel on August 1, 2018. Combs described his time among the Plain people as a “beautiful” experience that formed his identity. He recalled milking cows, picking berries, riding buggies, and eating large Amish meals, all of which – in the absence of electronics – “taught him how to just relate with each other.” He concluded his reminiscence with a “shout-out to the Fresh Air Fund.”
Combs sounds nostalgic in the interview despite Kimmel’s repeated attempts to poke fun at the experience. Rather than a means to obtain cheap child labor – Kimmel suggested that the Amish had “somehow bamboozled this charity into sending you there to work” – Combs mentioned how often he thought about his host family and how they had contributed to his life. When Kimmel joked that Combs should hitch a horse to his Bentley to recreate the buggy rides of his youth, the rap star and actor stayed serious, emphasizing that he “truly appreciated” his summer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Combs’s memory holds only positive associations with his summer hosting venture.
The juxtaposition of a world-wise, very wealthy, hip-hop artist with the world-wary, frugal, hymn-singing Amish captured the media’s attention. In addition to dozens of accounts on entertainment portals ranging from People magazine to Billboard.com, the venerable BBC News also reported on the exchange five days after the interview appeared. Always media savvy in their fundraising efforts, the FAF tweeted out a link to the Kimmel interview within forty-eight hours.
The story told by Combs echoes the prevailing narrative about the Fresh Air Fund. It is a tale composed with nostalgia, sung without discord, resonate with racial harmony. Since its founding in 1877, the Fund has brought city children to the country for summer stays – most of them of the one- to two-week variety. Combs purported two-month stay is much rarer. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s as white flight resulted in increasingly black and brown urban centers, the Fund shifted from sending white ethnic children from the city to white rural hosts to sending African-American and Latinx children from the city to white rural hosts. As told in thousands of glowing newspaper accounts generated by the Fund for distribution to regional newspapers, happy hosts welcomed happy children to rural and suburban communities invariably happy to host them.
There was no room for another narrative in the Fund’s accounts. Nostalgia from public figures like tennis champion Arthur Ashe, crooner Bing Crosby, comedian Jimmy Durante, actor Lauren Bacall, and singer Ethel Merman only offered positive testimonies.
And the Amish and Mennonites frequently starred in those accounts. A 1958 press release praised the Mennonite family who hosted a family of five fresh air boys from New York City for an off-season Christmas visit replete with a feast of turkey and stuffing, sweet pickles, peas, carrots, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, fruit cake and ice cream for dessert. Summer’s Children, a 1964 promotional film produced by the Fund, featured Mennonite and Amish families. In 1976, the Fund’s executive director Lisa Pulling noted that Mennonites made Pennsylvania the “most popular place to go” other than New York itself. That same year, newspapers across the country featured a column by popular writer George Will in which he praised the Amish for their Fresh Air hosting in glowing terms every bit as nostalgic as those offered by Combs. After describing the “creak and jingle of harnesses, and the clippity-clop of hooves on pavement,” Will described the family of Benuel Smucker in Ronks, Pennsylvania, who “have no truck with modernity, including electricity, a fact which does not bother their guests from the Big Apple — twin eight-year-old black boys.” Combs was far from the only African-American child to have discovered the appeal of rustic, rural havens.
As the burst of interest in Combs’s story makes evident, the prospect of placing urban children of color with pristine symbols of the nation’s agrarian past – scholar and poet Julia Kasdorf refers to the Amish as “whiter than white: innocent, pure, plain—Puritans but without their unhappy edge” – has mass appeal. When placing innocents with innocents, everybody wins. There is no racial loser; no antagonist; only the celebration of borders crossed and friendships won.
However, that formula of doubled innocence did not always balance. Children grew homesick and begged to return to the city. Busloads cheered upon crossing back over into New York City. Neighbors, townspeople, and sometimes hosts used racial epithets to refer to their charges. Accusations of theft abounded. Administrators had to remind the hosts that they were not just getting free labor. Assured that they were getting a vacation, some guests balked at the demands of chores and refused to toil without compensation. Up until the mid-1980s, the Fresh Air Fund paid little attention to screening hosts for a history of sexual abuse even while intensively screening the children for STDs and other communicable diseases. The narrative related by Combs is, at the very least, more complex than he suggested.
As much as I was fascinated to hear Combs talk about his Fresh Air experience, it was not the content of the narrative itself that drew my attention. While my research suggests a far more problematic story than the one he told – particularly when the model itself continues to be one-way, short-term, urban-negative, and racially paternalistic – it was the nostalgic way he told the story that I found most gripping.
No matter how hard Kimmel tried to make light of Combs’s reminiscences, he stayed sincere and focused on the positive memories that he held of his time with the Amish. Here was a highly successful entrepreneur whose personal worth tops $800 million, a man who lavishes expensive gifts on his children, a philanthropist who has founded his own program to assist urban youth – one that includes a summer camp each year – and who has given generously to both victims of Hurricane Katrina and students at Howard University. Amid that material success, he harkened back to his time with the Plain people, a group whose lifestyle and commitments seem light years from his own.
But through nostalgia – an emotion defined by sentimental longing and a wistful yearning for better times gone by – Combs made a connection. He saw in his life some measure of charity, hard-work, care for children, and simplicity. He claimed to have learned those values, at least in part, from the Amish; the experience “helped to make me what I am,” he explained in his interview with Kimmel.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Our current president used its appeal to great effect in his most recent campaign. Yet, as was the case with Combs and the Fresh Air Fund, nostalgic appeals often cover over the complexities and underside of history and, in so doing, create a past that never really existed. That’s why the writing and research of history are so critical at this moment. Without a grounding in as much evidence as can be mustered, we risk basing our decisions on fanciful and false presentations of the past.
Combs said in the interview that he would love to know if his host family realized what he grew up to become. Apparently they do, since his sister, who also stayed with the same Amish family in eastern Lancaster County, recently contacted them.
Should Combs talk with his former hosts, I wonder what they would discuss. As is the case in the vast majority of Fresh Air exchanges, long-term relationships are rare, difficult to sustain, and often end when the children enter adolescence. A great deal of evidence shows that white host families are much more reluctant to host teenagers due to the possibility of interracial romance blossoming. Nonetheless, perhaps they would discuss Combs’s efforts to better the lives of other children from the city. Perhaps they would chat about additional memories Combs carries from his sojourn. They might even talk over the ways in which Combs life remains so far from their own.
But, if I had to guess, I would venture that they would spend at least some small measure of their time simply reminiscing about, in the words of Kimmel, the now incongruous image of “Diddy in a buggy.”
Crandell, Richard F., ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children. New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962.
“Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children.” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976, 51.
Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.
Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry.” In The Amish and the Media, edited by Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher, 67-90. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.
“Lancaster Holds Film Premier.” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964, 1-2.
Shearer, Tobin Miller. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.
Will, George F. “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children.” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976, A-4.
[^1]: Richard F. Crandell, ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children (New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962).
[^2]: “Lancaster Holds Film Premier,” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964.
[^3]: “Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children,” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976.
[^4]: George F. Will, “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children,” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976.
[^5]: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry,” in The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008), 69.
[^6]: David Hechler, The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988), 29-54.
[^7]: I explore all these themes in my recent book: Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
[^8]: “Sean Combs, “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Combs#Charity_work_and_honors, Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2018.
[^9]: “Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs wants to find the Lancaster Amish couple he spent summers with as a Fresh Air Kid” LNP Monday, August 7, 2018 https://lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/sean-diddy-combs-wants-to-find-the-lancaster-amish-couple/article_cd3b8412-9973-11e8-8892-4be24b7102d6.html
[^10]: Shearer, 79.